A chance for Pakistan's women to grow in stature
England women's summer of cricket began with the first of two ODIs against Pakistan. It will be followed by two T20Is between the same teams. Pakistan are currently eighth in the unofficial women's ODI rankings, following their last-place finish in the World Cup earlier this year, and England, who finished third, will be expected to win these matches easily.
Sometimes, though, cricket matches are about much more than winning or losing.
Pakistan first played international cricket at the beginning of 1997. The team had been formed the previous year by sisters Shaiza and Sharmeen Khan, whose father had a carpet business in Karachi and Lahore, which acted as sponsor. Shaiza and Sharmeen had studied at Leeds, played for their university's women's team, and been inspired to form a national team when they went to watch the 1993 World Cup final at Lord's. They secured International Women's Cricket Council membership for Pakistan in September 1996, and this made Pakistan eligible for the 1997 World Cup, held in India.
Pakistan's early international record was abysmal. Their first tour was a two-match ODI series in New Zealand. The Kiwis won the first match by ten wickets, and in the second match scored 455 and proceeded to bowl Pakistan out for 47 in 23 overs. At the World Cup later that year, Pakistan played five matches, and lost every single one, by margins of eight wickets, 230 runs, nine wickets, 149 runs, and 182 runs.
In their first ODI against England, in the group stages of the tournament, England finished at 376 for 2 after 50 overs, beating the previous highest World Cup total by almost 100 runs, with Barbara Daniels scoring an unbeaten 142 off 103 balls. For Pakistan, the most economical bowling figures were Sharmeen Khan's 64 off ten overs (no wickets). And, in the shortest game of World Cup cricket, Australia bowled Pakistan out for just 27, and ended up winning by nine wickets with 263 balls remaining.
The debate about precisely which teams should have Full Member status at the ICC continues to rage in men's cricket, and is given added potency by the fact that Ireland have recently made such a strong case for being granted Test status. In the men's game, it is poor performances from Bangladesh and Zimbabwe that provide a case for the removal of Test status from weak sides. In the women's game, back in 1997, it was the terrible record of Pakistan that gave pause for thought.
Eleven teams contested the 1997 World Cup - Australia, Denmark, England, Netherlands, India, Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and West Indies - and the scheduling was a nightmare. And some of the matches not involving Pakistan also produced frankly ridiculous results: Australia beat Denmark by 363 runs, England beat Ireland by 208 runs, New Zealand beat Sri Lanka by 165 runs.
In the wake of this, the IWCC made the decision that only the top eight teams from the 1997 tournament would contest the next World Cup. And when the ICC took over the running of the women's game in 2005, they decided that only the top ten ranked teams in women's cricket should have ODI status. Two of the teams that participated in that 1997 tournament - Denmark and Netherlands - have since had their ODI status revoked. Given some of the above results, that must make sense, right?
I'm not so sure, and Pakistan, who have managed to retain their ODI status despite those early performances, are a good example of why poor results should not necessarily mean a "downgrade". Participating in that first World Cup gave women's cricket in Pakistan a huge boost. The sport had been played there since 1979, when Tahira Hameed set up the Pakistan Women's Cricket Association, but it had struggled on with little support. The chance to play in the World Cup led the team to invite an Austalian coach, Jodie Davis, sponsored by the Australian Sports Commission, to come and train them.
It was the World Cup that led to the army giving them a ground in Lahore to practice on, in the weeks leading up to the tournament. And it was seeing their fellow countrywomen participating at international level - 4000 spectators watched their match against England, and there was some media coverage - that led to a massive increase in uptake of the sport by Pakistani girls and women. There are now estimated to be several thousand women playing cricket in Pakistan; back in 1997 there were less than a hundred.
Eventually, of course, all this led to the decision by the Pakistan Cricket Board in 2011 to offer contracts to its female players. Seventeen contracts were awarded in 2012, and the top women players are now paid Rs50,000, or about $500, annually to represent their country at cricket. Their performances are improving accordingly. Last year, at the 2012 Women's World T20, they beat India by one run in a last-ball thriller.
They may have finished in last place back in 1997, but Pakistan won in other ways. Would all this have happened if they had never been given ODI status? Unlikely.
But, you might ask, why the last-place World Cup finish earlier this year? Unfortunately it remains the case that Pakistan are not playing enough high-level women's cricket, and this is hindering further development. They are victims of the continued ICC policy of playing almost no women's Test cricket, only ever having participated in three Tests, the last against West Indies back in 2004. The ODI in Louth on July 1 was, in the 16 years Pakistan have been playing international women's cricket, only the third time they have faced England in a 50-over match. They came close to not being able to participate in the recent World Cup at all.
That is why this series against England, as well as the ODI and T20s which Pakistan have just played against England Academy, and the T20Is which were played in England last summer, are so important. The series, believe it or not, is the first bilateral ODI series ever to have been played between the two countries, and the ECB should be applauded for their recent moves to organise matches against the Pakistanis. Yes, results matter. But the fact that the two teams are playing each other at all matters too.
The ICC has just announced that the top three teams at the women's World T20 Qualifiers which take place in Ireland next month will participate in the 2014 tournament, instead of just the winner, which will allow both Pakistan and Sri Lanka to qualify. This is an encouraging sign. But the ICC needs also to recognise that participating in qualifying tournaments is not necessarily enough for developing women's sides; that granting ODI status can have a very positive effect, and that conversely, removal of ODI status solves nothing.
Pakistan have at least participated in the last two World Cups and the last three World T20s, as well as an ODI series against the West Indies in 2011. Since 2006, Netherlands may have played against Ireland and Scotland in the biannual Women's European Championships, but they now almost never have the opportunity to face any of the top-ranked teams in international women's cricket. Denmark finished tenth at the 1997 tournament, did not qualify for the 2000 World Cup, and their women's team has now all but disappeared.
The ICC's Females in World Cricket strategy, which aims to get a million females playing the game globally by the end of 2015 (numbers are currently estimated at around 700,000), is admirable. But isn't the way to encourage more women to play cricket to open up the women's game by granting more countries ODI status? And isn't it the ICC's responsibility to ensure that the weaker teams have the opportunity to play the stronger ones more frequently? It seems to me that the recent history of women's cricket in Pakistan - whatever their results against England this week - demonstrates precisely these points.
Raf Nicholson is a PhD student, an England supporter, a feminist, and fanatical about women's cricket. She tweets here