New Zealand's frustrating decline in women's cricket
There may be a men's World Cup taking place, but England Women are also currently in New Zealand, just beginning a month-long tour there which will consist of five ODIs and three T20Is. They started the tour as clear favourites; prior to the disaster of the first ODI this week, they had not lost an international against the Kiwis since summer 2010, and, and on their last tour there in early 2012 they won every game they played. "I can't even remember losing to them," captain Charlotte Edwards said, on the day the England squad was announced back in January.
It is a far cry from the situation just over 14 years ago, when another World Cup was taking place in New Zealand, in November and December 2000: the women's version. If Edwards thought back hard enough, she might remember (and then wish she hadn't) that England's performance during that tournament was pretty dismal. They lost not just to New Zealand, but to Australia and India, and also to South Africa, who had rejoined the international fold only three years earlier. They were knocked out without even reaching the semi-finals.
By contrast, New Zealand reached the final with ease. Then, in a nail-biter against reigning champions Australia - the Australians needed five runs off the last over with one wicket in hand - it was the Kiwis who triumphed.
It was the apogee for the most successful New Zealand team which the women's game has ever seen. The journey had begun eight years earlier, in 1992, when the New Zealand Women's Cricket Council amalgamated into the men's governing body, New Zealand Cricket. It was the first merger of its kind, and it worked wonders. The national side were suddenly receiving coaching from top coaches, including former international Martin Crowe. Women were included in elite academy programmes for the first time. Sponsorship and media coverage increased. And participation numbers at all levels sky-rocketed.
New Zealand spent the 1990s showing the world what could be achieved if female cricketers worked in conjunction with their male counterparts. They defied the odds to reach the final of the 1993 World Cup, thumping Australia by ten wickets on the way, and they went on to repeat the feat in the 1997 tournament. On their 1996 tour of England, they won all three ODIs, and the contrast between the two sides was palpable. The Kiwis had paid leave from work; NZC were paying the mortgages of some of the squad for the duration of the tour; and they were offered prize money in return for their success. The England team could not even afford to meet and train as a squad until the evening before the first ODI, and some had to return to work between matches.
New Zealand, though, pioneered the way for other women's cricket associations to follow. In 1998, the English Women's Cricket Association merged with the newly formed ECB. In 2003, the Australian women became part of the new governing body of the sport, Cricket Australia. And in 2005, the ICC took over formal control of the women's game and declared that all women's cricket associations needed to amalgamate with their men's cricket boards.
Money and resources flowed into women's cricket globally like never before.
For a while the rest of the world were still playing catch-up. New Zealand were a formidable force in women's cricket throughout the early 2000s. They made it to the semi-finals of the 2005 World Cup, and they reached the finals of both the World Cup and the inaugural Women's World Twenty20 in 2009.
But in recent years, the levels of investment in women's cricket in England and Australia have raced far ahead of that made by New Zealand Cricket. Since May 2013, the Australian women's cricket team have new contracts that enable top players to earn up to AUS$80,000, with a minimum retainer of AUS$25,000. The England players have had semi-professional coaching contracts in place since 2008, and last year were made fully professional by the ECB, with players now reportedly earning up to £50,000.
Suddenly, it is New Zealand who are falling behind. And their recent performances reflect that. They lost out on a place in the 2014 World Twenty20 semi-finals after a shock five-wicket loss to South Africa. They were whitewashed by West Indies in ODIs last September. And they ended 2014 bottom of the International Women's Championship table on points. The Women's Championship will decide who qualifies automatically for the 2017 Women's World Cup, and right now - that first shock victory against England aside - New Zealand look dangerously close to not doing so.
The 2000 tournament remains the only time New Zealand have ever lifted a global women's cricket trophy.
New Zealand Cricket needs to up its game as far as investment in the women's game goes. There are positive signs: last July it announced that ten of its female cricketers had been awarded annual playing contracts worth up to $12,000 annually. But players are still required to supplement their income with coaching, or with jobs outside of the game. And the worry is that if the new ICC Big Three arrangements lead to less revenue-sharing, it will become harder for cricket boards to justify investment in women's cricket. It's a big worry, and it's surely one that the players are very aware of.
Because ultimately, money is still (almost) everything in women's cricket. In 2009, when New Zealand lost to England in the final of the Women's World Twenty20 at Lord's, their coach Gary Stead described it as "like the amateurs playing the professionals". Six years on, as this series between England and New Zealand begins, that really is the case. Players juggling cricket with a career are always going to struggle against fitter players, who train year-round and think about nothing but the sport. And money needs to trickle down to grassroots level, too, to bring girls and women to the game in the first place, and to ensure that talent is not lost at any stage of development.
We can only hope that cricket boards like NZC continue to see the benefits of investing in the female half of the population. Because, as the above shows, it's cold hard cash, invested wisely, that wins you World Cups. And it'd be nice if Suzie Bates, one of the best players of her generation, at least had a shot at emulating Emily Drumm's 2000 feat, and waving the trophy aloft in 2017.
Raf Nicholson is a PhD student, an England supporter, a feminist, and fanatical about women's cricket. @RafNicholson