An endangered species on show today: Women's Test cricket
One of the rarest breed of contest in the cricketing world makes an appearance today. A four-day women's Test match - the first anywhere in the world for almost a year - gets under way at Shenley, as England meet Australia in the first of two Tests in the CricInfo Women's Series.
This will be the first Test match that England have taken part in since they met India in a one-off game on this same ground two years ago. For Australia, it's the first Test since they visited England for a three-match series in 1998.
It's the first such game since Ireland and Pakistan - relative newcomers to the women's Test sphere - met in Dublin in August 2000, the Irish romping to victory inside two days.
More worrying for the ongoing health of the Test match as part of the women's game is the lack of such matches played in Australia and New Zealand - unquestionably the top two nations in women's cricket - and the lack of outright results in recent years.
You have to go back to February 1996 to find the last Test match played in Australia. That was a one-off against New Zealand which was washed out after 7.5 overs. Before that was the one-off Test against England at North Sydney in February 1992, which Australia won by an innings.
The last outright result in a women's Test in England was reached in August 1987, when Australia defeated the home side by an innings and 21 runs at Worcester. There have only been nine Tests played in England since that time, and they all finished in a draw. (England have scored two victories away from home since then, the most recent being a two-run defeat of India at Jamshedpur in November 1995).
The reasons for the lack of Test cricket for women are varied. Clearly the focus in the international game is on one-day international cricket and the four-yearly World Cup. England's current rebuilding of their national team, for example, is being done not with a focus on winning the Ashes Trophy or being the number one Test nation, but one having a squad which will be competitive in the 2005 World Cup.
There is very little competition below international level involving games of more than the standard 50-overs-a-side one-day variety. While club competitions in Australia do include two-day matches, these have come under criticism as being slow and unattractive, dour struggles for first innings points.
There is no domestic competition at state or county level anywhere in the world that involves matches of more than one day in duration, and this makes the jump from one or two-day cricket to the four-day game even more difficult when Test time comes around. Remarkably, Australia's buildup to today's First Test consisted of three one-day matches, including two games (at different grounds) against the ECB Development Squad. Would it not have been more beneficial to both parties to arrange the schedule so that the teams played a two-day game instead?
A lot of it, of course, comes down to money and sponsorship. Women's cricket is in a sporting backwater when it comes to corporate sponsorship and financial assistance, and this is a serious inhibiting factor when it comes to international sides meeting one another.
This is not to overlook those companies who are putting their support into the women's game. In the instance of the current England-Australia series, this includes the Commonwealth Bank of Australia as the sponsors of the tourists, Vodafone with the home side, and CricInfo - producers of this website - as event sponsors of this series, following on their sponsorship of the 2000 World Cup and the Indian World Cup selection trials last year.
The Test match that commences today will see Australia as very strong favourites. If one-day form is anything to go by (and that is all we have over the past three years), then Australia's track record is almost impeccable. Impeccable, that is, until their heartbreaking four-run loss to New Zealand in the World Cup Final last December.
Nine of the players from that final are in the touring party in England, and all can be expected to take their place in the starting eleven today. Zoe Goss has been dropped, probably for the last time, while Jo Broadbent, who played in New Zealand but missed the World Cup final, has retired. Broadbent scored an even 200 against England in the Guildford Test of 1998.
Belinda Clark and Lisa Keightley form arguably the greatest opening batting partnership in the history of the women's game, while Karen Rolton was a devastating all-rounder at the 2000 CricInfo Women's World Cup. Cathryn Fitzpatrick, Charlie Mason and Therese McGregor make up a formidable pace/seam trio, while leg-spinner Olivia Magno has been in fine form at the start of the current tour, taking ten wickets, with a best of 6/34, in the three warmup matches.
Eight of the current Australian touring team appeared in the three-Test series in England in 1998. When you consider that Belinda Clark, with nine Tests in ten years, is the most experienced of them at Test level, then it becomes more apparent just how rare women's Test cricket really is.
On the other side of the ledger, England are climbing back after probably their worst slump since women's international cricket began in 1934. A dismal fifth placing in the World Cup and a long string of other losses, including a humiliating tour of Australia eighteen months ago, has seen most of the former management team swept away along with several of the older players. England are being coached this season by former Test wicketkeeper Jane Powell, with former Australian coach John Harmer set to take over afterwards.
A young England lineup, led by 24 year-old Clare Connor, sees opening bowler Clare Taylor as the only player in the squad more than thirty years of age. No less than five of the fourteen-player squad are in their teens. Only Connor, Taylor, Jane Cassar, Lucy Pearson and Sarah Collyer remain from the team that played in the 1998 Test series against Australia.
Two major losses from the England lineup are those of Charlotte Edwards and Barbara Daniels. Opening batsman Edwards has been forced to miss the 2001 international season because of a knee operation, while 36 year-old Daniels, England's best batsman in last year's World Cup, has retired after finding herself unwanted in the national squad for this year. While it may well make sense to leave her out of a one-day squad focussed on a World Cup four years hence, her omission from Test consideration creates a hole in the England batting lineup for the current two-Test series that will be hard to fill.
It would be a major upset for England to even come close to Australia in this two-Test series, for which the "Ashes Trophy" will be up for grabs. The big question will be, however, whether four days will be enough to achieve a result. The gulf between the two teams is, however, much wider than it was in 1998, when the three-Test series was drawn 0-0. I predict Australia to win the series 1-0.
The First Test in the CricInfo Women's Series between England and Australia starts at Denis Compton Oval, Shenley today, and is scheduled to conclude on Wednesday June 27. Three one-day internationals, also under the CricInfo Women's Series banner, will be played on June 29 (Derby), July 2 (Northampton) and July 3 (Lord's), with the Second and final Test to be played at Headingley from July 6-9.