February 17, 2016

Is women's cricket moving into a more competitive era?

More series wins like India's in Australia are needed to ensure a more level playing field and competitive tournaments

Might India's T20 series victory in Australia mark the beginning of the end of Australia's dominance? © Cricket Australia/Getty Images

The headlines as we approach the Women's World T20, due to begin next month in India, will no doubt be much of a muchness. Namely: can Australia make history by pulling off a fourth-successive victory in the tournament?

As the last World T20 was approaching, two years ago, the headlines were exactly the same. Back then the only difference was the number of consecutive victories that the Southern Stars were aiming to achieve. They were still the pre-tournament favourites, just as they surely are this time around.

This Australian team are more than just reigning world champions, however. Across the past three World T20 tournaments, the Southern Stars have dropped a total of just two games - against England in 2012 and New Zealand in 2014. In the calendar years 2014 and 2015, they lost a mere four out of 23 T20s they played - all four of those defeats coming against England or New Zealand.

Looking at those stats, it would not be an exaggeration to say that a team containing Meg Lanning, Ellyse Perry and Alex Blackwell is almost invincible.

I say "almost". Last month, India beat Australia in a T20 series (indeed, in any series format) for the first time in history. Their five- and ten-wicket wins in Adelaide and Melbourne, inspired by two almost faultless performances with the bat from 19-year-old Smriti Mandhana, made history. It was truly a fantastic achievement for India, and should be recognised as such. But it also had broader significance for the women's game.

The issue with the WBBL is that as it stands it may well simply widen the chasm between standards in Australia and the rest of the world

For all that T20 is supposed to be an unpredictable beast, shocks and upsets in women's T20 internationals have been few and far between. Take the four Women's World T20s that have taken place to date. All have featured one of England, New Zealand or Australia in the final. Before last month, India's last victory in any T20 match against Australia was in March 2012. It was also their first.

It is all in dramatic contrast with men's international T20 cricket, where the past five World Cups have each produced a different winner, not to mention a whole heap of different permutations in the semi-finals and final.

Of course, the dominance of the women's game by Australia and England has been great for the sport in those countries - where World Cup victories have been heralded as a means to justify investment in the sport. But it also does little to improve standards, or promote investment, in the lower-ranked nations.

Might India's recent success herald the beginning of the end for Australia's dominance? And - more to the point - might that actually be good for the women's game?

Ask the players and they'd certainly say they welcome the odd upset now and then. When I spoke to England's Kate Cross about India's shock Test match victory in Wormsley in August 2014, she told me that she was "absolutely delighted for them… in terms of women's cricket as a whole, it was a really special thing that they won that game".

Cross and other players recognise that the more competitive the women's game can become across more than just the old powerhouses of Australia, England and New Zealand, the better it will be for the sport as a whole. It will drive up standards; it will produce the kind of exciting cricket that cricket fans want to watch.

The performance of South Africa in their recent ODI series against England is a case in point. Five years ago, ODIs against South Africa would have been easy pickings for an England team. This time around, every single game was competitive - and in the second of the three, it was South Africa who finished on top after a thrilling high run chase with notable performances from Trisha Chetty, Lizelle Lee, Marizanne Kapp, and not least 16-year-old Laura Wolvaardt. Yet another significant "upset" for the women's game.

Sri Lanka's surprise win against England in the 2013 World Cup didn't quite herald a new era for the country's cricket © ICC/Solaris Images

We need to be careful not to get carried away here. Back in 2013, when Sri Lanka pulled off a surprise one-wicket victory against England in the group stages of the World Cup, it was proclaimed in the media as heralding their arrival as a great women's cricket nation. Yet their progress since then has stalled. Late last year they were whitewashed in ODs and T20Is by New Zealand, and they are currently sitting in last place in the International Women's Championship points table.

Victory in one game, or even (as with India) in one three-match series, is not enough. For the dominance of Australia to be overturned, further investment from the boards in their women's teams in countries like India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan needs to be forthcoming. Thus far, it has continually lagged behind the increasing professionalisation of the game in England and Australia. On the other hand, the recent success of South Africa - who won against England last week, and notched up a shock victory against New Zealand to reach the semi-finals of the last World T20 in 2014 - has been aided by significant investment from both Cricket South Africa and the team's sponsors, Momentum.

But that is not all. The landscape of women's T20 cricket is changing. The recent, incredibly successful, Women's Big Bash League in Australia has created an opportunity for players to hone their skills in a competitive, exciting domestic tournament, in front of huge crowds - and be paid to do so. It can only improve standards in the women's international game.

Yet the issue with the WBBL is that as it stands it may well simply widen the chasm between standards in Australia and the rest of the world. Yes, it is valuable experience for the 24 international players who did gain the chance to participate. But note the absence of any Indian players, who were not permitted to participate by the BCCI. And note, too, the lack of space for any players from Sri Lanka, Pakistan or Bangladesh - perhaps those who need it the most. Meanwhile, Cricket Australia has provided an opportunity for the nurturing of some of its younger players in an environment which is in some ways akin to an international one. It is the standard of cricket in Australia that, above all, stands to benefit from the WBBL.

Again, the players themselves recognise this. It is why Indian captain Mithali Raj has been so vocal in expressing her desire for a women's IPL - something which must surely have a market in a country that lives and breathes T20 cricket. And it is why the ECB head of women's cricket, Clare Connor, is currently spending every spare minute trying to make the inaugural Women's Cricket Super League in England this August a success.

Ultimately, we need to hope that the WBBL makes the other boards sit up and take note, both in seeking to replicate its success in their own countries, and in promoting the participation of their players as far as possible in future overseas tournaments. If not, India's recent series victory might well remain an aberration.

We may all be starting the World T20 asking if Australia will be able to win their fourth successive T20 crown. But perhaps the real question is whether, for the good of the sport, we want them to do so.

Raf Nicholson is an England supporter, a feminist, and has recently completed a doctoral thesis on the history of women's cricket. @RafNicholson

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