All to play for
Dress rehearsals are not supposed to run this smoothly. Naturally there are a few glitches still to iron out, but everything is shaping up well for next year's main events, the Women's World Cup and World Twenty20 - and on this year's evidence they could be showstoppers.
Cricinfo had already revealed the women would share the stage for the World Twenty20, by the time a Twenty20 between Australia and England brought up the curtain on this practice year. On stage before the Australia and India men went on, the women surprised, and possibly converted, the 30,000-strong MCG crowd, many of whom were probably watching women's cricket for the first time.
The many highlights, however, were just that for those who were not present - packaged into a one-hour TV programme sometime after the event. In Australia this still represents progress, but at last the women are beginning to expect more, with Shelley Nitschke leading the calls: "We are used to things happening quite slowly in the world of women's cricket, and the common response to a small improvement is often, 'Well, at least it's something'. This mentality needs to change."
The women got more in the form of contracts, initiated in England by Clare Connor and Mike Gatting. Australia followed suit. While neither deal made the women professionals, England players are now able to focus on their game. Cricket Australia at least provided some desperately needed financial relief for their side, who have for so long been the world's best.
Australia were rattled by England, though, losing the curiously solitary Ashes Test at home, before sharing the ODI series 2-2. They have home advantage, and a typical raft of talent under Karen Rolton's astute leadership, so don't bet against Australia retaining the World Cup. In the fray are a vibrant England, who beat New Zealand 3-1, to complete their most successful Australasia tour. New Zealand then lost a typically tight Rose Bowl game to Australia 3-2. Three of the big four are in good touch. So far so good.
India had a poor year. Though they expectedly retained the Asia Cup, they crumbled to eight straight losses, some of them heavy, to hosts England and Australia.
What of next year's other World Cup teams? The biggest worry was ensuring the already-qualified West Indies would make the plane after their participation was threatened by a lack of matches as per participation criteria. A hastily arranged European tour proved life-saving, and a raw and inexperienced unit showed plenty of talent and emerged with credit and some useful learning ahead of 2009.
South Africa, Sri Lanka and Pakistan also ensured their spots after the qualifiers - originally scheduled for November 2007 in Pakistan - were eventually switched to South Africa three months later. With qualification also counting for the World Twenty20, the champagne will have tasted twice as nice for the trio. But while it was double bubbles for them, it was a bitter double blow for those who missed out, including the experienced Ireland, who have appeared at many World Cups before.
|The women got more in the form of contracts, initiated in England by Clare Connor and Mike Gatting. Australia followed suit. While neither deal made the women professionals, England players are now able to focus on their game|
All in all, an encouraging year for the women, whose game continues to improve, but the litmus test will be next year, which could yet go with a bang.
New kid on the block
Most of the West Indies team. Having been out of world cricket for the last few years, the majority the players on the European tour were debutants. They showed plenty of promise. Individually, keep an eye on Anya Shrubsole; England have been, from the moment Somerset invited her onto the Academy a few years ago. A powerful allrounder who took three wickets on her Twenty20 debut, the teenaged Shrubsole offers medium pace, strong batting and plenty of promise.
Two players' careers didn't so much fade as halt abruptly while they still had plenty to offer. South Africa's 18-year-old batting prodigy Johmari Logtenberg suddenly quit, citing the financial incentives of golf, though she had never played her new sport before. The door remains open. Just as sudden was Jane Smit's departure from England's Australasia tour, her 16-year international career ending in a flash.
The introduction of player contracts, ICC rankings, and the confirmation of the World Twenty20. While they may be small steps in themselves, they represent several giant leaps for womankind.
It would be wrong to pretend the women's game is by any means perfect, or the finished product, and this was exemplified by Bermuda: In the qualifiers they crumbled for 13 against South Africa, who then chased the total in four balls. Bermuda's captain Linda Mienzer observed: "Women's cricket in Bermuda has come a long way, but we still have a long way to go."
What 2009 holds
Only the chance to put the game on the world map and keep the pin pressed in. This, in fact, could be their only chance: The ICC has trusted them to deliver during the televised semis and final of the World Twenty20 in front of already sold-out crowds - at Trent Bridge, The Oval and Lord's. It's difficult to underestimate the importance of these three days, though the Women's World Cup and the Ashes will have their traditional magnitude, too. If the women can show an attractive stock when it matters, then the game could have a particularly rich year and a quality investment in the future.
Jenny Roesler is a former assistant editor at Cricinfo