NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Women's cricket looks poised to step out of the imposing shadow of the men's game in India, and the rest of the world is bracing for the birth of a superpower in the sport.
While male players have long enjoyed rock star status in the cricket-mad country, their female counterparts have had to fight hard to be taken seriously.
Their struggle has finally started yielding results, however, and 15 years after the launch of the Indian Premier League (IPL), a full-fledged women's T20 tournament will get underway in March.
Crucially, corporate India has seen financial sense in investing in the Women's Premier League (WPL).
The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has already pocketed nearly $690 million from the sales of franchises and media rights, with the revenue flow to be boosted further when a title sponsor comes on board later this month.
India captain Harmanpreet Kaur called the league a "game changer" for women's cricket in the country, building on the growing enthusiasm for the female game among Indian fans.
That enthusiasm was evident in the home T20 series against Australia in December, which the tourists won 4-1.
The opener at the DY Patil Stadium drew over 25,000 spectators, while more than 47,000 turned up for the second match at the same venue on the outskirts of Mumbai.
Although Australia have dominated women's cricket for the last two decades, India already have a solid base and won the inaugural Under-19 T20 World Cup in South Africa on Sunday.
"It's just the beginning," skipper Shafali Verma said after they beat England in the final in Potchefstroom.
"Women's cricket may not become more popular than men's cricket in India, but we certainly can hope to match them."
EXCITEMENT AND CONCERNS
For the rest of the cricketing world, excitement at the earning potential for leading players in the WPL comes tempered with concerns at a replication of India's already overweening power in the men's game.
"There's fear among a lot of players that once the women's IPL starts, India is going to dominate world cricket," Pune-born former Australia captain Lisa Sthalekar told Cricinfo.
However, the global governing body of the sport, the International Cricket Council, could not be happier.
"India will continue to lead the way with regards to a lot of initiatives around women's cricket," ICC general manager of cricket Wasim Khan told media on Wednesday.
"The values that have been brought in for those (WPL) teams just reiterates how valuable and how important women's cricket is and how it's seen by the potential investors."
Khan said the WPL would trigger a transformation of the entire women's game over the next few years.
"We are very much confident that what's happening in India was a catalyst to try and really drive the game to even greater levels," he added.
"The combination of ourselves working with the cricket boards, we certainly believe that in five years' time, the landscape is going to look very, very different."
(Reporting by Amlan Chakraborty in New Delhi; editing by Nick Mulvenney and Peter Rutherford)