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August 1, 2013

Bored of watching Australia's men lose? Go watch the women

Raf Nicholson
Australia's best chance of winning the Ashes lies with their women's team  © Getty Images
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England are 2-0 up in the Ashes for the first time since 1978. The second Test was so one-sided that a 5-0 whitewash has now become a serious prospect, and Australia are scratching around for a solution to their batting woes. England fans who remember the 1990s (hi, Dad) are enjoying all this while it lasts. But others, who after that first Test were hoping for a 2005-esque summer, are now saying that such a one-sided Ashes series would be "bad for cricket".

I disagree.

The women's Ashes starts on August 11 at Wormsley: a single Test, followed by three ODIs and three T20Is. Australia's women are currently champions in all three formats, having won the 50-over World Cup earlier this year, beaten England in the final of the T20 World Cup last October, and triumphed in the last women's Ashes Test match, in Australia in early 2011. But England are on home turf, and have two key assets: the run machine that is Charlotte Edwards, and, assuming she is fit, Katherine Brunt: without doubt the best female fast bowler in the world at the moment. While Australia start as favourites, it's going to be a fantastic series, and it is likely to be a hard-fought one.

It is sad but undeniable that often, when there is a particularly exciting men's Ashes series under way, the women's version has tended to be ignored. Take that famous series in 2005: the nation was glued to cricket for the whole summer, England's men became national heroes overnight, everyone began their love-hate relationship with KP, and Flintoff got wasted. It was a historic victory. But something even more historic had taken place at Worcester: England's women had won a Test against Australia, taken the series 1-0, and regained their version of the Ashes for the first time in 42 years. (Sixteen years without winning them doesn't seem like such a long wait, does it?) If you don't remember media coverage of that event… well, let's just say it's not due to your poor memory. England's victory was completely overshadowed by the achievement of their male counterparts.

Four years later, in 2009, England women had one of the best years a team could possibly have in cricket. They won the 50-over World Cup in Australia, beat the Aussies 4-0 in the ODI series in England, and triumphed in the final of the women's World Twenty20 against New Zealand at Lord's. There is a prestigious BBC award, presented annually to the group of players considered to be Sports Team of the Year, and England women fully deserved to win it. Many fans of the women's game thought it was a dead cert at the time. But 2009 was the summer of another men's Ashes victory against Australia at home, and this once again obscured everything England women had achieved. Sure enough, the men's team claimed the BBC's award, and that was that. It still rankles.

It is sad but undeniable that often, when there is a particularly exciting men's Ashes series under way, the women's version has tended to be ignored

Compare this with arguably the last time a men's Ashes series in England looked this one-sided - back in 1993, when the boot was firmly on the other foot. England lost three of the first four Tests by margins of 179 runs, an innings and 62 runs, and an innings and 148 runs (the third Test was drawn). England's bowling was horribly weak, and the desperation of the selectors was clear when they called up Australian fast bowler Martin McCague - "the rat who joined a sinking ship", as he was labelled at the time by the Aussie press. England went on to lose the series 1-4; it was a low point for English cricket supporters.

But there was a silver lining. Amid that disastrous series, the women's World Cup was taking place in England, and England's women were facing Australia at Guildford, in a must-win match for both sides. It was July 26, the same day on which England's men succumbed to an innings defeat against Australia in the fourth Ashes Test at Headingley. It was a time for England women to step in and show the men how it was done. They put up 208 in 60 overs, which included a beautiful century from Carole Hodges, and England's medium-pacer Gill Smith followed it up by taking 5 for 30, a better performance than most of England's male bowlers managed all series. Australia were all out for 165, and were knocked out of the tournament. And England were through to the final.

Suddenly the pride of a nation rested on its women cricketers. And when they went on to beat New Zealand in the final at Lord's by 67 runs, the unthinkable had happened: an English cricket team were world champions, and the press went mad. England women were on the front (and back) pages of every newspaper in the country. "Queen's of Lord's. Our Cup heroines show the blokes how it's done," proclaimed the Sun. "Karen's [Smithies'] all-stars show Fletcher flops the way," blared the Daily Express. The Independent went with: "This is the way to do it, chaps". And Mike Selvey, writing in the Guardian, was utterly won over: "Make no mistake, these are terrific cricketers," he declared. It was the most media attention women's cricket had garnered since the first World Cup decades previously, in 1973.

Ideally, of course, people should be paying attention to women's cricket independently of what may or may not be happening in the men's game. But history shows that often it is the times when it appears to be more closely fought and ultimately more exciting than the men's game that women's cricket wins the most converts to its cause.

Maybe a 5-0 English victory in the men's Ashes wouldn't be such a bad thing for cricket after all.

There is also, of course, the question of national pride. The Compton stand on the Saturday of the Lord's Test was half filled with Australians, and the noisiest one of them was the woman sat next to me, who had clearly turned up purely to ogle Michael Clarke (fair play to her), and demanded to be informed of the rules as the day's play unfolded. "Quiet Australian cricket supporters" is a bit of an oxymoron, isn't it?

Jarrod Kimber suggested after the last Test that the Aussies who have paid A$8000 to accompany their team on tour to England might well want to ask for their money back. I've got a better idea. Go and see your women's team play at Wormsley (tickets are just £10 a day in advance, £15 at the gate) or Lord's, Hove, Chelmsford, Southampton or Durham (tickets are in the region of £15 per match) - and watch some actual competitive cricket.

It's the best chance you'll have to see an Australian victory this summer.

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

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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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