Women prepare to battle for No. 1 spot
The battle to be crowned No. 1 women's team in the world begins this week when England, India, New Zealand and Australia compete in the Natwest Twenty20 and 50-over quadrangular tournament.
Two years ago England were undisputedly the best side, winning the World Twenty20 and World Cup in the same year, as well as retaining the women's Ashes. Since then other sides have improved while injuries and loss of form have seen England rejoin the rest of the pack.
They had a poor World Twenty20 in West Indies last year, falling out at the group stage, while Australia took the trophy after beating New Zealand in the final. England also then lost their hold on the Ashes when Australia won a one-off Test in Sydney at the beginning of the year.
Despite the slips, Charlotte Edwards, England's captain, is confident her side can turn things around and is looking forward to putting on a good show when the Twenty20-leg starts on Thursday, against New Zealand in Chelmsford.
"We have been lacklustre in the last couple of years I guess, but we welcome back a number of players from injury and other things and we're looking forward to putting on a good show," she told ESPNcricinfo. "The atmosphere we get for Twenty20 cricket especially is good and hopefully if we get some people at the grounds we can show that we are a good side."
Though Edwards conceded home conditions will help she didn't feel England could start as favourites. "I don't think, with the way the teams are now, that anyone can really feel favourites. Especially in Twenty20 cricket where it just takes one good performance to turn things.
"These are our home conditions though so I guess that should be something that works in our favour but I'm just looking forward to a good performance from all our players. Gone are the days in women's cricket where you just needed one strong player to win games; we will need all of our players to claim that title of No. 1."
Australia have a clutch of exciting players and after lifting the World Twenty20 are confident of impressing again. Captain Jodie Fields thinks the experience that many of the players gained in England two years ago will hold the side in good stead.
"The girls played really well in the West Indies and the goal here is to come and perform as well and win the tournament. We have our experienced and consistent players like Lisa Sthalekar and Shelley Nitschke who will look to drive our younger players. Meg Lanning, our opener, is one who I expect will come out here and do well.
"We've been training really hard since coming over here. We're happy playing both formats and we think we can come here and win both [the Twenty20 and 50-over tournaments], that's what our aim is."
For local rivals New Zealand, the tournament represents captain Aimee Watkins' farewell as she's retiring at the end of the tour. That, though, won't, be a distraction for her team, Watkins said, but their recent form has been patchy and she says her side will start as underdogs.
"I know it's my last tour and it's actually quite an exciting time for me but it won't affect the players," Watkins said. "We are excited to be here and it's a great tournament with the best teams. Though I'm confident in all our players I'd say we probably start as underdogs. We play India on Thursday and they have won both their warm-up games while we've come out of our off season."
New Zealand have been perpetual bridesmaids; they lost in the final of the last World Twenty20 to Australia, the one before that to England in 2009 and, in the same year, the final of the 50-over World Cup as well.
It is an aspect of their game that the team has discussed and Watkins says they have been unable to understand exactly what the problem is. "It's something we have discussed a lot, with coaches, among ourselves as players, but we can't put our finger on it.
"I don't think it's a specific problem really. On the day you need a bit of luck but each time, while we've been outplayed by a better side, we haven't maybe given the best account of ourselves."
One thing that will be in New Zealand's favour is the weather. Dank, damp and cold, the English summer is more than familiar to New Zealand and Watkins, who has happy memories of England after top-scoring in the 2009 World Twenty20, says the team will relish the conditions. "We love touring here. The weather and conditions suit us and are very familiar."
India will be less impressed with conditions having left the height of summer back home. Yet captain Jhulan Goswami says the exposure is important for the team and thinks the tournament is crucial for their development. "After the World Cups this is the biggest tournament," said Goswami. "It gives us exposure against the best teams. Obviously some of our players haven't been here but to be the best you have to play well in all conditions. We are really looking forward to just starting."
Sahil Dutta is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo