U19 Women’s World Cup – Unlike Soccer, NCAA won’t be the path for USA Cricket’s Women, but that’s ok

USA Bowler and Women's Vice Captain Geetika Kodali bowls

On August 8, 2022, USA Cricket’s U19 Women played their first ever match against an International team, defeating West Indies U19 Women by five wickets. While many of the eleven had represented USA Women in various series, including a tournament-winning performance in the West Indies Rising Stars series less than a month prior, this was their first true contest against a team full of international peers. USA would go on to dominate the home T20 series, winning four games and losing one. 

Today, only four months later, the USA U19 Women are in South Africa preparing to challenge for the inaugural ICC T20 U19 Women’s World Cup, having won two out of three warm up games. 

It’s difficult to overstate what a thriving Women’s Cricket scene could mean for the growth of the sport in the United States. Many point to the trailblazing success of the Women’s National Soccer Team as a hopeful example of the best case scenario. Certainly a world-dominating women’s program would do similar wonders for cricket in the USA. 

Yet with such a young national structure in place, the United States is a long way from dominating Women’s Cricket around the globe. And cricket will have to take a very different path than soccer in order to get there.

By the time the US Women’s National Team hoisted the inaugural Fifa Women’s World Cup trophy in 1991, the NCAA was preparing for its tenth Division One Women’s Soccer National Championship tournament. Eleven years later, 21 years after the NCAA had established a National Championship for women athletes playing on scholarship, USA won the inaugural U20 FIFA Women’s World Cup. In both cases, American Women’s soccer was already far ahead of the rest of the world. 

The NCAA has long served as a farm system for professional and international sports in the USA. The NCAA has also long been a talking point for aspiring USA Cricket directors. “I want to get cricket into the NCAA,” is a familiar refrain from candidates campaigning for election. Surely part of the appeal is the idea of college scholarships to motivate young girls to commit to the sport. 

But until cricket is embraced by magnitudes of more young women across the country, USA Cricket is miles closer to achieving Full Member status with the ICC than cricket is to being recognized as an NCAA sport. 

There are ten women’s team sports in the NCAA’s Division One, the highest tier of college sports, and the division with the most available scholarships. Among these team sports, Ice Hockey (36) and Water Polo (34 teams) have the fewest number of schools sponsoring teams. In 2019, these programs had over 20,000 high school aged water polo girls and 9,600 ice hockey playing girls from which to recruit. 

According to USA Cricket’s own 2022 AGM, there are roughly only 300 girls and women of any age playing cricket in the USA. There simply are not enough young women playing the game of cricket to justify even a single division of college club cricket, let alone a single conference in NCAA at any division. 

Afghanistan might have walked right into ICC Full Member status with a promise and a wink, but the NCAA requires tangible evidence of growth for permanent sanctioning. Women’s Triathlon has recently just checked off the final box for sanctioning after eight years on the NCAA Emerging Sports for Women list. In order to be considered for the Emerging Sports designation, a sport must first have at least 20 varsity or competitive club teams existing at NCAA member schools. Once a sport has earned this designation, it has ten years to recruit 40 member schools to sponsor teams, at which point the NCAA will sanction the sport and provide an NCAA National Championship.

And thanks to the American civil rights law commonly referred to as Title IX, which guarantees equal treatment between mens and womens sports in the NCAA, it would be incredibly complicated to add only Men’s Cricket to the NCAA.

With so few young women playing the game, how on earth did USA Cricket manage to find a place in the inaugural ICC Women’s U19 World Cup? And how can the USA Women grow the sport and make their mark internationally without any reasonable expectation for women’s cricket to become an NCAA sport? 

To answer that first question, International Women’s Cricket is still on the ground floor, and that’s particularly true for the U19 game. The field for the inaugural ICC Women’s U19 T20 World Cup is also relatively large. Four groups of four, for a total of 16 teams, start the tournament on January 14. USA Cricket qualified automatically, due to the fact that they were the only eligible team from the Americas region. But the 4-1 series trouncing of West Indies, who qualified as full members, shows that USA are better than simply a team that qualified due to technicality. 

In 2021, USA Cricket launched a new pathway for women and girls, culminating in a Women’s National Championship and a Women’s U19 National Championship. The pathway reselected teams based on the best performers at each level, rather than advancing only the winning teams, beginning with Intra-Regional games, moving to Regional games, and then to Nationals. Many of the players featured on this Women’s U19 World Cup roster were discovered thanks to this pathway. The groundbreaking pathway earned USA Cricket the ICC’s 100% Cricket Female Cricket Initiative Award in April of 2022. 

But in order for USA’s women to make their mark on international cricket and continue to grow without the benefit of the NCAA, the women’s game is going to have to grow stronger roots at the local level. 

This is something that Geetika Kodali and her family understood in 2019, when they decided to move from California to Morrisville, North Carolina, so that the teen all rounder could play and train regularly in a program with other girls and young women.

Volunteers, players and coaches in Triangle Cricket League celebrate USA Women’s U19 World Cup teammates Geetika Kodak, Bhumika Bhadriraju, Mitali Patwardhan and Sai Eyyunni

Already a member of USA Cricket’s Women’s team, Geetika arrived in the Raleigh suburb less than two years after Triangle Cricket League (TCL) first launched their women’s hard tennis league. The three founding teams have grown slow and steady, eventually adding two leather ball T20 teams. This humble but energetic crowd have helped nurture and develop three members of this World Cup squad: Captain Geetika Kodali, Bhumika Bhadriraju, and non-traveling reserve Mitali Patwardhan. 

“Triangle Cricket League has invested in the women’s game for two administrations now,” TCL President Babar Baig told Emerging Cricket. “It’s a part of the fabric of our league now going forward. We are proud of our role in the development of women’s cricket, and we see it as vital to the general growth of the game itself. We are very proud of Geetika, Bhumika, Mitali and Coach Rohaan.”

The TCL community doesn’t only provide benefits for the local girls and women. Morrisville is home to many volunteers who have served USA Cricket through the years, including Rajesh Uppalapati, one of 33 USA Volunteer Youth Coordinators. It is also not unusual to see players from all over the country visiting to train with local players and USA Women’s analyst Rohaan Gosala, aka “Coach Rohaan.”

On December 20, as Morrisville’s young stars trained ahead of the biggest games of their lives, USA U19 leg spinner Sai Eyyunni joined from Dallas, another emerging American cricket hotbed. Though visiting specifically for training with her friends and teammates, Sai expressed optimism for the future of the women’s game in her home city. 

“There were hardly about 10-15 girls in the area, and that too, they were just beginners. There wasn’t really a good girls team,” Sai recalled to Emerging Cricket at a TCL sponsored felicitations for the local international stars. Sai was welcomed and celebrated as a guest of honor at the event.  “But now, for sure, there are a lot more girls into cricket. Surely girls cricket is coming up in Dallas.” Sai credited coaches Asif Mustaba and Rajesh Cherukupalli as valuable local assets to her own development to date in Dallas.

One big draw of Morrisville and TCL is access to well known Church Street Park, a cricket-specific natural turf ground maintained by the town of Morrisville, one of only a handful of turf venues in the country. But the advent of Major League Cricket means more turf and hybrid wickets are on the way for aspiring cricketers all around the country, a development welcomed by Sai. “One issue used to be that there were no turf wickets, and still there are no turf wickets, but now it’s good that the Grand Prairie stadium is now going to be a cricket stadium with turf wickets. And that will be a really, really big help for us to get practice in Dallas instead of having to travel elsewhere.”

Just two years into a true pathway program, USA Cricket already see their U19 Women’s team in the World Cup this weekend. Young American cricketers like Geetika have already made a name for themselves in franchise leagues around the world. With Major League and Minor League Cricket grounds and venues on the horizon, and the women’s game still on the ground floor internationally, the future of the women’s game in the USA can be shaped by the efforts of local volunteers and coaches like never before. And while it would be a dream to boast 40 NCAA women’s teams across the country, communities like Morrisville and their Triangle Cricket League are working to ensure that it isn’t required. 

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