How Red Bull Campus Cricket is hoping to fill the void in Indian women’s game

Marwari College - champions of RBCC 2022 with Smriti Mandhana © Red Bull

To say women’s cricket has come a long way in the last few years will be an understatement. While it is still seen as a niche product, the growth of the women’s game has shown no signs of slowing down despite numerous challenges. For a while, it seemed like COVID-19 might de-rail the high-speed train, but women’s cricket once again showed its bouncebackability and has come out stronger in the last two years. There have been many tournaments that allowed girls and women to showcase their skills to the world at various levels. And Red Bull Campus Cricket (RBCC) has become one of those events since its women’s leg started in 2021.

While domestic cricket in India has varying standards across the spectrum, the inception of Red Bull Campus Cricket has been a boon for women’s cricketers at the university level. Unlike the last time which had only two teams in the National Finals, four teams were invited to the 2022 edition. JMC College from Delhi were the winner from the North Zone and Dr. MGR Janaki College from Chennai made it to the semi-finals as the winners from the South Zone.

Defending champions Rizvi College once again represented Mumbai having won the West Zone leg and Ranchi joined the three cities with Marwari College as the team from East Zone. Chennai were no match to Mumbai in the first semi-final, while Ranchi overcame a huge challenge in the form of Delhi in the second semi. Considering women’s cricketers make it to the state sides very early, there were players, who had already played for Mumbai, Delhi, and Jharkhand at the senior level. And in Ayushi Soni, the tournament also had its lone international presence as she made her India debut against South Africa in 2021.

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Rizvi College captain Riya Chaudhary was the wicket-keeper in Jemimah Rodrigues’ Mumbai side in the recently concluded Senior Women’s T20 Trophy. And they had a few more members who played for Mumbai. But these development tournaments are not about star power. They are rather about newer stars and they emerged for Ranchi in both the semi-final and the final when they lifted the trophy in front of India opener and Red Bull athlete Smriti Mandhana at the PCA Stadium in Mohali.

Ranchi had different players putting their hands up for them in the semi-final against Delhi played at Mullanpur Stadium and in the final. Monika Murmu – who already had the taste of senior cricket with Jharkhand – was the stand-out player in both the matches and walked away with the Player of the Tournament.

Ranchi openers walking into the middle © Red Bull

Priyanka Sawaiyan put in an all-round performance in the final, while southpaw Anamika Kumari impressed one and everyone in front of her idol and fellow left-hander Mandhana. Rajasthan Royals – one of the men’s IPL teams to show their interest in Women’s IPL – had their representatives at the ground alongside Riyan Parag, Royals player, and Red Bull athlete.

“Both the squads practice equally hard – men and women – together at same grounds, same nets and the girls are second to none. This time when we went to play the competition, the facilities were very good and we had turf wickets to play for the girls,” Arun Kumar Rai, Ranchi coach, said. “They provided us an international stadium like Mohali. For the girls to get such a big platform is a big thing. I thank Red Bull for that.”

Shanti Kumari, who led Ranchi to the trophy, believes tournaments like Red Bull Campus Cricket are integral in getting more women to play cricket and serve as a pathway for them.

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Shanti Kumari (L) accepting trophy from Smriti Mandhana © Red Bull

“Girls don’t get to play a lot of matches. We are getting these opportunities means we can build on our experience and get to know each other,” Shanti said. “To have someone as big as Smriti Mandhana was a huge thing for us and I would like to thank her for being there. It felt good that the juniors got to see her and played well in front of her.”

Performing in front of someone like Mandhana can boost your confidence and could kick start your journey to something bigger. Murmu took Ranchi out of a tricky situation as they chased down Delhi’s target in the semi-final. She was brimming with confidence when she came on to bowl against the defending champions in the final and had an immediate impact.

“I would encourage all the districts, all the smaller towns to start – whatever smaller tournaments they have for the boys – for the girls as well. It doesn’t require a lot of prize money, good matches and I am sure that’s going to motivate a lot of girls,” said Mandhana.

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Talking of impact, Red Bull Campus Cricket already seems to have caught the eyes of keen followers of the game. RBCC had its first men’s edition in 2012 with Rizvi College winning the trophy. Since then the men’s tournament has grown in stature and also acted as developing ground for some of the cricketers. Rizvi had Siddesh Lad, Shardul Thakur in their ranks. KL Rahul, another Red Bull athlete and a big name in Indian cricket, Mayank Agarwal and the likes have been a part of the competition over the years.

Snehal Pradhan is one of the prominent voices of the women’s game in India. The former India cricketer turned broadcaster feels with the increase in interest in the game, the players need more tournaments at the lower level.

“I spoke to coaches at the grass-root level, I spoke to people who run academies and they are all telling me that there are more and more girls coming in. More and more parents are sending girls to cricket. But they need opportunities and they need tournaments to play in,” said Pradhan.

“Cricket is all about playing the game. Not just practicing in the nets. Everyone wants to have that feeling of ‘Yes I scored 70 not out. I took three wickets today.’ That’s the feeling, that’s the opportunity we need to give these girls. A chance to feel.”

Red Bull is hoping to grow RBCC women’s leg like the men’s version © Red Bull

Opportunities! That’s where the relevance of tournaments like Red Bull Campus Cricket comes in. The players seemed to be relishing the stage rather than being overawed by it. Riya and Vrushali Bhagat have already shared the dressing room with someone like Rodrigues, and RBCC was an excellent chance for them to pass on that knowledge to younger players from Mumbai.

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25-year-old Mandhana, who has been associated with Red Bull for some time now after the seminal World Cup 2017, keenly followed the proceedings from the sidelines and both the finalists were exulted by her presence in the presentation ceremony. They no longer have to look up to men’s cricket for inspiration; they were seeing their idol in flesh and had the chance to interact with her. They spoke confidently to Mandhana as she patiently fulfilled their selfie requests. These young players have bagged experiences that will make their game richer.

“This is the best time to get involved in women’s cricket. We are on a graph that’s growing. We have packed stadiums and people are coming to our matches,” Mandhana said. “First thing they (Red Bull) have done – the best thing is to start (a tournament). Everyone has ideas to start these things. But they have actually started the women’s team. They thought about it and they started it.”

However much a cliché it sounds, Red Bull is literally giving these girls and women wings.