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February 27, 2013

Women's cricket

The women's game - A triumph of spirit

Raf Nicholson
England captain Rachael Heyhoe-Flint receives the 1973 World Cup from Princess Anne  © The Cricketer International
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The first ever Women's World Cup match was supposed to take place on Kew Green, in London, in June 1973. No one turned up to watch. It rained. Eventually the New Zealand and Jamaican women's teams wandered off, and the match was abandoned without a ball being bowled.

The Women's World Cup which finished in India last week is the tenth of its kind. The first, hosted by England, took place at a time when only five countries could field an international women's cricket team. The women who organised it were unpaid volunteers, attempting to run a global tournament on a scale which even men's cricket had never seen before.

Naturally, it was at times a rather chaotic undertaking. For starters, running a World Cup was a logistical nightmare, especially when female use of cricket grounds was right at the bottom of the priority list. The majority of matches in 1973 took place on obscure pitches around the country which were not even county standard. The one exception was the final, which was played at Edgbaston - though only after the MCC had refused the Women's Cricket Association's request to hold it at Lord's.

Creating awareness of the tournament was also difficult. The WCA went to huge efforts to publicise it; thousands of posters and leaflets were printed and distributed around the country, and television companies, radio stations and national newspapers were bombarded with press releases. Rachael Heyhoe-Flint, the England captain, personally spent hours pasting up posters and compiling match reports to be published in the Daily Telegraph. Overall, more time was spent by the England players publicising and fundraising for the tournament than training for their matches.

Most newspapers did find some column space for women's cricket. The problem was that coverage did not often focus on the matches. The London Evening Standard sent a reporter to the Trinidad and Tobago v England game, but her article provided very little information about the cricket, preferring to focus on the "ringing girlishness" of the players. And the fact that three out of 16 of the England squad were married. Fascinating.

Umpiring was another thorny problem. The WCA were insistent on using only female umpires, but the numbers required meant that the majority had never officiated in an international match before the tournament began. There were evidently some poor decisions: the WCA reported that "the umpires gradually developed thick skins...and no-one was actually lynched, so perhaps overall success was achieved". Perhaps.

Subsequent tournaments proved equally stressful for the organisers. The first World Cup cost so much - businessman Jack Hayward covered £40,000 of the costs, but visiting teams still had to personally stump up the cash for their flights and equipment - that the International Women's Cricket Council was initially uncertain whether another one would ever be possible. As it was, when the second tournament was held in India in 1978, West Indies and Netherlands withdrew at the last minute because they simply could not afford it. The teams which did make it out to India - England, Australia and New Zealand - complained about continual last-minute changes to the schedule. And the fifth World Cup, hosted by England in 1993, came within 48 hours of cancellation because it was such a struggle to find sponsorship. Fortunately the Foundation for Sport and the Arts donated £90,000 to ensure it could go ahead - but even so, the costs of hosting it almost bankrupted the WCA.

The worst nightmare of all, though, was the 1997 World Cup in India. The teams who were due to take part spent the weeks leading up to the competition frantically telephoning and faxing the Women's Cricket Association of India (WCAI) in an attempt to secure a fixed itinerary. With 11 teams participating and severe difficulties in securing grounds for all the matches, as well as accommodation for the players, the final schedule was a joke. England, for example, had five group games: against South Africa in Hyderabad, Pakistan in Vijayawada, Denmark back in Hyderabad, Ireland in Pune, and Australia in Nagpur. In nine days, they underwent a total of three flights, two lengthy coach journeys, and five cricket matches.

In addition, the schedule had to be changed again at the last minute, as the BCCI announced late arrangements for an ODI to be played against Sri Lanka on December 28, the date which had been previously fixed for the World Cup final. The WCAI was forced to push the final back by a day in order to secure some TV coverage - despite the fact that England, the defending champions and expected to be in the final, were due to fly out of India on the evening of the same day.

In the end, of course, England didn't make the final: they were knocked out by New Zealand in the semis. But the whole thing was farcical all the same.

Faced with so many obstacles, why did these women bother? The idea was to secure a wider audience and an increased respect for the women's game, in a world where female cricketers were generally either ignored or laughed off the pitch. Despite its inauspicious and soggy beginnings, the first World Cup was widely acknowledged as a success from that perspective. England beat Australia by 92 runs in a final which was watched by 1500 people live and by millions of others on TV later on. The ICC obviously approved: the first men's World Cup was staged two years later in 1975, and modelled on the women's tournament.

Since then, more people have watched Women's World Cup matches than any other type of women's cricket. There has been televised coverage of all finals since 1982, and the 1997 World Cup final, played at Eden Gardens, drew a crowd of 60,000 - possibly the highest a women's game has ever seen. Without doubt, the efforts of the WCA and the International Women's Cricket Council (IWCC) back in 1973 have reaped endless harvests of good for the women's game.

The ICC is now in charge, of course, and has been for the last two tournaments. It was the issues faced during the 1997 and 2005 competitions which convinced the IWCC that the time had come for the ICC to take over running the women's game. In 2005, the IWCC failed to find a sponsor. Once again teams had to shell out thousands in order to participate, and West Indies, now such an accomplished side, almost pulled out. It was felt that the backing of the ICC would put paid to these kind of financial issues, and indeed, it has done so. The increasing professionalisation of the women's game in the majority of countries has finally produced a tournament where more than four countries can field genuinely competitive sides.

The worrying thing for fans of the women's game is that this latest tournament, even with the abundant resources at the ICC's disposal, has been marred by some of the same old problems. The BCCI forcing changes to the schedule at the last minute? Tick. A lack of publicity and no TV coverage of key matches? Tick. Poor umpiring? Tick. Women's cricket may be better funded and better publicised than ever before - but there is still more to do.

What is now required from the ICC to drive the women's game forward is the same passion which the organisers of that first tournament back in 1973 displayed, ensuring that their vision for a global tournament of women's cricket came to fruition - against all the odds.

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Raf Nicholson is a PhD student, an England supporter, a feminist, and fanatical about women's cricket. She tweets here

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Keywords: Women's cricket

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Raf Nicholson
Raf Nicholson is a PhD student who spends her days (and nights) researching the history of women's cricket. Her thesis may or may not end up being titled "Cricket without the balls". She is an England supporter, a feminist, and fanatical about women's cricket, but will admit that Michael Clarke is hot stuff. She has been known to bowl entire overs of wides and to bat like Phil Tufnell, but isn't always quite this good. @RafNicholson

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