January 20, 2016

The women's Big Bash rings in a new era

The tournament's success is hugely encouraging. Finally the women's game is being understood and appreciated for what it is

It's a hit: the crowds are coming in and the broadcasters are lining up WBBL matches in prime time © Cricket Australia/Getty Images

If I was writing a school report about the inaugural Women's Big Bash League, I know the two words that would appear at the top: "Exceeds expectations".

It would be fair to say that before the tournament kicked off on December 5, nobody quite knew what to expect. How would the public react? Would anyone even show up? Last time the women's Ashes was held in Australia, two years ago, crowd numbers were disappointing to say the least. It still makes me sad that when I reported on that incredible Test match in Perth in January 2014, almost no one was watching it from the stands. And that was an international game.

A women's state domestic T20 competition in Australia has been running since 2007-08. Levels of interest in the domestic women's game in Australia - just as elsewhere around the world - have remained minimal. Coming from that background, the explosion of attention that has surrounded the WBBL over the last six weeks is hard to believe.

We have seen a crowd of nearly 13,000 at the MCG to watch a domestic women's game. We have seen viewing figures for the tournament peaking above 400,000; matches being rated No. 1 in their TV time slot. We have seen Channel Ten deciding to extend its broadcast schedule as a response; and matches that were never intended to be televised suddenly being aired in prime time. There has been unprecedented coverage in the written media. And for those of us who have had to follow middle-of-the-night Twitter feeds to satisfy our craving to be a part of it all, there has been the welcome news that Sky is to televise the final in the UK.

It has all led to comparisons between this, the first WBBL, and the eruption of interest in the first men's Big Bash League some five years ago. Given that this fifth edition of the men's tournament has seen record crowds, and has pushed the BBL into ninth position on the list of the world's most attended sports leagues, the idea that in five years' time the WBBL might be where the BBL is now is a truly amazing thought.

But the viewing figures and public interest in the WBBL are not only important in themselves. They are also important because of what they represent for women's cricket as a whole.

Brisbane Heat's Grace Harris hit 103 off 55 balls against Scorchers in Perth last month © Cricket Australia/Getty Images

For years the women's game has been dogged by the myth that the reason it is ignored by the media and the public is because it is just not very interesting to watch. It is an argument still trotted out at every opportunity, used to justify both the widespread ignorance of cricket journalists when it comes to women's cricket, and, behind the scenes, a lack of investment at all levels of the sport.

It is also a stupid, circular argument. The lack of interest by the public reflects not the standard of women's cricket but the fact that it is very hard for people to become interested in a sport they cannot read about, watch on TV or follow in the media; and one that is poorly marketed.

On the other hand, if women's cricket is regularly reported, it will become part of the sporting map and people will accept it as such. And if investment is made wisely, and teams are branded in the right way - which undoubtedly they have been in the WBBL - the kind of loyalty and support that men's teams enjoy will transfer onto their female counterparts.

The WBBL every day helps destroy myths like the one outlined above. People are realising that when you can turn up to a WBBL game and watch Grace Harris hit 103 off 55 balls, the idea that women's cricket is not very interesting to watch is simply not true.

It is also becoming clear that by investing in promoting the women's game in a new, exciting way, Cricket Australia has not been throwing away its money. Suddenly we are in a position where CA may well be able to sell the broadcast rights to the WBBL on its own merit, and where we might soon see a whole raft of professional female cricketers. All it took to launch the whole glorious spectacle in the first place was a little bit of faith on their part.

Other boards might want to take note here.

We are also seeing another equally important shift: a transition between two different worlds of cricket. Belinda Clark, who represented Australia between 1991 and 2005 and knows better than most what women's cricket was like 15 years ago, was recently interviewed about the WBBL. "It's been remarkable," she said. "I think that's one of the major shifts, to be able to go into the foyers of hotels and seeing the cricket on and seeing guys at the bar asking for the WBBL to be turned on and the other stuff to be turned off."

The WBBL has the potential to capture the public's imagination in the way the men's Big Bash has © Cricket Australia/Getty Images

Back during Clark's first World Cup as Australian captain, in India in 1997, media coverage still centred around the sexual attractiveness of female players. Pete Davies' book on the tournament contains a telling anecdote concerning a conversation he had with the England squad during the tournament:

Someone asked how long the book would be. Reply, theoretically 200 pages but has twice as much already. "And who'll buy a book about women's cricket that's 800 pages long?" "They'll buy it if the laundry doesn't come back. Cause then you can have pictures in it of them playing in their underwear."

The situation had changed little from that in the 1960s, when, during their 1968-69 tour of Australia, the England team were followed around by such headlines as the memorable "Skipper loses lucky bra."

There is surely a problem with a world where women cricketers attract attention from the cricket media only when they wear very little, or make jokes about wearing lucky bras. All female cricketers ever wanted was for their cricket to be the focus.

Might that finally be starting to happen?

I do not want to dwell on the recent appalling Chris Gayle incident other than to say that the interesting thing about it from my perspective is the almost wholly negative reaction against Gayle that ensued. Contrast this with 18 months ago, when he made a similar remark to a reporter in the West Indies, and when there was very little reaction of any kind. At last, it seems, the tide against his behaviour is beginning to turn - and it is no coincidence that this is occurring right in the middle of the first WBBL tournament.

The incident was a nasty reminder of a world we should all want to leave behind - a world where women are objects, to be chatted up and gazed at, rather than athletes to be admired and emulated. The reaction was a happy vision of a world where cricket at last realises that women are equals, on and off the pitch. The WBBL is helping achieve that vision.

It's the beginning of a new era - one that will, I hope, leave those who remain caught up in the Chris Gayle-esque world of "banter", boys and booze far behind. Let's hope that the ECB's own Women's Cricket Super League, which will take place in England this August, is another step along that road.

And next weekend, when the WBBL final takes place, let's not leave it just to the fans of Scorchers, Hurricanes, Thunder or Sixers to celebrate. Let's all take a moment to celebrate that cricket, our sport, is changing for the better.

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

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