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Big-League Dreams – The New York Times

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We met the two sisters in a small village a thousand miles away from where the main event was taking place.

India had just launched a new cricket league for women, drawing a whopping $500 million in private investments, and it felt like a big moment. A career in sports for young women was no longer just a pipe dream. Now there could be economic opportunity — even stardom.

Most of the players on the glamorous new stage came from modest, small-town backgrounds, like Harmanpreet Kaur, who had risen from a village in Punjab to the top of the game, persevering despite all the obstacles.

We wanted to know how it all looked to other young Indian girls with dreams.

So we traveled to the village of Dharoki, in Ms. Kaur’s home province, where we met a joyous bunch of young girls training under the mentorship of a police officer who had carved a corner of his family land into practice fields. Among them were Naina, 13, and her elder sister Sunaina, 14.

The Women’s Premier League has just begun its second season to much fanfare, but back then, in the spring, it was still new as we watched the girls run their two-mile warm-up loop around the village, go through their drills with plenty of giggles and then disappear on their bicycles into the dusk.

Only when we climbed rickety stairs one evening to the single-room home where this photograph was taken — the girls’ parents both work as sweepers — did we fully grasp just how much the new cricket league might mean.

In India, any promise of upward mobility is hampered by the country’s struggle to generate enough jobs. For women, that challenge is compounded by the common view that their place is in the home.

Now, cricket may offer another path to some. Hugely popular in India, it is played or watched in nearly every household.

“The high nationalism of sport bestows a certain license to women to put themselves out there in the world in a way that almost nothing does,” writes Sohini Chattopadhyay in a new book on India’s female athletes.

Naina, Sunaina and their teammates are still working on their skills, still riding their bicycles through the mustard fields to their practice patch. Last year, the sisters were selected to play at a higher level, in competitions in other districts.

Naina, Sunaina and their teammates got to meet an idol, Harmanpreet Kaur, in May on the sidelines of a men’s league match.

They returned with a piece of advice: The girls had to speak up, so they could be heard across the cricket field. There may be a life lesson in that, too, but for now, it is clear that they have taken the counsel to heart on the field.

On a recent visit back to Dharoki, we watched as they once again ran laps, and as they teased their mentor and joked with each other. They finished off with a new strength drill, taking turns climbing the rope hanging from a peepal tree.

There was a great air of confidence about them.

And loud they were, indeed.

Photograph by Atul Loke, written by Mujib Mashal

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