Southern Stars peak at right time
A year ago, Steve Waugh raised something of a stir by venturing that women should be permitted to match wits with the men in the Big Bash League. "I think it's about time where we could have one female player per Big Bash side," Waugh had said. "Going forward, I can't see why the girls can't have representation."
Though Waugh's philanthropic suggestion was met enthusiastically by the audience at the 2013 New South Wales end of season awards night, it has not progressed any further. Instead, the Southern Stars have done just fine building up their own skills and reputations with a third consecutive World T20 victory, this time a resounding defeat of England in Dhaka. The men, of course, are still to win one after five attempts.
Encapsulated by the captain Meg Lanning's fearless straight six from the bowling of the previously feared seam bowling of Anya Shrubsole, the Australians' performance begged a pertinent question - how had they managed to master this format so completely? If women's cricket is still pushing towards greater levels of professionalism and commercial clout, then this supremacy is something its players are quite entitled to brag about, and even use to offer some advice for their richer yet trophy-less counterparts.
The wicketkeeper Alyssa Healy is uniquely positioned to speak on comparatives, as the partner of the fast bowler Mitchell Starc. Healy's tournament was of the challenging but rewarding variety, as a succession of low pitches not only tested her skills but also honed them, to the point that she clasped a tremendous low catch to dismiss Lydia Greenway, touted by England as the world's first fulltime professional women's cricketer, in the final.
"It's about playing with freedom and backing your own ability," Healy said. "The boys' T20 side that played over the past 12 months has been unbelievable the way Aaron Finch and Dave Warner have been hitting the ball and the bowlers taking wickets, it just didn't come off for them in that tournament, which is a shame, but they still had some pretty good performances.
"For us it was a big team performance, it wasn't just one person putting their hand up every now and then, it was everybody. For the boys that sort of team performance will get them over the line."
The Southern Stars' success was driven with particular strength by the power and skill of Lanning, their 22-year-old leader. In recent times the allrounder and dual international Ellyse Perry has taken much of the limelight available to the team, but in Dhaka, she was one of many to watch in awed admiration at how Lanning's batting had risen to the world-beating level. Her consistency in T20 has rivalled that of Virat Kohli.
"Just looking a the final and the way we batted and bowled - take for example the shot Meg hit for six over mid off from the player of the tournament and a world class bowler," Perry said of Lanning. "To see someone do that off a bowler who's been really dominant in the tournament was fantastic. We all love watching her bat and it's even better when you're out there watching from the other end.
"The strength and power we're hitting with but also the technique and skill has been fantastic and that's the same with how we've bowled and fielded as well. We've been quite aggressive about it, and the way we've worked as a team and the way our coaches really encourage us to play and approach our cricket has been along those lines for a couple of years now, and it's continued to help us improve our game and play similar to men in that sense."
According to Belinda Clark, the former Australian captain and ground-breaking batsman, Lanning, Perry and Elyse Villani are three players to benefit from watching each other's mutual improvement. "I don't think it's only Meg, the skill that Ellyse Perry's shown with the bat over the last 12 months has been outstanding, the transformation of Elyse Villani, there's a number of them able to progress their game," Clark said. "When you're batting at the other end and someone is doing it, it's much easier to then copy what's happening.
"Yes Meg is playing well, but there's other people watching her and she's watching them, and they're feeding off that. That was being led in the world game by Charlotte Edwards and Sarah Taylor [from England] probably 12 months ago, and these girls have now shown they're competing equally with that calibre of player."
As manager of the National Cricket Centre in Brisbane, Clark has overseen not only the establishment of a major facility of year-round benefit to Australian cricket, but also an increasing level of interaction, communication and shared training among male and female cricketers at the top level. When the Southern Stars coach Cathryn Fitzpatrick spoke in Dhaka of speaking with the men's mentor Darren Lehmann about prevailing conditions, it demonstrated the growing closeness of the two operations.
"All being based in Brisbane, there's a connection between the support staff who come in and out of both teams, a connection between the coaches, the players are often training together, so that connection's been there for some time and we're seeing the benefits of that now," Clark said. "It's a little more obvious now we've got a National Cricket Centre, but the philosophy's been there for quite some time."
As for why the women were showing up the men in cricket's most easily digestible format, Clark reckoned it to be a matter of training to put things all together at the appropriate moment. "What the girls have managed to do is peak their performances at the right time," she said. "I think the guys have a lot of experience at T20 cricket and they just didn't quite put it together at the right time. You could argue that the start to the tournament these girls had wasn't ideal, but it mirrored exactly what happened in Sri Lanka [in 2012]. I just think they've got it down to a fine art of making sure they're on their game for the big tournaments."
When Lehmann and others set down their plans for the 50-over World Cup in 2015, it might just pay to check-in with the Southern Stars for a reminder of how that's done.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here