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1. England 2. New Zealand 3. India 4. Australia
Features : You go, girls
Analysis : A great advertisement for women's cricket
Features : King of swing falls for the girls
Features : Spinners thrive, minnows flounder, sixes flow
Analysis : England's win could be a lesson to other boards
Series/Tournaments: ICC Women's World Cup
For the hardy perennial that is women's cricket, 2009 was the time to bloom. The ICC had lovingly tended a promising crop since taking over four years earlier, and their first global show came with the World Cup in March.
The players had been working hard out of sight - the odd peep around the curtain with the Ashes and Twenty20 games notwithstanding - but could they impress in Australia? Virgin viewers such as Wasim Akram, commentating on television, proved useful test subjects. He found himself singing their praises, if with a cautionary chorus. "I've been impressed by the standard of the cricket ability," Wasim said. "They've got every shot. But I haven't seen anyone attacking the spinners, playing with the spin, using their feet, apart from a few of the seniors." He would also like to see more pace, naturally, though his solution - longer matches - is unlikely: for commercial reasons, women's cricket will stay short and needs to be sleeker still, particularly for the unforgiving cameras. And although Wasim lavishly praised the fielding of Australia, England and New Zealand as "mind-blowing", uncharacteristic errors sometimes embarrassed players.
Still, the eight-team competition had almost everything: records were smashed and expectations dashed. The general lack of close games was hardly noticed, even when poor shot selection or wayward bowling were occasional culprits. Undoubtedly, the standard had much improved from the last World Cup, in South Africa in 2005, just before the ICC took charge of the women's game. There was controversy, too, when England's Jenny Gunn was reported for a suspect bowling action in the opening game against Sri Lanka. She had already been suspended from Australian domestic cricket (where she played for Western Australia), but was allowed to continue bowling in the World Cup, and the ICC cleared her action before the start of the Super Six phase.
It was one of the few dents in an otherwise polished campaign from a confident England. The world's No. 1 batsman, Claire Taylor, was the tournament's leading scorer with 324 runs at 64.80, starting with a century against Sri Lanka, while the steady Caroline Atkins complemented Sarah Taylor's flair in an influential opening partnership. The spin trio of the delightfully flightful Holly Colvin, the seamer-turned-slow Laura Marsh (the leading wicket-taker, with 16) and captain Charlotte Edwards accounted for three-fifths of England's wickets. The team collected a record-equalling 17 consecutive wins upon beating West Indies to secure a place in the final for the first time since 1993. The winning streak came to a thudding end courtesy of Australia, who mauled them in the last Super Six match - but it may have actually done them a good turn, by shocking them out of any complacency in the final.
They would not meet the favourites, Australia, in that final. It wasn't quite Steve Harmison's wide, but a dropped slip catch off the first ball Australia bowled, against New Zealand, summed up their campaign: unexpectedly toothless when most needing bite. Their great slight hope - the bouncy and bright pin-up Ellyse Perry - seemed deflated, and only Shelley Nitschke shone consistently, with 275 runs and seven wickets. Australia could not live up to the overall hype of the most exposed World Cup yet, in which seven matches held at North Sydney Oval were both streamed live via the ESPN Star Sports website and broadcast to all participating nations (as well as several others). As Australia's hopes faded the home media, who had given them such an opening fanfare, packed up their trumpets and sloped off quietly. Australia were cowed into fourth place - a ranking set to rankle until the next World Cup - when they were beaten for the second time in the tournament by India, their whipping girls in a one-day series a few months before.
India belied some shocking pre-tournament form to canter forward menacingly on the back of some silken batting from Mithali Raj, Anjum Chopra and recent newcomer Anagha Deshpande - only to slip back into the pack when fielding fluffs cost them against New Zealand in a must-win match.
It was New Zealand who rode deservedly into the final, slipping up only against England in the Super Sixes. Though Australia had pipped them to the trans-Tasman Rose Bowl for the ninth time running shortly before the World Cup, New Zealand's warrior-like side exacted bloody revenge in a rainaffected opener. Feisty all-rounder Kate Pulford, newly returned to international cricket after a five-year absence, celebrated her comeback with three Australian wickets. Prone to batting slips despite their considerable depth, New Zealand had their best match against Pakistan, when Suzie Bates, with a freakishly good 168, and captain Haidee Tiffen, with a maiden international century, shared a world-record second-wicket stand of 262. New Zealand flayed nine sixes - the most in any women's one-day international - on an admittedly small Drummoyne Oval.
Bottom-ranked Pakistan played above themselves throughout, joyously so. They arrived in the shadow of the Lahore terrorist attack, but bloggers declared them "our country's silver lining" when their first-ever victory against Sri Lanka landed them in the Super Sixes, where they beat West Indies; though they lost the rematch in the play-offs, they finished a dreamy sixth.
West Indies also surpassed expectations. Last-ditch tours of Europe and Sri Lanka had salvaged their eligibility for Sydney, if not their credibility; they had played no international cricket for the previous three years. Recapturing fifth place was thus a credit to a young side and the enthusiasm of their coach, former Test batsman Sherwin Campbell. With better support, he could help them achieve much more.
Though the impressive technique of Pakistan and West Indies often surprised, their mental fallibility did not; collapses were all too common for the bottom quartet. Sri Lanka and South Africa sorely disappointed, without a single win in their groups.
In a shake-up of automatic qualification, sides below the top four will have to re-qualify for the next World Cup, forcing them to play more cricket. Unsurprisingly, the more matches a team had played, the better its prospects - exemplified by a ruthless England. The ECB and the Cricket Foundation had become the most understanding employers in women's cricket, providing ambassadorial contracts which meant abundant time for training and playing. Such superior experience allowed England to hold their nerve against New Zealand in the final, and claim the World Cup for the third time. If the tournament had favoured spinners on the autumn pitches - which still allowed batsmen fair expression - the final belonged to the pace of England's Nicky Shaw, a last-minute selection after Gunn was injured. She claimed a careerbest four wickets and was at the crease when the winning run came. "I began the day crying, I ended it crying, but we won a World Cup in between," Shaw said. A Champions League-style confetti burst and champagne shower closed a coquettishly brief fortnight, leaving many wanting more. The brevity compared well to the men's bloatfest of 2007.
England had achieved something their men hadn't in 15 attempts - winning an ICC trophy. Ominously, Edwards warned they had not played their best. It wasn't a boast: they failed to complete a perfect game, but still won comfortably. Their glittering gold-and-silver spoils - ultimately forged through the dedication allowed by superior support and funding - flashed warnings to every other board. The ECB's long-held faith since taking over the game in 1998 had finally been repaid.
What about the ICC? While the recent introduction of player rankings had helped media new to the game, team rankings had looked outdated. England were insulted by being listed fourth, having won their last four series. Placing the final at North Sydney was no snub, however. Even the players recognised the SCG, at ten times the cost, would have been a hollow extravagance, while the picturesque North Sydney Oval oozed charm and intimacy, not least for television. The introduction of Super Sixes and axing of the semi-finals made for a pleasingly ruthless format, which ultimately rewarded the most consistent sides with places in the final. The top four teams, who play the most cricket and have the best set-ups, were the only realistic contenders; nevertheless, the finalists were not predictable.
Overall, the ICC earned praise for structure, execution and foresight. With benevolent custodians and more support than ever before, the World Cup provided a largely representative snapshot of women's cricket, with the bigger picture looking ever more exciting.
Match reports for
17th Match, Super Six: England Women v West Indies Women at Sydney, Mar 17, 2009