The belated rise of West Indies women
Anyone who knows anything about cricket knows about the West Indies team of the 1980s.
Greenidge. Lloyd. Marshall. Holding. Garner. Richards. Walsh. All greats of the game, all names that conjure up instant recognition.
How about Gill? Or Whittaker? Or Browne? Heard of any of them?
That's probably because none of them played a single international cricket match in the 1980s. They were West Indians and they were very good cricketers - but they were women. And while their male counterparts were dominating world cricket, West Indies women in the 1980s couldn't even afford to go on one international tour.
Less than two months ago, West Indies played in their first Women's World Cup final. To get there, they beat two of the world's top teams, including Australia, who are now world champions in every format of the game. It was a tournament of firsts: the first time West Indies had ever beaten either Australia or New Zealand in a 50-over game (what an occasion to do it), and the first time any team outside of Australia, New Zealand, England and India had featured in a World Cup final.
It was the culmination of the spectacular rise of West Indies over the past four years, fuelled by the brilliance of players like Deandra Dottin and Stafanie Taylor. Since 2009, they have won ODI and T20 series' against both England and India, and made the semi-finals of the last two World Twenty20 tournaments, achieving two huge upsets in the process: beating England by two runs in 2010, and New Zealand by seven wickets in 2012. This is even more impressive when you realise that, before this recent World Cup, upsets in women's cricket were rarer than Geoff Boycott hitting a six in a Test match.
But what few people realise is that all this should really have come thirty years earlier.
The West Indies' involvement in women's international cricket predates that of India. By 1970, women's associations existed in Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados, Grenada, St Vincent, Guyana and St Lucia. In 1970, an England XI toured Jamaica and a year later Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago competed in a triangular tournament, hosted by T&T, against an England side captained by Rachael Heyhoe-Flint.
Teams from Trinidad & Tobago and Jamaica participated in the inaugural Women's World Cup in 1973. India did not. Neither of the Caribbean teams got anywhere near the final but, given that this was the first official international cricket they had ever played, they performed impressively: both teams beat a Young England side featuring Sue Goatman and Megan Lear, future stars of the England squad, and Jamaica came within touching distance of beating an International XI made up of players from all the competing countries. Heyhoe-Flint wrote in 1978 that the Jamaica team she had faced in 1970 was "surprisingly good. They possessed many of the qualities of the West Indian men, particularly in the field."
The Caribbean Women's Cricket Federation (CWCF) was founded in late 1973, with the aim of developing a West Indies team to compete on the international stage. They were successful. In 1976, Australia, the second-best women's team in the world, toured the West Indies and played two Test matches. Both were drawn. Later that year India hosted West Indies in another six-Test series. The two teams were reasonably evenly matched, winning one Test each.
Then, in June 1979, West Indies arrived for their first ever tour of England.
It started with two one-day internationals. One was rained off, England won the other by 8 wickets; Enid Bakewell took 3 for 22, Heyhoe-Flint hit an unbeaten fifty. These were followed by three Tests. England won the first by a huge margin, nine wickets. The second Test was drawn, but England had the best of it, running out of time to hit the 151 they needed for victory in the fourth innings. The final Test was closer, but England eventually triumphed by 24 runs, thanks largely to scores of 68 and 112 not out and figures of 3 for 14 and 7 for 61 from their leading allrounder Bakewell. So far, so good for England.
But then came the third ODI, played at an obscure ground in Shireoaks, Nottinghamshire. Somehow, in the course of 55 overs, West Indies restricted England to 167 for 6 - and then struggled their way to 169 for 8, hitting the winning runs with only 2 balls remaining. Those names you hadn't heard of earlier? They were the star players that day. Gloria Gill opened their innings, making 31. Louise Browne, batting at No. 3, made 45. And Patricia Whittaker, captaining the side, took 3 for 36, including the vital wicket of Heyhoe-Flint, and made 40 not out.
At this time, England were probably the best women's team in the world. Three of the greatest women ever to play the game - Heyhoe-Flint, Bakewell, Janette Brittin - were in the squad. A West Indies victory was just not in the script at any point before or during this tour - but it happened. It has been largely forgotten about but, if you want to talk about West Indies causing upsets, let's talk about this one, yeah?
In the wake of this, by the end of 1979, West Indies looked to be on the brink of becoming a very special side.
What happened next? Nothing very much. That was the problem. The CWCF, an amateur organisation staffed by volunteers - like all women's cricket associations back in the 1980s - had very few resources at its disposal, and what money they did have had been spent on those first three tours. Hosting was out of the question. As for sending a team overseas, the players would have had to stump up for their own air fares and, without CWCF help, very few of them could afford it. West Indies did not enter the 1978, 1982 or 1988 World Cups and they did not play in another bilateral international tour until 2003, against Sri Lanka.
West Indies did enter a team for the 1997 World Cup, losing to Sri Lanka in their group match by six wickets. At this point, the Sri Lanka women's team had been in existence for less than 12 months. West Indies failed to even qualify for the 2000 tournament. It was humiliating. But given how much international match practice the team had had prior to the 1997 tournament (ie. none), it was not really surprising.
Other teams also struggled financially during the 1980s and 1990s, of course. But the majority had some support from government, or their national men's cricket boards, or both. It seems incredibly bizarre that at a time when West Indies men were on top of the world and reaping the benefits, the WICB would fail to promote the women's game, or support it financially. Nonetheless, this is what happened.
As for Whittaker, Gill and Browne? None of them ever played in an international match again.
West Indies are now a strongly competitive team; they should be applauded for everything they have achieved in the past four years, and I'm sure they will feature in many finals in the years to come. But, in large part, their recent success has come as a result of investment from the WICB, who in 2010 introduced central contracts for female players for the first time. What I wonder, is this: if there had been a little more investment, a little more support, back in 1979, in the wake of that first victory over a leading team, might West Indies women have won a World Cup by now?
The Women's Cricket Association of India was also formed in 1973 and, despite not entering a team in the first World Cup, India went on to play regular international cricket in the following decades. In only their second Test series against Australia, played in India in 1984, they held them to draws in all four Test matches. Ever since, they have achieved an impressive record against the three giants of the women's game, England, Australia and New Zealand. They featured in the final of the 2005 World Cup and, in the last Test match they played, at Taunton in 2006, they beat England by five wickets. Since 1979, India have been a force to be reckoned with in international women's cricket.
It could have been the Windies.
Raf Nicholson is a PhD student, an England supporter, a feminist, and fanatical about women's cricket. She tweets here