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Mithali Raj, Harmanpreet Kaur and Smriti Mandhana will lead Velocity, Supernovas and Trailblazers respectively in the Women's T20 Challenge

The baby steps taken last year in the direction of building up a league tournament for women have yielded to a conspicuous effort this season. For starters, the kits have been upgraded and no longer look like straight out of grandma's lifehacks tutorial. Save for one game, the match timings are primetime. The pitch is expected to be better suited to T20 cricket, and the venue is a second-tier city, the ones that have traditionally managed to put more bums on the seats in the stadiums. Crucially, the one-off exhibition contest has made way for a short yet expanded, triangular series that will see Harmanpreet Kaur's Supernovas and Smriti Mandhana's Trailblazers joined by a third entity - Mithali Raj-led Velocity - in a four-match affair spread over the course of the final week of IPL 2019, starting May 6.

The expansion to three teams meant more names had to be roped in. T20 WC-winning captain Stafanie Taylor and Hayley Matthews bring in the Caribbean flavour that has become synonymous with league cricket, while Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have got representation too this time.The biggest win for India, though, is the substantial influx of domestic players, and not just India-regulars. From 16 last year, the number has gone up to 27, presenting a golden opportunity for a little-known Kashmiri batter and an Odia all-rounder to share dressing room with some of the best in the business, whilst also throwing a lifeline at the likes of Veda Krishnamurthy and Sushma Verma who have dropped off selectors' radar in the last year.

And Mandhana, the Indian T20 vice-captain, threw in the perfect bait for them. That is, after all, the premise of this show. "It is also an ideal opportunity for seniors like us to play against our own younger players. With the T20 WC just 10 months away, we could find out which players would perform well under pressure," the 22-year-old captain of Trailblazers noted.

For the staunch supporters of women's cricket, however, as flattering as it will be to see a retired-from-the-format Jhulan Goswami steaming in once again or KSL teammates Mandhana and Taylor joining forces again, the Australian no-show sticks out as a sore point.

It's almost ironic though that absence of Australians - for no apparent fault of theirs, or women's cricket in general - has taken tad bit of sheen off and brought the collective competitiveness of the tournament down a notch, and that might just not present an air-tight case for a Women's IPL that this whole exercise is aiming at. Ironic because we have full fledged leagues, two of them, running successfully and almost independently at a time when BCCI and IPL - the pioneer of franchise-based cricket - are still testing waters about the feasibility of an Indian variant.

However, someone in the BCCI - or the stakeholders of women's cricket within BCCI - were paying heed. Or conversely, the pressure has mounted substantially on the back of the kind of impact every season of WBBL has had on Australia's talent pool or how KSL has managed to shore up England's resources. Though seriously whetting the appetite for it, at the moment this competition is still a far cry from a Women's IPL - as it is being promoted by the home board and players alike. But, as Raj said in the pre-tournament press conference on Saturday, "it is a step ahead". A step in the right direction.

"We need to understand that to start something different, we had to start small. Last year we had just one game and this year they have added one more team and it's a one-leg tournament. Maybe by next year or so we might have a full-fledged league," Raj hoped.

It still lingers in the shadow of the showstopper that is IPL, and it's probably for the best. Last-minute arrangements in 2018 meant there wasn't enough time to remind the TV audience of an unprecedented double-header in IPL finals week, while also restricting the in-bound crowd to those with the ticket to the Qualifier and a will to take on the infernal Mumbai heat. Now, slotting the matches during the off-days and at a time similar to that of the men's games potentially exposes it to a global audience that is subconsciously programmed to tune in for T20 cricket at primetime. The visibility that last year's show yearned for is now being offered on a silver platter. Over to the ladies to prove the viability of this exercise now.

"Currently, it is like testing waters as we need to see how people reciprocate and how the teams do. So it's also important for us to perform well so that we can grab eyeballs and attract more people to watch our matches," Raj opined. "So that will probably encourage the BCCI or the franchises to come forward to start a proper league."

Jaipur goes to polls on Monday. So does this latest commodity of women's cricket.

Format and schedule: A massive step up this year is that these four games have been awarded T20 status, unlike the exhibition match in 2018 where both teams were allowed to field all 13 players in the side. The format is single round-robin with the top-two progressing to the final.

The original two - Supernovas and Trailblazers - kick off the tournament on May 6. Supernovas get a long break, while Velocity play their two games back to back, on May 8 and 9. The final is slated for Saturday, May 11. In another first, all games start at 7:30pm IST, except for the May 8 fixture which serves as a double header alongside IPL 2019 Eliminator. The matches will be telecast LIVE by the official broadcaster.

Squads

Supernovas: Harmanpreet Kaur (c), Anuja Patil, Arundhati Reddy, Jemimah Rodrigues, Mansi Joshi, Poonam Yadav, Priya Punia, Radha Yadav, Taniya Bhatia (wk)

Overseas bench: Sophie Devine (New Zealand), Natalie Sciver (England), Chamari Athapaththu (Sri Lanka), Lea Tahuhu (New Zealand)

Coach: WV Raman

Trailblazers: Smriti Mandhana (c), Bharti Fulmali, Dayalan Hemalatha, Deepti Sharma, Harleen Deol, Jasia Akhtar, Jhulan Goswami, R Kalpana (wk), Rajeshwari Gayakwad

Trailblazers: Smriti Mandhana (c), Bharti Fulmali, Dayalan Hemalatha, Deepti Sharma, Harleen Deol, Jasia Akhtar, Jhulan Goswami, R Kalpana (wk), Rajeshwari Gayakwad

Overseas bench: Suzie Bates (New Zealand), Stafanie Taylor (West Indies), Sophie Ecclestone (England), Shakera Selman (West Indies)

Overseas bench: Suzie Bates (New Zealand), Stafanie Taylor (West Indies), Sophie Ecclestone (England), Shakera Selman (West Indies)

Coach: Biju George

Coach: Biju George

Velocity: Mithali Raj (c), Devika Vaidya, Ekta Bisht, Komal Zanzad, Shafali Verma, Shikha Pandey, Sushma Verma (wk), Sushree Dibyadarshini, Veda Krishnamurthy Overseas bench: Danielle Wyatt (England), Amelia Kerr (New Zealand), Hayley Matthews (West Indies), Jahanara Alam (Bangladesh)

Velocity: Mithali Raj (c), Devika Vaidya, Ekta Bisht, Komal Zanzad, Shafali Verma, Shikha Pandey, Sushma Verma (wk), Sushree Dibyadarshini, Veda Krishnamurthy Overseas bench: Danielle Wyatt (England), Amelia Kerr (New Zealand), Hayley Matthews (West Indies), Jahanara Alam (Bangladesh)

Coach: Mamatha Maben

Coach: Mamatha Maben

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