August 10, 2015

Make the multi-format points system universal

Cricket boards can take a cue from the success of the women's Ashes to make bilateral series more exciting

The multi-format Ashes is now the premier event in the women's international calendar; everything in between is at best given minimal coverage © Getty Images

We are currently amidst the biggest bilateral women's cricket series ever. The 2015 women's Ashes will go down in history as having had some of the biggest audiences at women's internationals in England in decades (over 3000 spectators at Taunton and Bristol), and the best print coverage in English newspapers since England Women won the 1993 World Cup final at Lord's. The press box is heaving. And the Test match that starts this week in Canterbury will be shown live on Sky Sports from start to finish: the first women's Test to be broadcast ball by ball on television.

This is all great news for the women's game. Yet there is the lingering question: will it last?

As the situation stands, it's unlikely. The press box on England's tour to New Zealand earlier this year was almost empty. Coverage of the Australia's whitewashes against Pakistan and West Indies last year was minimal. Sky's undertaking to broadcast this series is, thus far, a one-off commitment.

This is a real problem for the women's game: that the multi-format Ashes is now the premier event in the women's international calendar, and everything in between is at best given minimal coverage and at worst ignored completely. It needs to be tackled.

How? The obvious answer is to ensure that each series is as exciting as all the recent Ashes encounters. There are two reasons why the women's Ashes has captured the imagination of the public and the media so vividly. Firstly, the cricket is of excellent quality. I have raved about the Perth Test match of January 2014 before; suffice to say here that it is without doubt the most exciting four days of Test cricket I have ever seen. This series thus far has not disappointed either. Five direct-hit run-outs to date, including three by England in the first ODI in what can only be termed a fielding masterclass. And you won't find a better allrounder in world cricket right now than Ellyse Perry.

There's also the series format: designed to keep public interest high in a contest that was previously decided by just one Test match. Now, with points available across all three formats, each match matters. No pointless one-off T20s here. And, importantly, it retains the Test - still seen by most cricketers and fans as the pinnacle format - as the centrepiece. It's pretty clear that this new multi-format approach has been an overwhelming success since it was introduced in 2013.

Can we replicate this in other bilateral series? It's a tricky one. The current problem in women's cricket is that England and Australia are pulling ahead of the other nations. The last World Cup in 2013, which featured Sri Lanka's first ever win against England and the appearance of West Indies in the final, was widely proclaimed as evidence that the other countries were finally "catching up". Yet since then both Cricket Australia and the ECB have introduced lucrative contracts for their women players - lucrative enough that some players in each team can now afford to go professional. It's the biggest investment in women cricketers by any cricket board(s) in the history of the sport.

The multi-format system will ensure that each series contains at least one Test © Getty Images

While most other countries do now have contract systems in place for their women cricketers, their earnings simply do not match up to those of the English and Australian players. The ECB's contracts are reportedly worth up to £50,000 annually; CA's top players are earning up to A$85,000. Meanwhile the ten New Zealand players offered contracts in July 2014 are earning a mere US$12,000, and all still need day jobs in order to make ends meet.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out that if you can spend all or the majority of your time playing cricket, you are going to reap the benefits in the quality of your performances on the field. "We were able to be really thorough in our preparations," said England captain Charlotte Edwards before this series began. "The mental side of the game, the physical side, our preparation in terms of skills, the analysis side. The time on the task aspect is going to stand us in good stead."

Meanwhile, two of New Zealand's top players, Sara McGlashan and Erin Bermingham, were forced to miss their side's recent tour to India due to work commitments. For fans who want to see the best playing the best, this must have been a disappointment. It prevents the highest-quality cricket being on show.

It seems, too, that for whatever reason, other cricket boards are reluctant to adopt the multi-format system for future bilateral women's series. Take last summer, when England and India faced each other in three ODIs and a one-off Test match. The ECB apparently suggested that the series be played along the same lines as the women's Ashes, with points available for each format; the BCCI rejected the idea. As for the other boards, the key objection is presumably the staging of the Test match, given how reluctant bodies like New Zealand Cricket seem to be to support women's Test cricket.

Both these problems could easily be tackled by the ICC, which claims that the future development and growth of women's cricket is a firm priority. Firstly, they could demand that a certain percentage of cricket board revenue is devoted to financing contracts for their women players, thus helping to ensure that their women cricketers become at least semi-professional.

Secondly, they could mandate that the format in place for the women's Ashes is used for all future bilateral women's cricket series. Already, they have put in place the ICC Women's Championship: effectively a Future Tours Programme for women's cricket, with each of the top eight nations required to play each other in a minimum of three ODIs prior to the next World Cup in 2017, to determine who qualifies automatically for the tournament. Why not go one step further and state that in addition to these ODIs, teams must also participate in a Test and three T20s, all worth a specified number of points?

These would be radical steps women's cricket needs to take if it is to continue to expand its coverage and thereby grow its audience. Perhaps then I might be sitting in a full press box whenever England play a home or away series - not just when they're playing Australia.

Now that really would be a great legacy of this summer's women's Ashes, whoever lifts the trophy come August 31.

Raf Nicholson is a PhD student, an England supporter, a feminist, and fanatical about women's cricket. @RafNicholson