Cricket's women feel the pleasures and pressures of the spotlight
Things are about to get real. For women cricketers, that is.
This edition of the World Cup will be the most watched, most covered and most well rewarded of all time. That also means it will be taken the most seriously, by players, spectators and the media.
"It's the first time it really has been in the spotlight. From my playing experience, we have often gone under the radar and we can go about our business with not too many people saying a lot," Suzie Bates, New Zealand's captain said.
And what little has been said, has been nice. Or twee. Or a bit of both.
Women's cricket is largely covered as a novelty with stories focusing on obvious topics (this writer is equally guilty) of breaking the gender barrier, fighting for funds and overcoming the odds. Now that could change. "Most of the media coverage has been positive but this type of tournament and the way the women's game is going, there is more and more media which brings about more critique of how you go about things and I think that brings added pressure," Bates said.
The women's game has started to professionalise and with that will come all the pleasures and pressures of the spotlight. Apart from increased profile, they can also expect to be scrutinised, their performances analysed, their game-plans dissected, their mannerisms watched and their characters' trumped up or even assassinated.
England have taken precautions against that, with several of their squad swapping social media for what Heather Knight called "trash telly", to serve as a distraction from the real world. "With this being probably the most visible Women's World Cup ever, a lot of us have decided to come off Twitter and use social media a lot more scarcely," Knight said. "A lot of the girls are watching a dreadful TV programme called Love Island."
While they may be able to enjoy the escapism in their hotel rooms, as the hosts, Bates expects England will not be able to get away from the hype entirely. "For us, I still think we can go under the radar but for the likes of England it may be added pressure," she said."Or it may just inspire them to play even better with so many people watching."
And there will be many people. The opening match between England and India at Derby is sold out and though the capacity of the county ground is a modest 9,500 (maybe a few hundred more with additional temporary seating), it is still more than most women's cricketers would have played in front of before. Even India, whose captain Mithali Raj hopes the full house will put the home side under the pump. "As cricketers in India, we've not really seen huge numbers of people turn out for the international games," Raj said. "Here, the tickets are sold out, that's a very positive thing. England is a very good side but they have double pressure because they are the hosts. I've been in that situation in 2013, so I know what its like to be under that pressure with the expectation of millions of people."
Raj has some concerns that her own side could be overawed by the occasion but wants to encourage them to embrace the vibe. "My only suggestion is to enjoy being in the atmosphere because we have always seen men play in front of huge crowds and people coming to the stadium and watching so now you are in that position, be yourself and enjoy the atmosphere because women's cricket is only going to climb up in future."
Comparisons to men's cricket are inevitable - especially when it comes to the pace and power of the game - and Raj has already had to deal with her fair share of them. She had a ready response when asked to name her favorite men's cricketer. Not only did she refuse to engage in the banter, she also made it clear that women should be respected for having their own identities, separate to the men's game.
South Africa are an example of an outfit that has created their own space. Instead of buying into the men's Protea Fire campaign, the women have come up with their own culture and catchphrase. "We really wanted to move away from that. We've got Always Rising because we want to get better than we are. It was very important for us to have our own identity," Dane van Niekerk, their captain, said. "We all got together really young, so we didn't really know what to do or what to say. We had a few workshops and as a team we chatted about our values. That's what we want to show the world. Whatever we do on and off the field, that people can say that and we can see it this the team and those are the values."
Like so many of the squads, South Africa's have seldom been on the silver screen. This time pay-channel SuperSport, the host broadcaster for men's cricket, will show all their matches. Other teams will enjoy similar coverage and Raj, for one, can't wait.
"We are not a regular on television," she said. "I would love the matches to be televised but it's not on a regular basis that the matches are televised. In the last two or three years, the BCCI has made an effort in the home series that the games are televised so that has improved the profile of the players and social media has done a great job of that as well. But there's still a lot of catch-up to do in terms of the recognition."
She believes this tournament will go a long way to bridging the gap. "It's a huge platform because this time around most of the matches are televised and a lot of events have been happening to promote the tournament on a larger scale. It's an opportunity to improve the profile of one's own as a player and also as a team."
It's about to get real and, for the women involved, it couldn't have come a moment sooner.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent