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English women's game enters new era

When the Kia Super League launches on Saturday with a clash between the Yorkshire Diamonds and Loughborough Lightning, Headingley will showcase a raft of intriguing - and exciting - contests. Yorkshire and England's fiery Katherine Brunt will resume her long-standing contest with the brilliant Ellyse Perry, aided by the insight of Perry's New South Wales captain and Australian vice-captain Alex Blackwell. Following on from an outstanding summer with the bat for her country, Lauren Winfield will go head-to-head with England team-mate Georgia Elwiss and face one of New Zealand's best all-rounders in Sophie Devine.

There is much to anticipate in this watershed competition. Never has there been such a concentration of elite female players in a domestic tournament - the KSL has six teams compared to Australia's eight in the Women's BBL. Each side contains three internationals, three England contracted players and two England Academy signings. The even spread of talent should make for tight contests and a competitive league that displays the best skills the women's game has to offer.

On Sunday at the Ageas Bowl, former England captain and legend of the women's game, Charlotte Edwards, will call on her Southern Vipers cohorts - New Zealand captain and Wisden's Women's Cricketer of the Year, Suzie Bates, and one of the most explosive T20 batsmen in the women's game, fellow New Zealander Sara McGlashan - to tackle a Surrey Stars line up boasting Nat Sciver, hot off blasting the fastest ever 50 in a women's ODI - and Marizanne Kapp, the outstanding South African allrounder.

And yet, six months after the inaugural WBBL in Australia surpassed all expectations to become a massive success, drawing unprecedented crowds, television audiences and mainstream media coverage, there is a sense this competition will be low key in comparison. No matches will be televised and only a limited number - seven in total - will be broadcast on BBC radio. In a month during which England's men continue their Test series against Pakistan and the Olympics takes centre stage in Rio there is a danger the competition could fly so far under the sporting radar it may struggle to register with the mainstream sports media.

It is, perhaps, unfair to expect the KSL to deliver the same success as the WBBL. The Australian competition piggy-backed on the men's competition, with the marketing, merchandise and fan-base already put in place by five years of the BBL, which has itself been a roaring success in the Australian sporting landscape. England, with its internal prevaricating over the make-up of a men's domestic T20 tournament which has limited television coverage, has had to start from scratch with new teams and no established fan base to leverage.

In many ways the ECB is now trying to overcome many years of neglect by those formerly in charge of women's domestic cricket. There has been no strong pyramid structure, as there has been in Australia. Instead, the focus has been on developing international players through the high-performance academy based at Loughborough. This top-heavy approach is at least partly responsible for the environment that required such a significant shake up in the national side this year; the lack of players forcing their way into the England side through outstanding performances in the county game meant there was stagnation at the top.

Consider the difference in the advent of professional contracts: when Cricket Australia started paying modest full-time wages to the Southern Stars in 2013, they also set aside money for players contracted to each of the six state associations. The domestic 50-over and T20 competitions were already well established and supported, with the T20 final regularly broadcast before the men's final as a double header. By the time the WBBL was launched, it wasn't a success just because it could leverage the success of the BBL; the standard of play was lifted by the fact the domestic players were coming into their third season of being semi-professional.

When the ECB announced central contracts - a huge and welcome step for the advancement of female cricketers - in the summer of 2014, there was no investment at the next level; it remained an unwieldy and bloated amateur competition, in which players had limited training opportunities and often had to pay for extra net sessions, training kits and transport to matches. After Edwards returned from playing domestic cricket in Australia, during the 2014-15 season, she spoke openly about how the level of professionalism in the state competition had been a revelation and was miles ahead of the county competition.

Even now, the difference in payments for domestic players is notable. Unlike CA, the ECB doesn't publish the amount it pays players, but ESPNcricinfo understands that while the retainers for internationals are comparable to the WBBL - where all players received between AUD $3000 and $10,000 for that competition in year one, in addition to the $7000 they received for the domestic ODI competition - the non-contracted players in the KSL will be paid a match fee of around £150 plus basic expenses.

The biggest difference lies in broadcasting. Cricket Australia had enough confidence in the players and their product to pay free-to-air broadcaster, Ten, around AUD $500,000 to offset the production costs of televising six group matches and the final as double-headers. Initially, the matches were shown on Ten's second digital channel but they drew such big audiences that Ten executives moved some matches to their main channel, which proved an unprecedented success, and decided to additionally broadcast both semi-finals, at their own cost. It was a classic case of putting prominent real estate in a shop-window and letting the audience decide whether or not to buy. They bought beyond all expectations.

There is some doubt whether the same level of confidence exists in England. Organisers have been racing against the clock to pull the elements of the tournament together in a short time frame; subsequently the announcement of the teams and the schedule was late enough to make it difficult to guarantee the presence of international stars when initial conversations over broadcasters began. There is certainly not the budget allocated to offer Sky the same kind of deal CA offered Ten to ensure coverage or live stream matches. The final won't be televised as it falls on the reserve day after the T20 Blast Finals Day, with Sky reportedly unable to commit outside broadcast facilities to cover both, if the need should arise.

Instead, Sky will produce a behind-the-scenes feature programme and have at least some single camera highlights from certain matches. Despite this being a new competition, the ECB's rights deal with Sky prevents anyone else from broadcasting the games, but their digital arm also plans to make some highlights available and will have a single HD camera at every game. In any case, no games can currently be broadcast on television or radio from Loughborough, because of the lack of infrastructure.

The ECB has also, perhaps, missed the opportunity to aggressively promote the game in its inaugural season through double-headers. While the KSL starts during the final stages of the T20 Blast, it could have been launched with double-headers in the final group matches of the men's competition and continued with more shared fixtures in the qualifiers. Instead, Lancashire Thunder will play a warm-up match against Loughborough at Old Trafford before Lancashire Lightning host the Birmingham Bears - although, as the women's match starts five and a half hours before the men's it is a stretch to refer to it as a true double-bill.

In the same way that Queen and Bob Dylan built their fan base by supporting Mott the Hoople and Joan Baez on tour, being a support act is a proven and respectable vehicle to finding a new audience. Double-headers were a major factor in stimulating interest in the WBBL, drawing crowds of up to 12,000. Birmingham, perhaps stung into action after they failed to win their bid for a KSL team, hosted a heavily promoted double-header recently at which, reportedly, almost 3000 fans stayed on at Edgbaston to watch the women's match.

What the competition does have on its side, on top of some of the world's best female talent, is an English fan base that's traditionally far more willing to embrace the women's game than Australian cricket fans. Women's internationals have drawn encouraging and enthusiastic crowds in recent years and around 1500 tickets have already been sold for the Western Force's first match at Taunton. If all the games draw four-figure crowds, then the KSL will be deemed a huge success.

There's more on the way, too, as the complete overhaul of women's domestic cricket in England continues. Next year a new 50-over domestic competition in May and June will lead in to the Women's World Cup with the KSL to follow and there are plans to stage double-headers and broadcast matches on Sky. It is an exciting time for the women's game and, despite the obstacles, this tournament represents a massive step forward in it's professionalism and promotion.

Ultimately, as in the WBBL and the World T20 in India, it is the players who will drive the tournament's success. The shop window may be smaller, they may not have the waterfront real estate, but the opportunity is there for their talent to shine through.