June 23, 2017

How Australia's women got here

A World Cup is a celebration of how far the women's game has come, yet it should not be forgotten that many advancements were a long time coming

In all the ugliness of Australian cricket's pay dispute, there has been shared acknowledgement of the growth of the women's game down under, recognition of its vitality and its equality with men's cricket. Specifically, members of the national team, state squads and WBBL teams, stand to earn far more money than they currently receive.

That shared realisation comes at a time when women's sport in Australia is experiencing a major upsurge. The inaugural season of the AFL Women's competition earlier this year was a vibrant success. Netball has undergone a reinvention in the shape of the new Super League. Amid this mood, some have wondered why the AFL's new collective bargaining agreement does not include women, while Cricket Australia's next MoU with the Australian Cricketers Association - however long it takes to emerge - will do so.

In the days and hours before the start of this year's women's World Cup in England, it should not be forgotten that the first global limited-overs tournament was a women's affair - staged in 1973 with the financial assistance of the businessman, philanthropist and sports lover Sir Jack Hayward, whose name emblazoned the initial trophy.

The fact the women's game had a showpiece of that kind before the men is something to be proud of, but it also serves as a reminder of how long its players and administrators have had to fight for the sort of pay and conditions that had for long been awarded to the men's game. Were the AFL to follow the same trajectory as Australia's Women's National Cricket League, for example, it would be another nine years before any of its players were paid anything at all.

It was in 1988 that Australia's women's team first gained a coach - Ann Mitchell - before lifting that year's World Cup at home. Whereas the men's event had been held more or less every four years since 1975, the women's equivalent was, until the last decade, held at all manner of intervals in a variety of formats, due to the challenges of finding money for both its organisation and the travel and expenses of competing teams.

Similar constraints afflicted the Australian Women's Cricket Championships, which began in 1930-31, and for more than 65 years were restricted to a two-week carnival affair. When it was finally replaced by the more expansive WNCL in 1996-97, the players continued to take part on annual leave from their day jobs, as they did whenever representing Australia. The season after the inaugural WNCL, that leave was taken up by a visit to India for the 1997 World Cup, an event that featured two moments of transformative significance.

The first of these was the uniforms: female players had long worn numerous styles of culottes (split skirts or shorts), a uniform taken to a wider audience by the allrounder Zoe Goss when she made a neat 29 and then dismissed Brian Lara in a charity match at the SCG in 1994. For reasons of health and safety relating to abrasive outfields, competing teams took to wearing pants during the 1997 tournament, and soon found that in terms of fielding especially, the game would go to another level.

As was the case for Allan Border's Australian men's side a decade before, the team led by Belinda Clark found themselves going all the way to the tournament final, at Eden Gardens. To their surprise and delight, the cricket-loving public of Kolkata turned up in enormous numbers; the estimated crowd of 70-80,000 is still by a distance the largest assembled for a women's match. Clark's Australia defeated New Zealand to lift the trophy, then emulated Border and company by making an enraptured lap of honour.

A 1993 World Cup match. Till recently, women's World Cups have been irregular, ad hoc events © PA Photos

That same year Malcolm Speed was appointed as chief executive of the Australian Cricket Board, and after negotiating his own pay fight with the nascent ACA, he began looking towards the amalgamation of the governing body with the Australian Women's Cricket Council, later Women's Cricket Australia. This process, pushed in part by the desire of the Australian Sports Commission to ensure that men's and women's sports worked more closely together, was largely smooth, albeit with one hold-up - the ACB's state-appointed board members were opposed to adding a director from the women's organisation. Ironically their opposition meant that the chair, Quentin Bryce, went on merely to become Australia's Governor-General.

By way of compromise, a women's cricket committee was set up, while the ACB's legal counsel, Andrew Twaits, worked with Bryce and WCA's executive team on a staged amalgamation. Among other things, this meant opening up access for female players to programmes and facilities like the National Cricket Centre (then known as the Cricket Academy). The national team also benefited from a greater level of support staff. These were steps forward from the dismissive words of the former ACB chief executive Graham Halbish in response to questions about why there were no women at the Academy: he said it was "unashamedly elitist". At the same time, work began on ways to ensure that women had a pathway into the game beyond the introduction of mixed-gender Kanga Cricket.

The ICC followed suit in the mid-2000s, and organisation of women's global events and development came under the same umbrella as the men. Among the most tangible signs of this change was how events were covered by television; the semis and the final of the 2005 event were broadcast, then ten games were covered in 2009, and more have been at each event since. The World T20 has meanwhile been played as a dual event, with the women's matches watched by male team-mates. In 2010, Australia's teams made it to both finals, but it was the women - by now referred to as the Commonwealth Bank Southern Stars - who came up trumps.

Whereas the men's event had been held more or less every four years since 1975, the women's equivalent was, until the last decade, held at all manner of intervals in a variety of formats, due to the challenges of finding money

While amalgamation meant bigger events and broader coverage, matters of pay and conditions were still a long way from satisfactory resolution. New South Wales led the way in Australia, first paying the Breakers team small wages for the 2005-06 season, coincidentally (or perhaps not) beginning a run of ten consecutive WNCL titles for NSW. Lisa Sthalekar, the spin bowler so pivotal to the success of both NSW and Australia during this period, remembers the change that wrought.

"We weren't paying for flights and accommodation to play, but it was expected this was the amount of time we had to take off from work and we had to use our annual leave," she says. "Up to that point, it cost players thousands of dollars a year [in lost work] to represent their state."

It was to be another three years before the national team was remunerated above basic expenses, initially offered retainers of A$5000 to A$15,000. One player who missed out on the modest windfall was Cathryn Fitzpatrick, the fast bowler who retired in 2007 and would later coach Australia to the 2013 World Cup victory in India. This lag period was the cause of some consternation, and there were numerous other flashpoints as the women began to assert their rights as fellow cricketers. Talks with the ACA, eventually leading to full membership in 2011, began in 2006.

That was also the year in which the national women's team felt slighted on Allan Border Medal night, when Clark's peerless batting record and many years of service to Australia were not recognised in any meaningful way. Alex Blackwell was moved to write a letter to CA's chief executive, James Sutherland, questioning the oversight. Clark, who has gone on to a vaunted role as head of the NCC in Brisbane, was more suitably recognised with induction to the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame at the 2014 awards presentation.

Class of '97: Belinda Clark and her triumphant side take a victory lap around Eden Gardens Craig Prentis / © Getty Images

The forming of a relationship with the ACA allowed players the benefit of access to financial support for university study, an option taken up far more readily by the women, who were used to juggling cricket and other pursuits. "The male players were purely focused on cricket rather than study," Sthalekar points out. "There was a big push to get them to do other things, but the female players obviously always had a career and cricket was just the 'hobby' so to speak. Financially that helped out so many players because it meant they didn't have to work as much as they had to previously."

On the field, other nations had closed the gap with Australia and the other two traditional powers, England and New Zealand. The 2009 home World Cup was something of an disaster in terms of results for Australia, while away from the middle the team was riven by differences between players and coaching staff.

"The 2009 World Cup was our worst ever," Sthalekar remembers. "We came fourth, lost to India twice, lost to New Zealand via Duckworth-Lewis, and even when we won, we weren't dominating games. South Africa and the West Indies pushed us a lot more than we would have expected.

"That was a bit of a wake-up call. That was when we felt like everyone's caught us. Also from 2005 to 2009, we still won series but we weren't dominating.

"A bit like the men's team around that similar period, you had a lot of stars of the game. They left, and so it took some time to regenerate. In 2009 we brought in a lot of younger players for their first tournament, rather than having a mix of youth and experience, which I think hurt us as well."

"There were some players who had the superstition that if they didn't have a good night's sleep, they'd play well. So if you're rooming with someone like that, it makes things kind of difficult!"
Lisa Sthalekar on problems with sharing rooms on tour

Yet out of the chaos, a new breed emerged. Meg Lanning, Ellyse Perry and Alyssa Healy, to name three, had looked likely to be major contributors from their junior years, and in the more integrated environment developed over the preceding decade, were carefully guided through to places at the top level. In Lanning, Australia found a batting talent to rank with Clark, while Perry's all-round skills and considerably pacy bowling made her the sort of all-trades performer the men's team envied in the years after coming off second best to Andrew Flintoff in 2005.

While the performance of the team improved, there remained areas of consternation. Australia's men had stopped needing to share twin rooms on tour as far back as 1998. Likewise well-planned itineraries and business-class seats had been central to the sort of environment encouraged by Pat Howard when he became CA's team performance manager following the Argus review in 2011.

"One thing I remember a group of us advocating for in 2012 was single rooms on tour," Sthalekar says. "We felt that everyone has their different time clocks when you've got jet lag, and also when one person got sick, everyone got sick throughout the team. There were some players who had the superstition that if they didn't have a good night's sleep, they'd play well. So if you're rooming with someone like that, it makes things kind of difficult!

In the days and hours before the start of this year's women's World Cup in England, it should not be forgotten that the first global limited-overs tournament was a women's affair - staged in 1973

"So we spoke about that in 2012 and there was a period of time where CA weren't going to do it. We mentioned as well the class we were flying, because, for instance, in 2012 we won the T20 World Cup and that evening we got on a flight back home from Sri Lanka. We didn't really get a chance to celebrate, we were all in cattle class, having played a game, a couple of girls were sick, we were exhausted tired and sore, then a week later we started the WNCL. So that wasn't great.

"Now the girls are flying business class and things like that. It's good to see those changes happen, because all of that helps. As much as people think it is a bit of a luxury, recovery is a huge part of any athlete's armoury."

Lisa Sthalekar dives to take a catch. Professional contracts have allowed the current generation to "put their whole focus" on cricket, she says © Getty Images

These advancements took place in 2013, the year of the most recent World Cup, and following on from similar moves in England. They arrived at the time that CA announced vastly improved payments for the national team and also state players. These ranged from A$25,000 to A$52,000, plus tour payments and marketing bonuses for the national side, fully funded by CA to the tune of just over $1.5 million a year, rising incrementally each year. With the wages came a new mindset.

"A lot of girls around that time chose cricket to be their profession for the first time," Sthalekar says. "That meant a lot of the girls in pre-season were up at the National Cricket Centre, training for longer periods of time. It's only in the past two or three years that's happened. This World Cup campaign, they had three weeks and then two weeks. The level of training and preparation they can do is so different to, say, 2005 when we went to India. That was a seven-week tour and maybe a one-week camp before. Because players are getting paid a decent wage, it means they don't have other work commitments so they're allowed to put their whole focus on that."

The next step is in many respects the final one. From amateurs meeting at the behest of Hayward in England in 1973, Australia's players will return home from this campaign in the confident expectation that they will be paid fully professional wages from 2017-18 onwards. Not only that, they will be incorporated into the same pay deal as the men, an outcome driven as much by the years of sweat and toil put in by the forebears of Lanning, Perry and company as by the reforming spirit of Australian women's sport in 2017.

"Both parties believe they should be in this MOU, one agreement for all players regardless of gender," Sthalekar says. "Then you have CA just recently changing the name to the Australian women's team rather than being known as the 'Southern Stars'. It's not just that but also saying it's not the Australian team anymore, it's the Australian men's team and the Australian women's team. As little as it cost to do that, I think it sends a very strong message."

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Shanthakumar on June 23, 2017, 5:38 GMT

    Great article! Australia women team is still up and running! Go for it guys, Meg, Perry, Alyssa, Johnassen and Co. Aussie aussie aussie!!!

  • Michael on June 23, 2017, 4:33 GMT

    Congratulations to the team, and I can't wait for the title defence to start!

    They are probably the second most successful sports team Australia has sent out into the world, men's or women's.

    Only our netballers can claim better!

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