|| AFP ||
Several of the world's top women cricketers secured deals worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in the inaugural Women's Premier League auction on Monday, with India's attacking batter Smriti Mandhana leading the way on $410,000.
The left-handed 26-year-old was the first lot on the block at the sale in Mumbai, and was the object of a bidding war.
Nita Ambani -- who is the wife of Asia's richest man, Mukesh Ambani, and owns the Mumbai Indians franchise -- placed several bids for Mandhana's services before the Royal Challengers Bangalore prevailed.
The cash-rich Indian Premier League has transformed the fortunes of cricket globally, and the women's version could rapidly become one of the world's biggest money-spinners in women's sport.
"I was always glued to men's auction," a beaming Mandhana said afterwards. "It's such a big event to have an auction of this sort."
Australian all-rounder Ash Gardner was the second most expensive player in the first batch of sales, with Gujarat Giants -- bought by the sporting arm of the Adani Group, which is battling allegations raised by a US short-seller -- paying $387,000 for her.
Royal Challengers Bangalore also bagged Ellyse Perry of Australia for $205,000 and Sophie Devine of New Zealand for her base price of $60,000.
"We're very happy to get such quality players," said Mike Hesson, director of cricket operations for the Bangalore franchise. "It was a dream result for us."
The limited available data on women players had challenged the teams ahead of the auction, he added.
"You can't just sit on your phone and search Cricinfo and find out about people. It's more about being able to go out, being able to get a number of different eyes on players, so you can validate your information."
Delhi Capitals co-owner Parth Jindal described himself as "a follower of the women's game".
"But apart from the Indian players and a couple of the legendary players from the other teams, I did not know many of the names, but it's as competitive, it's as tricky," he told reporters.
"Some of the skill sets are even different from the men's. You see a lot more all-rounders in this game than you do in the men's game."
English all-rounder Nat Sciver-Brunt was sold for around $387,000 to Mumbai Indians, while spinner Sophie Ecclestone went to UP Warriorz for $220,000.
England skipper Heather Knight, unsold in the initial rounds of the auction, was later snapped up by the Royal Challengers Bangalore for $48,400.
Field of dreams
The franchise rights for the five women's teams were auctioned off in January for $572.5 million, while media rights for the first five seasons of the new league were sold to Viacom18 for $116.7 million.
The two deals made the WPL the second most valuable women's league, after the WNBA women's basketball league, according to local media reports.
The WNBA, which held its inaugural season in 1997, is reportedly valued at $1 billion.
India's cricket board, which already hosts the IPL, was bullish about the outlook for the WPL.
"The initial response to the WPL has definitely showcased the potential the league has to become the biggest women's domestic sporting tournament," the secretary for the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), Jay Shah, told AFP during the auction.
He added that the tournament would "inspire the next generation of women to make a career in professional sport".
Former Indian skipper Mithali Raj, who retired last year and is now part of the Gujarat Giants' coaching staff, said the team also had "one eye on the future" by looking at players who featured in the Under-19 World Cup.
India's T20 batting sensation Shafali Verma, who led India to victory in that tournament in January, was bought by the Delhi Capitals for $242,000, with fellow countrywoman Jemimah Rodrigues ($266,000) and Australia's Meg Lanning ($133,000) her new team-mates.
A total of 449 players were up for auction on Monday, with 87 securing spots in the teams. The five franchises could pick a maximum of 18 players each.
A total salary cap of $1.45 million applies to each team in the tournament to be held in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai from March 4 to 26.
The WPL comes as efforts grow to expand the women's game globally, and Australia's Gardner said ahead of the auction that she had dreamed about the event and called it "a huge moment for women's cricket".