Edwards expects closest ever World T20
Charlotte Edwards has led England to World Cup and World T20 titles and has been in charge of her team for the last 10 years but at her arrival press conference in Chennai she was, briefly, mistaken for an ICC official. Soon the questions on the challenge posed by competing for a title on the subcontinent began, but it was still a glaring example of how the women's game, at least in India, has some distance to go before it can catch up with the kind of attention it has received in England and Australia.
Edwards, though, remained calm and warmed up with a smile, almost as if to suggest this wasn't the first time she had to be introduced at a gathering. But the experience of nearly 20 years of top-flight cricket since she first started as a 17-year old, shone through as she spoke about how the dynamics of the sport is slowly changing, even if it has taken a little longer than they would have liked.
"The Women's Big Bash League has changed the dynamics in a way," she said. "It was a great opportunity for women's cricket to grow. The response was great, there were big crowds. But most importantly, the opportunity of mixing with other international players and home grown Australian players made it competitive. That's what you want at this level. The game has moved forward massively in the last two years, so I expect this tournament to be as close as it has ever been in women's cricket."
Edwards wasn't exaggerating when she said she expects a tough fight this time around. Australia, the defending champions, are gunning for their fourth successive title, while England have been runners-up twice since their 2009 victory. In the interim other sides have made giant strides. India have become of the last of the big teams to be made professional, South Africa qualified for the semi-finals of the 2014 World T20, West Indies have started to refine their flair and flamboyance and New Zealand have remained very competitive.
New Zealand, in particular, have been title contenders for the last two editions, only to slip up at the end, but the quality in their ranks, as Edwards suggested pointing to Suzie Bates, who she played alongside for Perth Scorchers in the WBBL, is unmistakable. In a tournament that will be played in conditions as subcontinental as it can get, Sri Lanka, who caused a huge upset over England and India at the 2013 World Cup, can't be taken lightly either.
Understandably, there is an air of curiosity over the tournament this time. Edwards' response to the buzz is a measured one, but well thought out. "The challenge earlier was we weren't playing enough cricket throughout the year, but that is slowly changing," she explained. "Australia and England have been playing a multi-format series, which could be a way forward for all bilateral series, for it brings about a context, a new meaning. The last three Ashes series have been some of the best tournaments I've been a part of because of this. With England coming up with a [domestic] league of their own later this summer, it could only get bigger."
Edwards has captained England in over 200 matches since she took over from Clare Connor in 2006. While her predecessor has gone on to become the Director of Women's cricket at the ECB, Edwards' undying commitment and hunger to win a title that has eluded her at the last two attempts, she says, keeps her going.
If her numbers were to be quantified, there is little doubt about the legendary status she commands in the women's game. After all, winning 64 out of the 88 T20Is in charge is impressive. Alongside 72 wins in 117 ODIs, to go with 8395 ODI runs, the most by an England cricketer in limited-overs cricket, male or female and it goes to show the kind of impact she has had over the last decade. Then there's the two world titles and leading her side to four Ashes victories.
As a mark of recognition for her achievements, Edwards was drafted into the MCC World Cricket Committee in 2012, when she became the first woman to be inducted into elite company. The women's wing has, over time, proposed several measures to make it a level-playing field. With most teams coming under a contract system, the next logical step, many believe, is a standalone tournament, which the World T20 will become from 2018.
"There has been crowd support enormously and there has been this change happening compared to five or ten years before. Viewership has improved drastically," she observed, acknowledging the fact that the 2016 edition will have the most number of televised matches in the tournament's short history. "We are hoping to have big crowds in India. We are international cricketers and we are going to see big crowds. We will be attracting more and more people to the game."
While acknowledging several measures taken by the governing body to raise the profile of the game, Edwards felt bringing in a balance between formats had to be foremost, even though she acknowledged that a women's version of the IPL would also give the game a shot in the arm.
"India's doing so well, aren't they? We've all seen the impact IPL has had on world cricket, so I'm sure everyone will embrace a women's version if it comes about," she said. "The biggest challenge going forward won't be as much the facilities, because most teams have access to good facilities, coaches and trainers. But apart from being professionals, you need to have more game time.
"Domestic competitions around the world are one way of ensuring that, where players get exposed to different conditions, and also get paid well. While playing Test cricket is the utmost thing for an international cricketer and I would love to see the Twenty20 format being played at the Olympics."
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo