August 29, 2014

Why wasn't England v India a multi-format points series?

The future of the women's game is tied in to whether all boards agree to adopt this system

Had there been a points system for the tour, India would have started the ODIs with a psychological advantage as well © Getty Images

This time last year, I was writing a piece for the Cordon about the massive success of the multi-format women's Ashes series. I wish I could now be writing the same piece about the series against India.

I can't.

England Women's schedule against India Women this summer has consisted of one Test and three ODIs. But the Test was standalone, and the three ODIs were a series in themselves. England will now go on and play three T20s next week - but against South Africa, not India.

Why are India not staying on to play those three T20s instead? Why can we not celebrate another multi-format-points summer of international cricket? It all makes very little sense.

Assuming that England, who after all invented this points system in the first place, were in favour of another multi-format series, let's look at things from the BCCI's perspective.

Firstly, it seems bizarre that they do not want their players to participate in one of women's cricket's key formats. India's performance in the last two World T20s has been under par to say the least (in 2012, they won none of their group matches; on both occasions, they landed in the Qualification Playoff matches). Surely the BCCI want their team to be successful in a format everyone sees as key to the future of the women's game? And surely, the way to achieve success is for India to gain vital match experience against top sides before they host the next World T20, in 2016?

Secondly, it's pretty clear that most cricket boards are (understandably) in the business of maximising revenue. In women's cricket, as with its male counterpart, this means eyes on screens and bums on seats. This, of course, was one of the key success stories of last summer: a record-breaking crowd of over 3000 on the first day of the Wormsley Test match, a sell-out at the Chelmsford T20, Sky sending cameras, at the last minute, to the third ODI, in Hove. As was apparent from social media, last summer's women's Ashes had the most public interest of possibly any bilateral women's international series ever. This surely had a lot to do with the multi-format points system, which kept the interest alive through the summer.

Importantly, too, the series caught the attention of the media, who embraced the new format and the interest it created. Coverage in the national newspapers was unprecedented. The women's game at the Southampton double-header was the top sports story on the BBC's 10 o'clock news, and it made the front page of the Times the next day. Why? Because the men's game was just another T20; the women's game, thanks to the points-based system, was the match that decided the Ashes.

It is not that the Test and ODIs this year have not received good coverage in the press. But there does not seem to have been the same buzz around these matches as there was last summer. Audience figures for the Test match this month were not particularly impressive. As for television coverage, it is the three T20s against South Africa next week that are being broadcast live on Sky; sadly, none of the India matches enjoyed the same privilege. That much is not, of course, the BCCI's fault. But had India been playing in those three T20s, it would have been they who got the vital visual exposure that will now be afforded to South Africa.

Isn't exposure, and the excitement among the public that it generates, what all cricket boards want for their women cricketers? And if so, why not buy into a format that achieves these things?

In fact, there has been a tendency in the media to present the Test and the three ODIs as a "series", when in actuality the Test had no official bearing at all on the ODIs. (Otherwise Jenny Gunn, not Charlotte Edwards, would surely have been Player of the Series.) This is natural in the women's game, where, unlike in men's cricket, the squads for Tests, ODIs and T20s are almost always identical; and where, unlike in the men's schedule, there is often only a small gap to transition between two different formats - five days between the end of the Test and the first ODI, in this case. The point is that as journalists we are tasked with creating coherent stories, a narrative of the summer. That is much easier to do when all formats count towards the same trophy, and when all formats are being played against one opponent. That type of narrative also makes the battle that we are still fighting every day - getting the public to buy into women's cricket.

A case in point for all this might be the second ODI, at Scarborough, which came right down to the wire: England triumphed, in the end, by just 13 runs. Set 215 to win, we watched as India inched closer to the target, with wickets falling sporadically throughout. Might they get the runs required? It was one of those games that, even as a "neutral" member of the press, is incredibly tense to sit through.

But one reason why the public buys into a multi-format points series is that they recognise the crucial point: this type of series is a truer test of the players' strengths

Ultimately England bowled India out in the penultimate over of the game, to go 2-0 up in the ODI series. But I reflected afterwards on what might have been. Had this been a points-based series, this could have been the deciding game. How much tenser might it have been, how many more eyes might have been on the ECB's live stream, had this been a match in which India, or England, required victory, or even a tie, to take the series?

There is one final point to make: India won that one-off Test match. India, ranked seventh in the world in the ODI format, bowled out one of the world's top sides for 92. Eight of their players may have been Test debutants; they did not play like it. What we were witnessing was the performance of a team whose natural format appears to be Test match cricket.

The disappointment for the Indians is that this victory counted little when the series moved on to the 50-over format. Had it counted, had India been carrying, say, four points into the ODIs, it would have given them not only a points advantage but a huge psychological advantage. They could easily have been the champions this summer, surely?

Assuming that the BCCI are amenable to more women's Test cricket - and I so, so hope that is the case - perhaps in future they might pause for thought, and recognise that it is in their team's own interest that how they perform in their natural format should count towards the rest of the summer's cricket.

Other cricket boards need to pay attention to the lessons of this summer too. I realise that commercial realities are a factor when it comes to women's Test cricket. But one reason why the public buys into a multi-format points series is that they recognise the crucial point: this type of series is a truer test of the players' strengths. Test cricket is not just about reviving a dying format for the purists. Test matches are a different challenge; they are favoured by the players partly for that reason, as Mithali Raj made clear after her side beat England in the Test: "As a cricketer you would want to play more, as it will challenge all your endurance levels, and the mental aspect of your game," she said. Speak to any international female cricketer, anywhere in the world. They will say the same.

Test cricket, as part of an international series, makes that series more meaningful to the journalists and, more importantly, the fans. That cannot be a bad thing. Cricket boards everywhere, not just the BCCI, should take one look at this English summer, compared with the last - and recognise that multi-format points-based series are the way forward for women's cricket.

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

Comments