'Unlearn and rewire' - The WPL is changing how Indian players think about cricket

WPL 2024: Will it be the Capitals' year? And what about RCB? (13:17)

The Runorder crew get together to talk all things WPL before the season gets underway (13:17)

Gouher Sultana played the last of her 50 ODIs in 2014. She took four wickets in a match-winning spell but got dropped immediately for the next tour. At 36, she wonders what could've been had there been more avenues for her to perform.

Gouher toiled in domestic cricket for Hyderabad, Puducherry, Railways and Bengal. Last December, she earned a WPL contract with the UP Warriorz, and over the coming week, she could be among the oldest players to feature in this year's competition.

This comeback has only been possible because of Gouher's unwavering belief that she wasn't finished, even though the system scoffed at her. A senior player says that wading through domestic cricket in one's mid-30s is like being in a dark pit. You're left to feed off crumbs of comfort.

Things have slightly changed from those dark times, even though plenty more remains to be done at a systemic level. Domestic contracts are still just a dream, but match fees have been raised considerably, even though the volume of cricket barely makes the increase felt.

The advent of the WPL has, however, incentivised domestic players to attract the attention of talent scouts through their performances. Ask Satheesh Shubha, a 24-year-old from Karnataka who kept churning big runs in domestic cricket from when she was 17.

Last year, she moved to Railways to strengthen her case for an India call but was injured for much of the season. Yet, when she produced scores of 99 and 49 in an intra-squad red-ball practice game ahead of India's one-off Test against England, she had impressed RCB's scouts enough.

A week later, Shubha celebrated not just the realisation of her India dream but also a maiden WPL gig. She earned more money from just that one Test than she may have across three previous domestic seasons combined.

Considering she earned a Test cap post the auction, Shubha will now take home an INR 30 lakh contract as against the INR 10 lakh she was signed for with the BCCI incentivising domestic players, especially those signed at base prices, for being capped between WPL seasons.

Shubha had the WPL to look forward to. Four years ago, Jemimah Rodrigues didn't. What might her India career have been if not for a sensational run for Northern Superchargers in the 2021 Hundred? Dropped across formats, performing in a world-class tournament in front of a global audience reinvigorated her international career. Today, it's inconceivable to think of an India XI without Rodrigues.

'Mindset change'

Earlier this week, at a pre-tournament camp in Bengaluru, a senior India player was asked to explain why a single off the second ball, after she had hit a boundary off the first, was her most prudent option while requiring 14 runs off five balls during a match simulation exercise. The session was stopped for the player to present her case.

Several Indian domestic players that ESPNcricinfo spoke to echoed a similar sentiment, that it had been ingrained into them as youngsters to take a single after hitting a boundary.

"We're told to hit along the ground," a player added. "At the domestic level, we are spoon-fed. Coaches have a set of instructions, and we try and follow them. We don't deviate from set plans, we're not trying different things."

Upon being prodded a little more on how this makes them feel, there's a revealing answer.

"We're often caught between following instructions and not being able to think for ourselves. But last year, when we went into the WPL setup, it was quite surprising that we were asked to set our own field, formulate our own plans at team meetings."

Arjun Dev, Shreyanka Patil's coach in Bengaluru, touched upon how she had to unlearn to re-wire herself ahead of the inaugural WPL.

"She had the skills; it was more about helping her understand her game," Dev explains. "She bowls at a quick pace for women's cricket. Initially, she would be dubbed as this expensive offspinner. For me, most of the coaching was around making her understand [that] pace is her speciality, not a weakness."

A quirk of fate had it that Shreyanka's first international wicket came off a yorker that she had fired across Heather Knight.

"My biggest learning has been to think for myself and develop plans and then fine-tune it with people I trust," Shreyanka told ESPNcricinfo. "When Mike [Hesson, Royal Challengers' director of cricket] told me after our first training session how he was impressed that I had come fully prepared, it was a kind of vindication of my own beliefs and plans had worked so hard on."

Jon Lewis, head coach of UP Warriorz, acknowledges players' inability to think for themselves at the age-group level has been a common problem in the setups he has been a part of.

"When you have players coming into an environment where it's healthy to challenge, ask questions and be direct, they wait until someone tells them what to do. It pleases me to find out a year later how their thinking [around this] has changed. That is truly the way they will be able to get the best out of themselves.

"If you ask most senior international players what they've about their game over time, they'll tell you it's to trust their own judgment, to understand how to make decisions on the field. Of course, they'll have coaches talking to them about it, talking, not telling them what to do.

"My gut feel is, still at the domestic level, especially in India, players get told what to do all the time by the senior coaches or the hierarchical figure. Which at times can be really good when that person is around, but when they come to an environment like the WPL, where that person isn't around, sometimes they can get lost. My job is to try and encourage thinking and growth, and how to deal with pressure, and playing situations because that is what will make them great international players.

If you've got international players coming into the setup, looking and waiting around for someone to tell them what to do, unless they're incredibly skilful at remembering what someone's telling them, it's an incredibly hard thing to do."

'Franchises have had a massive role to play'

Until recently, domestic players were by themselves during the off-season. Pre-season camps being conducted in September for a season spanning November to February meant players were largely on their own.

Last year, some WPL franchises conducted scouting and mid-year conditioning camps, and tailored personalised programmes for each of the domestic players keeping in mind their domestic commitments.

It was during one such camp by the Mumbai Indians that SB Keerthana, a legspinner who had lost nearly four years of cricket to various injuries, impressed the coaches enough to earn a contract. She had been recommended to trial by Abhinav Mukund, the former India opener after he'd heard of her from his father, TS Mukund, a former first-class cricketer himself. Royal Challengers Bangalore, Delhi Capitals and UP Warriorz had two mid-year camps.

"It was an exercise in development and growth," Lewis explains of the Warriorz' approach. "At the end of the WPL, we spoke to every player and told them this is where they need to learn and develop, and we'll check in a few months. That's what we did in August.

"We had a look at whether or not they've been able to work at their game. We looked at their calendars, how much cricket they were going to play at the domestic level and then tried to support them between that point and now to hopefully get some improvement in performance.

"From what I can tell in practice, and it's not game time yet and that's what counts, I've seen quite a big shift in skill levels. We have more skilled cricketers here than we had at this time last year because we were clear about how we wanted them to develop. Whether that translates to performance on the field that's up to whether they're able to clear about their plans, but they're definitely more skilful."

The other spin-off has been the introduction of the Under-15 tournament for the girls over the past two seasons. This has ensured girls at 14-15 are competing against players of similar age and maturity levels, as against those who competed against teams having players who are much older and physically more developed.

These measures have helped streamline talent and ensure the feeder system is up and running. The ICC's addition of an Under-19 T20 World Cup for women has been another welcome step.

Four years ago when he took over as BCCI president, Sourav Ganguly's biggest concern surrounding the formation of the WPL was a lack of talent depth. From there to see two uncapped Indians - Dinesh Vrinda and Kashvee Gautam - walking away with top honours at an open auction disproves those notions.

There is depth and the expanding of the canvas at a systemic level will only further accelerate the progress women's cricket in India is making. For that, we will have the WPL to thank.