April 13, 2014

The unseen cricket of our modern times

The Women's World T20 was scheduled to run alongside the men's seemingly to make it more visible. But it wasn't

South Africa celebrate their first win over New Zealand © ICC

Once upon a time, the greatest events in cricket history went unseen, and unheard, except by the lucky few who were present at the ground when they took place. Then the cricket broadcasting revolution happened, and everything changed. The first televised cricket was screened by the BBC in 1938, from Lord's and The Oval - and suddenly, the best bits of Len Hutton's 364 against Australia were on record forever. Since 1957, the BBC has had ball-by-ball commentary for every (men's) Test played in England; England's 1989-90 tour of the West Indies became the first overseas tour broadcast live in the UK.

Nowadays, we live in a world where the best moments in cricket are not just numbers on a page, but images imprinted on our memories: Graham Gooch raising his bat on making 300 at Lord's in 1990; the blood draining from Herschelle Gibbs' face as he dropped the World Cup; the excruciating end to the 2005 Edgbaston Test, where whole nations were glued to their screens until the final ball. It's become a world where, as Lawrence Booth put it in Wisden in 2011, "armchair viewers expect their cricket on a plate, with side helpings of Hawk-Eye, Hot-Spot and High Definition". We watch cricket, and we live it, as it unfolds before our eyes.

The days where the most significant moments in world cricket were things we read about after the event, with only our imaginations to supply the visuals, are over. All that was just once upon a time.

Wasn't it?

Records tumbled and upsets happened aplenty at the Women's World T20, which finished last week. Did you know that? In Australia's group match against Ireland, Meg Lanning, Australia's stand-in captain for the tournament, hit a spectacular 126 off 65 balls, including four sixes. In England's match against Bangladesh, Charlotte Edwards' 80 took her to 2000 runs in T20Is, making her the first cricketer, man or woman, to reach that milestone. India swept to a surprising nine-wicket victory in their final group match against semi-finalists West Indies, thanks to half-centuries from Mithali Raj and Poonam Raut. And South Africa pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the history of women's cricket, as they raced to a five-wicket victory over New Zealand - their first international win against the Kiwis.

I can tell you these things happened, and I can point you to the scorecards. But can I tell you how "Megastar" looked when she reached her century? Or if Edwards showed any sign of realising that she had reached that 2000-run milestone? Or how exactly the Saffas celebrated when Chloe Tryon hit those winning runs, when the semi-final spot was theirs?

No, I can't. I can't because I wasn't there - and because a precise total of none of the above events were broadcast on TV.

"Once upon a time" is still the here and now for women's cricket.

Of course, I suppose I should be grateful. Because the TV executives did, after all, deem the semi-finals and the final of the women's tournament worthy of coverage: meaning I got to see 1) the most ridiculous comedy run-out ever in the England-South Africa semi-final (Sune Luus and Tryon from South Africa collided mid-pitch and toppled to the floor like dominoes), and 2) Australia mullering England in the final. (Not to mention every ball of England men's loss to Netherlands, in glorious technicolour.)

Lucky, lucky me.

ESPNcricinfo's recent poll suggests that the main argument in favour of the Women's World T20 being staged alongside the men's tournament is: "Women's cricket gets more visibility and publicity from such tournaments being hosted alongside the men's game."

It does?

During last year's 50-over Women's World Cup in India, six out of the 12 group matches were broadcast. Last year, I actually got to watch Eshani Lokusuriyage's incredibly exciting strokeplay as she took her team to their first victory against England in an international match. This time around, those of us following the group stage women's matches had to do so by staring at the ICC's live scorecards on our computer screens, with an often interminable gap between vital deliveries. We did get three minutes of highlights from each match after the event - but with one camera angle only, which at times offered as much insight into the action as a telescope turned the wrong way round.

The coverage of last year's World Cup may have been far from perfect - but if I have to choose between being able to watch 50% of the group stages of a World Cup on TV, and none of it, I know which one I'd pick.

Why the difference? I'd hazard a guess that it had a lot to do with the fact that this time around, women cricketers were competing directly with their male counterparts for airtime. Here in the UK, for instance, the BBC seemed to think that it had more of a public duty to broadcast matches featuring men's teams from New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and the West Indies than it did to broadcast England Women's matches taking place simultaneously. And you're really trying to tell me that a women's cricket tournament coupled to its male counterpart is better for the game than a standalone one?

If the ICC is serious about promoting women's cricket, the way forward is surely a completely separate women's tournament. Either that, or they need to make sure that when they enter into agreements with broadcasters, those broadcasters are willing to give equal coverage to the women's tournament as to the men's one. If this Women's World T20 has demonstrated anything, it is surely that the group stages of the women's tournament would have made equally compelling viewing to the men's group stages.

I have spent many a day reading reports and scorecards of women's cricket matches from bygone eras, which I would dearly love to be able to see television footage of: the day that Betty Wilson took four wickets in five balls, including a hat-trick, in the 1958 Melbourne Test match; the tied ODI between Australia and England during the 1982 World Cup; Belinda Clark's 229 in an ODI against Denmark, during the 1997 World Cup in India. So many of those moments are gone forever because the matches simply weren't broadcast.

Isn't it about time we stopped missing them?

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

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