Why cricket needs women's Tests
There is no denying that 2014 has been a special year for women's cricket (read back through my Cordon columns if you're sceptical). Many events have conspired to make this a historic year. And one of those things - though few have chosen to dwell on it - is that three women's Test matches have been played over the past 12 months.
Three might not sound like very many. But the last time three women's Tests took place in the space of a calendar year was in 2005. That's a pretty long time ago.
In fact, between August 2007 and July 2014, the only women's Test cricket came in the form of the one-off Ashes matches. It is no wonder that women's Test cricket is widely acknowledged as dying. Gone are the days - in fact, the first 68 years of international women's cricket history - when a women's Test series of three (or more) Test matches was the norm. Now we are lucky to get three Tests between three different sets of opponents across 12 months.
And we have been mightily lucky this year. Remember that England-Australia Test at the WACA, back in January? Four days of the most tense and exciting cricket I have ever seen, in which neither side was on top for more than a session at a time.
I remember the first day, sitting up in the press box, still jet-lagged, watching Australia bowl England out for 201 and despairing. As it transpired, it was a low-scoring pitch - the highest total of the game was Australia's first-innings score of 207 - and the quick bowlers on both sides dominated. The tension lasted right up until the final morning as Ellyse Perry and Sarah Elliott began to hit out and Australia's fourth-innings target of 185 looked eminently gettable, but then England turned things around again, and triumphed by 61 runs.
Then there was England's encounter against India in Wormsley in August. I said to a friend before it started that I would eat my hat if India - a team containing eight Test debutants, captained by someone who had not played in a single Test since 2006 - beat England, the newly professional and now best-paid female cricketers in the world.
My hat did not taste good.
I watched in amazement as India bowled England out for 92, their lowest total against India in Tests, and then routed them again a second time: the highest score by an England player all match was No. 8 Jenny Gunn's 62 not out in the second innings. It may have been a green wicket, but it was still a poor batting display that ultimately cost England the match.
Disappointing for an England fan, maybe, but watching the blossoming talent of 18-year-old Smriti Mandhana, who made batting against one of the best attacks in the world look easy, was a cricket fan's delight. My dad - who has been watching men's Test cricket since forever, and is a recent convert to the women's version - said that it was some of the most entertaining cricket he has watched live.
It was then announced that India, who were due to host South Africa for three Women's Championship ODIs, would also play them in a one-off Test match in November. This was the first Test not involving England since 2007, and though it was sadly not televised, just reading about it was exciting: statistical records were broken left, right and centre as India raced to their first innings victory in women's Tests. Mignon du Preez, playing in the first Test of her career, seized the rare opportunity for a Test century, and Thirush Kamini and Poonam Raut starred for India in a 275-run second-wicket partnership, the second-highest partnership ever for any wicket in women's Tests. Kamini's 192 also puts her at No. 8 on the all-time highest individual scores in women's Tests.
Why am I harping on about the excitement of these three Tests? Because many have suggested that we should abandon women's Test cricket altogether. Cricket Australia, among others, apparently believes that it is not commercially viable, that it will not help to grow the game, that it is unprofitable, and that the money spent hosting Tests should go towards any number of other worthy causes, such as paying the players. Back in August, Clare Connor described women's Tests as "hanging by a thread".
I find this both immensely sad and incredibly worrying. It is not that I do not realise that staging women's Tests costs money. But I consider it of fundamental importance that we do not let women's Test cricket die - ever.
Why? There are so many reasons. One is that the Test format produces the sort of enthralling matches that I have just described, in a way that no other kind of cricket can. For four days, different teams edge their way in front, then fall behind; tactics are carefully reconsidered, over by over, session by session; there is time, so much time, for thinking, and for nerves, and for great innings; for the gentle unfolding of a narrative which no one could have predicted. Test cricket also showcases the players' talents like nothing else. When else would an Indian woman be able to take 541 minutes to patiently acquire 192 runs, as Kamini did earlier this month?
Women's cricket is not just about profit maximisation, or it shouldn't be. It is about increasing the fan base of a sport which is still in relative infancy; and here is where those who do not believe Test cricket has a part to play in growing the women's game are wrong. How can watching that England-Australia Test match at the WACA have failed to impress and excite sceptics?
Here is another good reason: the players love Test cricket. When asked, they are unified in their desire to play more Tests - as many as possible. Du Preez, Meg Lanning, Charlotte Edwards, Mithali Raj: captains line up to tell the media that Test cricket is the biggie as far as they, and their teams, are concerned. Why does no one listen? And why should women be denied the privilege of participating in the format that cricket fans still universally recognise as the pinnacle of any cricketers career?
The weight of history lies behind this placing of Test cricket on a pedestal. Women have been playing Tests since December 1934; women's cricket associations across the world cared so much about the format that they spent years organising jumble sales and raffles in order to be able to afford to stage Test matches. To let women's Test cricket die would be to close the door on many years of history, and to send the message to all the women who fought so hard for Test cricket that now that women's cricket is administered largely by men, their efforts no longer matter.
In fact, I am often left wondering why, if amateur cricketing bodies could afford to stage Test series, it is such a big deal for the multi-million-dollar-making enterprises that are modern-day cricket boards to stump up the cash to do so?
If none of these arguments convince you, perhaps this will: if we let women's Test cricket die, you can bet that men's Test cricket won't be far behind. England, Australia and New Zealand Women have all been playing Test cricket far longer than men's teams from Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The triumph of commercialism would surely spell the death knell for some men's Test encounters, even if the men's Ashes were to survive. Indeed, as with the onset of overarm bowling and the decision to hold a cricket World Cup, what happens first in women's cricket generally trickles through into the men's game eventually. Do you care about Test match cricket? If so, you should care about women's Test match cricket.
Perhaps the fact that the powerhouse of international cricket, the BCCI, now appears to be getting behind women's Test cricket means that the format is safe for now. I hope so. Because even in the days of the billion-dollar industry that is T20 cricket, Test cricket is a unique and special format that should never die. So here it is, my impassioned plea: let's fight for its survival together.
Raf Nicholson is a PhD student, an England supporter, a feminist, and fanatical about women's cricket. @RafNicholson