There are two things Indians are particularly passionate about: Bollywood and cricket. When the two are woven together, as they are during the Indian Premier League, the spectacle is one to behold.
For the next 40 days, stadiums all over India will come alive as tens of thousands of cricket fans, some everyday punters, some Bollywood stars, come to watch the world’s best compete in the shortest format of the game.
This year it won’t be just Australia’s male cricketers taking centre stage at the IPL - two former female cricketers will be taking up seats in the commentary box.
For the first time, the IPL television expert commentary team will include four women, among them former Southern Stars players Lisa Sthalekar and Mel Jones.
The pair was first approached last year after the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) decided to boost its commentary team with women. Both Sthalekar and Jones jumped at the chance to commentate on the world’s biggest and most lucrative T20 competition.
“It’s massive because of the millions of people that will be watching, it’s quite daunting but exciting as well,” said Indian-born allrounder Lisa Sthalekar.
Sthalekar was completely shocked, saying never in her wildest dreams did she think she would be picked.
For Jones, another former international cricketer and well known TV commentator for women’s cricket, her first thought was that they were “pulling her leg.”
“I just didn’t think it was on the cards for the BCCI or the IPL to be looking at female commentators,” said Jones.
“I feel like a kid in a lolly shop some days really, thinking about it all.
“To have the opportunity to do men’s cricket but also in one of the most exciting domestic sporting competitions in the world is a huge tick for me and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Jones in her playing days // Getty Images
The two Australians will be joined by former English player Isa Guha and Anjum Chopra, who captained India’s women’s side.
“All four of us will be based in different parts of India which is a shame because we’d love to catch up and celebrate with each other,” said Sthalekar.
But for the Australian pair, who rarely if ever get the chance to commentate on elite men’s matches on home soil, the IPL gig will be a huge career boost.
“The one thing that I have always wanted to do is grow the women’s game and I think that being a commentator for the women’s game is fine but by commentating on the men’s game it allows the viewers and even other fellow commentators to ask more questions about women’s cricket, it’s not forgotten and I think that’s a great way to keep it in mainstream,” Sthalekar said.
“I was surprised that the BBCI was heavily pushing this because they haven’t been massive supporters of females and especially women’s cricket over in India as well.
“I know the India women’s side struggle for more matches and a bit more recognition so for them (BCCI) to be leading the way just shows that the game is changing.
“If the sport is going to keep appealing to the public, guess what, 50 per cent of the population is female so a female point of view or a female aspect might be just what’s needed.”
This year is just a trial and whether or not the BCCI will put females in the commentary box next IPL season will depend on the feedback, but both women are hopeful.
“I think the bottom line is the BCCI realises that obviously it’s a global game but the power of the female commercially within sport now is gaining a lot of momentum so if they going to make sure that they can connect with those females this is probably a good way of doing it,” added Jones.
“Cricket in India is like another religion and that certainly doesn’t discriminate between sexes and when you go there you can easily find good conversations amongst the female population about IPL or Test cricket or the like.”
“I’m sure we won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but hopefully we’ll be getting some new viewers in, to fall in love with cricket,” Sthalekar added.
The 35-year-old said the biggest challenge leading into the IPL season has been researching the Indian players.
“Having the World Cup in our backyard has probably prepared me as best I could be and I’ve tried to watch I tried to watch as many games as I It’s just about doing research really, reading articles about players and what they’re about,” Sthalekar explained.
Having spent her early years in India, Sthalekar is certainly not worried about acclimatising.
“Love the food, love the weather. I’ve spent plenty of time in India as a player and also with my family when I was growing up so it’s a place that I feel very comfortable and almost see it as my second home,” she said.
This won’t be Sthalekar’s first encounter with the IPL. The allrounder was in Bangalore for the first ever IPL match while coaching an Under 19’s NSW team.
“We actually got to see the first IPL match ever and the hype and the pre-show that went with it and the cheerleaders and fireworks everything and it’s a real clash of what India’s about: cricket and Bollywood,” Sthalekar said.
Jones first toured India in 1994 with the Australian youth team and said things there have changed so dramatically since then.
“I’m still not sure what to expect,” she said.
Jones will be commentating predominantly in Bangalore and Chennai, while Sthalekar will cover matches in Kolkata, Hyderabad and Visakhapatnam.
The 42-year-old said Australian players are just as loved in India and the proof of that is the number of Aussies now captaining franchises, with Shane Watson, David Warner and George Bailey all helming teams.
“That’s not something many would have seen coming when the IPL started eight years ago,” Jones said.
Undoubtedly primetime female IPL commentators would have been another surprise.