The year is 2000. Women's cricket is in the hands of the International Women's Cricket Council, a group of volunteers who are attempting to govern a global game with few resources at their disposal. Contracts for women players, and the ICC takeover of the women's game, are years into the future. Coverage of women's cricket in major media outlets is almost non-existent. And the seventh Women's World Cup, to be hosted by New Zealand in November and December, is fast approaching.
The World Cup had always been the most effective advert for the women's game. But it was also incredibly expensive to organise. Back in 2000, the IWCC was almost broke. The 1997 tournament, held in India, had been something of a shambles, with 11 teams flying up and down the country in an attempt to fulfil the demands of an incredibly hectic schedule. By the end of 1997, the IWCC found itself US$6200 in debt. Sponsorship was a financial necessity if a repeat was to be avoided. But sponsorship, even for the biggest tournament in women's cricket, was proving difficult to come by.
Cricinfo approached the IWCC in early 2000 with an offer of comprehensive sponsorship: all rights to the tournament, from naming rights through to delivering worldwide coverage.
"It was an attractive marketing proposition for us", says Andrew Hall, then Cricinfo's marketing manager. "At that time Cricinfo was looking to increase its brand awareness and also demonstrate its capabilities in delivering live coverage."
More than that, Cricinfo also saw itself as a potential benefactor to emerging areas of the sport. The site had already sponsored Zimbabwe cricket, and the 1997 ICC Trophy in Malaysia. In the words of Simon King, one of Cricinfo's founders: "The sponsorship was part of our agenda to support the development of the game and broaden its reach. We wanted to expand the fringes of the game."
For the IWCC, the kind of money Cricinfo was offering - reportedly around $60,000 - was not something that could be turned down. So a sponsorship deal was agreed upon. And the seventh tournament of its kind became the Cricinfo Women's World Cup.
The tournament was held in Christchurch, with the trophy contested by the eight teams that had reached the 1997 quarter-finals: Australia, England, India, New Zealand, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Ireland and Netherlands. The base was New Zealand Cricket's High Performance Centre at Lincoln University.
Cricinfo's financial support - in addition to the New Zealand board's generous contribution - enabled all teams to be accommodated on campus for the duration of the event, and allowed them the use of the centre's professional-level net facilities. All matches were played at the university's Bert Sutcliffe Oval and at the Hagley Oval in the centre of Christchurch, both international-standard grounds. Pitches and facilities of this quality had been non-existent in India three years previously.
"All the teams were living within close proximity, and eating their meals together," remembers Cathryn Fitzpatrick, Australia's star fast bowler. "It certainly facilitated banter between us!
"It was a totally different experience to 1997. That was a really hard tournament to win because of all the internal travel, flying around India, transporting your luggage everywhere. In 2000 it was much easier on us as players."
Belinda Clark, Australia's captain at the time, agrees: "The facilities were excellent."
Cricinfo had an operational base in New Zealand throughout the tournament, and was able to activate the sponsorship locally. "We spent months out in New Zealand beforehand, planning," explains Tim McConnell, who worked as Cricinfo's lead designer and production manager during the tournament, "and about ten of Cricinfo's UK staff also came over for the duration. It really was all hands on deck."
One of Cricinfo's major responsibilities was marketing the event, as McConnell recalls: "There were billboards and signs everywhere around Christchurch. I even designed a trophy specifically for the event, which was fun to do! We really tried to capture the imagination of the locals."
"No Women's World Cup, before or since, has received anywhere near as much coverage"
The players acknowledge that this event, in contrast with some previous tournaments (and indeed with the 2013 World Cup), was a great success. "I remember there were tournament programmes being sold around the city, and banners everywhere, including to greet the teams at the airport," says Catherine Campbell, who as the New Zealand board's women's organiser worked with Cricinfo prior to the event, as well as playing for New Zealand throughout the tournament. "It had a colour no previous tournament had possessed." "It was obvious that NZC had used Cricinfo's funds to help promote the tournament," agrees Clark. "We had good crowds, and there was a great atmosphere at all the matches."
This was no doubt helped by the fact that the tournament produced some absolute nail-biters, and some genuinely shocking results. There were 28 matches in all, with each team playing every other team once, followed by two semi-finals and a final.
The tournament opener went according to plan, with Australia - recognised then as by far the best team in women's cricket, with five out of six wins in ODI series' since the 1997 tournament - winning their round-robin match against New Zealand by six wickets. Both Australia and New Zealand, as expected, then won every match they played in the initial stages of the tournament.
The real surprise was England's performance. They had been World Cup champions in 1993, and despite being knocked out in 1997 by New Zealand in the semi-finals, they were indisputably still one of the giants of the women's game. But in one of the biggest upsets ever seen in women's cricket, they lost their match against South Africa - who had rejoined the international fold only three years earlier - by five wickets. A poor batting performance by England and an excellent spell of bowling from Yulandi van der Merwe, which saw her finish with figures of 3 for 25 in ten overs, led to England being bowled out for 143 in 47.5 overs. South Africa knocked off the required runs easily.
England played India two days later, in a vital match for both sides; another poor batting performance saw England bowled out for 147 in the 50th over, nine runs short of their target. Combined with losses against Australia and New Zealand, this put them out of the tournament - without even reaching the semi-finals.
As well as hard cash, Cricinfo's sponsorship also entailed global coverage for these exciting World Cup matches. They launched a standalone website for the tournament, which provided huge amounts of written content, much of it produced by Lynn McConnell, including interviews with players, previews of every game, and detailed post-match analysis. Cricinfo also acted as an unofficial news agency, supplying reports to newspapers around the world.
In a revolutionary move, there was live ball-by-ball text commentary of every game - the first instance of this in the women's game. And every match was filmed by Cricinfo, broadcast live in audio and video form, with commentary led by the site's Ralph Dellor.
As Tim McConnell recalls, the technology that existed back in 2000 made this rather complicated: "We had to set up our own satellite dish in Lincoln, pump everything back to Christchurch, send it back to the UK, and piece it together there."
It was worth it: cricket fans worldwide could watch the entire tournament from beginning to end. It was an incredible achievement. No women's World Cup, before or since, has received anywhere near as much coverage (many of the matches at the 2013 World Cup earlier this year were not broadcast at all, and even ESPNcricinfo only provided ball-by-ball commentary for ten of the matches).
Two unspectacular semi-finals followed England's exit from the tournament, with Australia and New Zealand both winning by nine-wicket margins, against South Africa and India respectively. The final was held at the Bert Sutcliffe Oval on December 23. Australia, the reigning champions, were firm favourites going into the match. And after New Zealand won the toss, chose to bat, and were bowled out for 184 in 48.4 overs, with Fitzpatrick taking 3 for 52, it looked to be a game that would follow a predetermined script. "At the halfway point, we thought, 'Oh dear'," recalls Campbell. "We knew we were going to have to fight like hell."
Australia's innings started badly. Lisa Keightley was caught behind on 0, Karen Rolton was run out for 1, and the score was 2 for 2 after 2.3 overs. Suddenly the favourites were in trouble.
Clark, steadied things. She played an elegant, flowing innings, and took Australia to 150 in 41 overs, within touching distance of victory, before being bowled by Clare Nicholson on 91. A few overs later, Terry McGregor was run out on 19. It was 159 for 8. In walked Fitzpatrick. Batting at No. 9, she somehow struggled to 6 off 19 balls. Australia were 175 for 8.
Ten runs were needed, 12 balls remained. The tension was unbearable.
What happened next remains controversial. Fitzpatrick recalls the moment: "The ball went down the leg side, to the keeper. There hadn't been a noise, but I turned round, and the keeper was pointing at the ground - a bail had come off. Nobody had seen what had happened. I was standing out in the middle for ages, as the umpires tried to work it out. Eventually I was given out bowled. I think the ball must've hit the bowler's footmarks, deviated onto the stumps, and just brushed the bail. I was the first woman ever to be given out by TV review."
It was to prove a crucial turning point. Six balls later, Charmaine Mason was out, caught behind for 11, and it was all over. New Zealand had won by four runs.
The players were swamped on the pitch by their families, friends and supporters. "There had been a massive festival atmosphere throughout the final," says Campbell, "and after all the ebbing and flowing, suddenly we had won, and everyone went crazy. It was a career highlight, really amazing." It was the first and only time New Zealand have ever lifted a global women's cricket trophy.
It was the players who produced an incredibly close and exciting final, possibly the greatest women's World Cup match ever played. But it was Cricinfo who ensured that millions worldwide were able to watch, listen to and follow the match online. Perhaps, then, it is fitting that Cricinfo's film footage of the match - a rarity for women's cricket, ensuring that replays could be used in the Fitzpatrick dismissal - may have had a hand in the result.
The site's sponsorship of women's cricket ended after its support of the women's Ashes in 2001. Money was becoming tight, and the focus was moving to activities that would generate revenue.
But Cricinfo's role in the 2000 Women's World Cup laid many foundations. For the IWCC, it was a hugely successful partnership: by the end of 2000, their accounts were showing a financial surplus, unusual in a World Cup year. In Andrew Hall's view, "it was a landmark for Cricinfo. It went some way to cementing our reputation."
Tim McConnell agrees: "It was a huge success for us. It showed we were capable of effectively broadcasting a tournament, and the experience carried through into successive events. And it was also massive for the women's game. You couldn't help but follow it. Even now it struggles to have that presence."
The impact of the sponsorship is easily seen when you compare the 2000 World Cup with its successors. The 2005 tournament, held in South Africa, failed to find a sponsor, relying exclusively on the IWCC and South African donors for financial support. It was notably less successful in terms of publicity, crowds and coverage. Even the 2009 and 2013 World Cups, both staged since the ICC took control of the women's game in late 2005, were much less comprehensively covered by the media than the 2000 tournament was by Cricinfo.
Those who were involved in the 2000 World Cup agree that it was a significant jump forward for women's cricket, in terms of global presence, media impact, and an increased fan base, who watched that final unfold breathlessly - some in person, most online.
Ultimately, it was Cricinfo's support that made the difference.