WPL and mentorship - Where does Sania Mirza fit in?
One name stands out in the WPL staff - Sania Mirza being announced as the RCB mentor. Skeptics feel it is a PR stunt, optimists say she has a lot to offer. Here's what Sania and an RCB player have to say.
Unless you’ve been to space recently, or attended a long detox/meditation camp - you would be aware that the inaugural edition of the Women’s Premier League (WPL) is set to begin on Saturday at DY Patil Stadium.
The teams have been hard at work in Mumbai, as has India’s brown munda AP Dhillon - who will be performing at the opening ceremony. The five franchises have been making headlines throughout 2023 - from established names such as Mumbai Indians, Royal Challengers Bangalore, Delhi Capital to newcomers Gujarat Giants and UP Warriorz.
It all began with the announcement of the teams being confirmed and then a race to on-board the biggest names of women’s cricket as coaches and mentors. Gujarat Giants snapped up Mithali Raj, Rachel Haynes and Nooshin Al-Khadeer and set the tone. Jhulan Goswami, Lisa Sthlaker & Charlotte Edwards were soon to follow.
Then came the competitive auction which was relatively successful for all 5 teams, given the talent pool on offer. Such a pool that in fact, names like Alana King, Sune Luus, Suzie Bates & Laura Wolvaardt didn’t even get picked up.
Once the teams and players were set, the social media frenzy began. How do we create the most catchy content? Making mentor Mithali Raj dance was one way, doing a ‘welcome to my crib’ rendition with Jemimah and Shafali was certainly another funky idea. Kudos to the WPL team for creating a tournament anthem as well.
The team jersey launches followed one-by-one and so did the hype from the fans on which one to cop and which one to drop. Don’t forget, the women played an entire T20 World Cup in South Africa in this period; truly no rest for the wicked.
Amongst all this, one name stood out from the rest, raising eyebrows for some but also putting smiles on some faces - ace Indian tennis star Sania Mirza being announced as the RCB mentor for the 2023 season.
Skeptics felt it was a PR stunt, optimists believed she had a lot to offer. While most teams had an experienced cricketer on mentorship duties, fresh-into-retirement Sania excitedly got into the role for the Bangalore franchise.
Sania turned professional in 2003, the year of birth of exciting young wicket-keeper batter and U19 World Cup champion Richa Ghosh, one of RCB's star players. Here's what she had to say on her new role.
“You know, when I was retiring, everybody was asking me “What next? What next? What’s after this?” For me, one of the things I really want to do is try and help the younger athletes, especially the girls, help them believe.
"So when the conversation with RCB started, I said, ‘Even though cricket has been so closely around me for different reasons, it’s not something that I fully understand.' They said, ‘No, that’s not what we need you for. We need you to help these girls understand the pressures that go into being a professional athlete.’ And then it all made sense. A lot of these young girls are going to be in the spotlight and under all sorts of pressure for the first time.”
The six-time doubles Grand Slam champion is certainly right about that.
"It was truly an amazing opportunity for me to get into something that is so different, yet right up my alley. These are the kinds of pressures that I have faced for the last twenty years. I have been put in the spotlight, and on the spot.”
What Sania mentions not only applies to the youngsters, but also to the more established international stars. For RCB captain Smriti Mandhana, earning INR 3.4 cr for a 23-day league is a game-changer after being on a INR 50L contract with the BCCI, setting endorsements aside.
She said, “I think these players are going to be subjected to high pressure - there are sponsorships, crores running on them, they are going to be on TV, they will do ad shoots and stuff that many of them may not have done before. I feel that I can share my experiences and maybe help them cope with such situations.
"That has nothing to do with me telling them how to play cricket because I can’t do that, obviously, but I can connect on another level. As a young woman, how it feels to play under that kind of scrutiny all the time is something I have experienced [fortunately or unfortunately] for 20 years and that is the knowledge I can share with them.”
What about Sania? Did she have a mentor growing up?
“I didn’t, and I wish I did, right? Like for example, I met P.T. Usha very late in my life, but I would have loved to speak to her and be like ‘how did you deal with it?’. She was literally the only woman that we had growing up as a superstar-athlete figure. It had nothing to do with her being able to tell me how to hit a tennis ball… and I’m not telling the [RCB] girls how to hit the cricket ball either.”
Sania’s appointment has nothing to do with technical aspects, it is about absorbing pressure to ensure they execute their technical skills to perfection - delivery after delivery.
RCB is probably the most star-studded unit in the WPL this season, but the team is also populated with uncapped talent who are about to have an eye-opening experience. Shreyanka Patil, one such player from the city of Bengaluru itself, also spoke to The Bridge on her thoughts about the association with Sania Mirza.
“I have so many questions to ask her," she said.
“When I was practising, one of my friends came to me and said, ‘Sania Mirza is your mentor!’ I was like ‘whaaa?’ My face had a shocked expression. We’ve seen her play - she has achieved a lot of things - she has gone through a lot of challenges. With so much happening in her life, being a part of RCB is a plus point for all of us.”
Sania most recently placed runners-up in the Australian Open mixed doubles competition, with her four-year-old watching from the stands, bowing out of the international tennis arena with another legendary chapter in her trailblazing career.
Shreyanka said, “It’s not just about the cricket aspect, it’s more about the mental aspect. She has done great things, achieved so much under pressure, it’s just next level. I have so many questions to ask her. Sania being around us is going to be an amazing feeling, I’m looking forward to having a lot of fun and learning a lot.”
As UP Warriorz mentor Lisa Sthalekar describes the role, “It is a person that the players can turn to if needed. I think each mentor will be different in each franchise.”
And there you have it. This month will truly tell whether this out-of-the-box appointment was the ideal call, or not. Personally, I really hope the team gels with Sania, she’s one of the greatest sportswomen that India has produced.