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The history of women's cricket can be traced back to a quintessentially English occasion - a contest between the villages of Bramley and Hambledon near Guildford in Surrey. A match report published in the Reading Mercury said: "The girls bowled, batted, ran and [took] catches as well as most men could." It may come as a surprise to recent converts that this match took place in 1745, nearly 103 years before the birth of WG Grace.
The journey of women's cricket has not always been smooth since then. Although women beat the men to staging a World Cup, England's players were demeaningly forced to wear restrictive skirts until as recently as 1997. The international game was monopolised by the traditional powerhouses of England, Australia and New Zealand, who between them shared all of the silverware ever awarded. India were competitive at times, without ever winning a trophy. Those outside this clique often looked short of class.
This was true till as recently as the 2009 World Cup, when none of the lesser teams were even close to causing an upset. However, times have changed quickly. The current World Cup in India has seen plenty of promising performances, and even more compelling characters, emerge from the less established nations.
It is worth dwelling on Sri Lanka's efforts. The team was not formed until 1997 and, despite quickly overtaking Ireland and the Netherlands, had not beaten any of the top four teams in 30 matches before this tournament. In 2009, they finished last after being bowled out for 75 by South Africa in the seventh place play-off. Just four years later, in this edition of the World Cup, they smashed their highest ODI total and pulled off the highest-ever run chase in the Women's World Cup against two of the tournament's favourite sides.
Apart from the one game in which they were 'Dottined' by West Indies, there is little reason to believe that Sri Lanka cannot reach the final. Dottined? That is a reference to Deandra Dottin, dubbed the 'female Chris Gayle'. Many male cricketers would love to call on her hitting ability, which is second to none in the women's game. But she is not West Indies' brightest star. That title belongs to Stafanie Taylor who, at 21, has already scored four ODI centuries, taken 70 wickets and won the ICC Women's Cricketer of the Year award. Like Sri Lanka, West Indies were unheralded until recently. But they are now a genuine threat to any international outfit.
There is a strong correlation between the introduction of de-facto, full-time contracts and the evident improvement in the teams benefitting from them. In Sri Lanka, modest contracts, linked to the military, were launched in 2011 and players now receive a match fee. This allows them to focus on cricket virtually full-time, without having to worry about bringing money in through other means. This also holds true for the West Indies, where key players are on annual retainers. Although Pakistan are yet to enjoy real success, they now have more contracted players than any other nation and were able to post their highest World Cup total, in the match against India.
Top teams, too, have begun receiving remuneration in recent years. Until 2005, Claire Taylor, one of England's greatest batsmen of all time, had to supplement her cricket career with a job in the I.T. sector. It is an indicator of the pace of progress that even those boards that were traditionally accused of apathy towards the women's game are making a sizeable investment in the sport.
But why has it taken so long? I'd argue that the absence of media coverage hindered women's cricket for a long time. The 2009 event was the first World Cup to receive a global telecast; in contrast with tennis, where the Wimbledon ladies' singles final has been televised for decades. The presence of cameras has allowed fans and, perhaps just as importantly, administrators around the world to challenge their prejudices about the women's game. There has been a substantial increase in coverage in newspapers, magazines and online sites. As a result, success and failure are increasingly visible and those responsible for the development of the game can no longer afford to be an embarrassment.
The ongoing World Cup has already been the most competitive women's international cricket tournament of all time and, with the continuing improvements in funding, exposure and facilities, one can expect the game to spread globally. If there is one thing the tournament has proved, it is that women around the cricketing world can bowl, bat and take catches just as well as most men.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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