December 26, 2010

The year of reckoning

The women proved that holding a joint World Twenty20 was a good idea and then went on to break all sorts of batting records in the format

And they thought last year was pressure. Forget 2009 and its two world tournaments: 2010 posed the biggest-ever challenge to women's cricket - the last chance to prove they deserved to share the international stage with the men.

The women had opened the first joint World Twenty20 with a big bang in 2009, yet a damp squib this year could have killed the experiment and thus starved future supplies of the oxygen of publicity they had begun to attract. A positive reaction from press and public was vital to ensure continued investment and improvement.

As with the inaugural experiment, the second Twenty20 - held in the Caribbean in May - fizzed with runs, records and a champagne toast to both the players and the ICC, who subsequently announced that all World Twenty20s would be held jointly. To call this a coup would be an understatement.

West Indies were the story of the tournament. Their explosive play - including the fastest-ever hundred for either sex, by Deandra Dottin - dumped holders England at the group stage, and they enjoyed an animated home crowd for their semi against New Zealand. This was where their fairytale ended.

New Zealand were broken bridesmaids for a third consecutive world final, as Australia rediscovered their form and belief. Wunderkind Ellyse Perry was electric. The Southern Stars' win gave the fans who had stayed on following the Australia men's loss something to cheer about - although staging the women second (for global TV scheduling) had an "after the show" feeling.

All the major teams impressed over 2010, especially with their fielding. For the teams ranked fifth to tenth, this year's introduction of a World Challenge was welcome, offering extra opportunities to improve ahead of the World Cup qualifiers of 2011.

South Africa took the 50-over honours at home - encouraging news after years of underperformance - and they also became the first women to top 200 in a Twenty20, when Shandre Fritz smashed an unbeaten 116 against Netherlands. The Twenty20 Trophy, though, was taken by West Indies, whose explosive play suits the shortest form.

Pakistan, whom one observer had labelled their country's "silver lining" for their World Cup heroics of 2009, were elevated to "golden girls" for winning the Asian Games, beating Bangladesh by 10 wickets. India's absence from the competition took off some polish, leaving Pakistan the only top-ten side.

Whither England, last year's double world champions? They lost their first ODI series of the year in India, although they were successful against Ireland, New Zealand and Sri Lanka in subsequent bilateral series. Claire Taylor became MBE, while Rachael Heyhoe-Flint's Freedom of Wolverhampton had been years in the making.

The ICC Player of the Year, however, was an Australian - allrounder Shelley Nitschke was the clear choice after excelling with both bat and ball. The award was also notable for Stafanie Taylor's inclusion on the shortlist, testimony again to West Indies' emergence.

High point
Deandra Dottin's 38-ball century - the fastest for women or men - in the 2010 World Twenty20 against South Africa epitomised the rapid improvement of female sides in the past few years. She was no secret weapon, though, having pummelled a fifty from 22 balls against Australia the previous year.

Low point
The women's game lost two legends in 2010: Betty Wilson of Australia and England's Audrey Collins. Wilson, aka the female Bradman, was the first person to take 10 wickets and make a century in a Test, against England in 1958. Collins, who featured in England's first home Test in 1939, was the longest-serving Women's Cricket Association president and one of the first 10 female MCC members. Both women were instrumental in the game making its transition from a very amateur era - where funding blazers and tours was the norm - to the more professional institution it is today.

What 2011 holds
With joint World Twenty20 status assured, from now on the focus for all teams must be to play as much as possible in order to keep improving.

There are inevitable limits to how powerful and athletic the women can become - particularly compared with the men - but if their backers keep funding and branding them appropriately, future dividends could be strong.

Even England's contracts are not a panacea, however, with their emphasis on coaching as well as playing. ECB boss Clare Connor has hinted that contracts focusing exclusively on play could be imminent, which would certainly help such key players as Sarah Taylor, who withdrew from the 2011 Ashes defence for monetary reasons.

The ICC expects all national boards to keep supporting their women: to this end, Australia host a New Zealand desperate to wrest the Rose Bowl for the first time this century. West Indies' aim to close the gap to the top four has been boosted with an invitation to India, while the other teams in the top 10 should kick on from the World Challenge, not least through the World Cup qualifiers in Bangladesh.

In all, much to look forward to and much already to celebrate, although if the women want to remain on top of the world, they cannot let up in their efforts. With talent in abundance and complacency absent, a sustainable future is realistic but the hard work has only just begun.

Jenny Roesler is a former assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo