Women's BBL set to prove itself on big stage
Even three or four years ago, you would not have imagined a whiz-bang women's domestic Twenty20 competition would come around so soon. But with increased coverage and eye-catching performances, the sense of momentum in women's cricket has only grown. Through the close succession of a 50-over World Cup, a World T20 and three Ashes series, we were suddenly at a point where the next step seemed inevitable.
To their credit, the England Cricket Board and Cricket Australia each recognised that and acted on it. The Women's Cricket Super League will launch in England in mid-2016, while the Women's Big Bash League is about to precede it in Australia.
While it is tiresome for cricketing women to always draw comparison with men, the male Big Bash League has laid out a brightly coloured template. Even the most ardent administrators would have been surprised by the BBL's success with crowds and TV ratings, so the second time around there was no doubt that the women's competition should follow the same structure.
Don't be fooled by the badging as a "rebel" tournament - the WBBL is official, it's just confusingly sponsored by a sports retailer that doesn't like capital letters. Eight city-based teams, twinning the existing men's teams of Brisbane Heat, Sydney Sixers, Sydney Thunder, Melbourne Renegades, Melbourne Stars, Hobart Hurricanes, Adelaide Strikers and Perth Scorchers. A league competition leading into a knockout finals series, with 59 games over the best part of two months.
Only eight of those games will be telecast, with Network Ten taking tentative steps to augment its broadcast of the men's competition. It's a start - a way for the concept to begin proving itself. Cricket Australia for its part is concentrating on the match-day experience, and will hope to use attendance to drive interest and enthusiasm for the women's game among girls in the crowd, and among cricket lovers in general.
That explains idiosyncrasies in the fixture: things like Melbourne Stars and Brisbane Heat playing each other twice on the same day to start the season. Turns out that's a ploy to make at least one game available to people who might not be able to make the other, and to make the entire day into a carnival affair.
Most games are grouped around weekends and have free entry, designed to draw as many spectators as possible. The eight televised games will be double-headers with the corresponding men's teams, and entry to both comes with the same ticket. Then there's the geographical reach: aside from the usual international venues there will be visits to the Junction Oval in St Kilda (Melbourne), Kingston Twin Ovals in outer Hobart, Blacktown Oval in Sydney's west, Aquinas College in Perth, Drummoyne Oval by Sydney's harbour, and Allan Border Field in Albion.
What happens on the fields and in the pavilions will be the most interesting part, with unprecedented numbers of international players arriving to take part, and with the depth of the women's game newly tested with younger and less experienced players getting their chance to supplement the squads.
New South Wales is the regional power in the 50-over competition: before losing this year's final to South Australia the state had won ten in a row. But that group is now split across two Sydney teams, just as Victoria's players have been in Melbourne. Things are going to even out very quickly.
On paper, Brisbane Heat look the most impressive outfit. Jess Jonassen scored that memorable 99 in Australia's Test match win in Canterbury, but started her career as a spinner and remains a threat. The tall Holly Ferling debuted for Australia aged 17 and remains one of the country's best young pace prospects.
Delissa Kimmince can open with bat and ball, and only missed the Ashes tour through injury, while her replacement was the powerful Grace Harris, who has already hit some of the cleanest sixes in the women's game. England seamer Kate Cross bowled beautifully during the northern summer, including bags of wickets in the men's Lancashire League. Round that lot out with former Australian captain and wicketkeeper Jodie Fields, as well as a project player in former tennis international Ashleigh Barty, and there's a lot to watch.
Not that Perth Scorchers don't have a fearsome list. Nicole Bolton and Elyse Villani are the Australian opening batting partnership in both forms, and while Villani has struggled internationally she has some monster scores at domestic level. England captain Charlotte Edwards has brought not only her leadership but her favourite fast bowler, Katherine Brunt. And while Brunt can hit a long ball down the order, she can't match West Indies power-hitter Deandra Dottin, who has played some of the memorable innings of recent times.
Melbourne Stars have the dual star power of both Lanning sisters, Meg and Anna, as well as Australian legspinner Kristen Beams and England's brightest batting talent Natalie Sciver. The sport's most prominent name, Ellyse Perry, has gone to the Sydney Sixers, and while she may not have the required quality around her on that list, she can win games on her own in either discipline.
Women's cricket is often an arm-wrestle, with bowlers remaining in the game throughout and any target a possibility to defend. It's more about the fine touch and less about slogging out of trouble. So while attention gravitates to the batting, the most skilled units with the ball will likely do best. A pairing like international bowlers Sarah Coyte and Megan Schutt at the Adelaide Strikers might prove decisive.
Just as exciting as watching the best players will be seeing which of the newer and younger set can step up. In the next few weeks, we'll get to know a whole lot more about some of them. That's what the expanding world of women's cricket does: makes more space in the sky for stars.