More money, more games, more exposure
The women's international calendar seems to get busier every year; 2015 featured a record ten bilateral series. Amid it all the ICC Women's Championship (IWC) continued apace, with notable records broken.
Pakistan, who began the year with a 3-0 whitewash of Sri Lanka in the UAE, finished the series in style, chasing 243 to complete their highest chase in ODI history, with Javeria Khan becoming only the second Pakistani to score a century in a women's ODI. Anam Amin, their 23-year-old left-arm spinner, also had a good year, with record figures of 10-5-7-4 helping secure a 2-0 series victory for her side against Bangladesh in October.
It was a mixed year as far as Bangladesh were concerned: still a fledgling side in international women's cricket, they enjoyed success against Zimbabwe in November (winning both matches in their T20 mini-series), yet could not complete their long-awaited fixtures against South Africa after CSA postponed the tour indefinitely due to "personal security concerns". No doubt both sides will have been disappointed by this turn of events; the South Africans themselves have played just six international matches over the past 12 months.
However, Bangladesh ended the year on a high by qualifying for the 2016 World T20, finishing runners-up at the qualifying tournament in Thailand. It was an exciting tournament all round, with China securing their first win in an ICC global tournament (a five-wicket victory against Netherlands), and Ireland beating Bangladesh in the close final.
Ireland, in fact, continued to make their case as the best team in international women's cricket outside of the top eight, arguably outperforming their English neighbours with the bat in their T20 series against the Australians in August (although they lost all three games).
England meanwhile endured an embarrassing Ashes series, surrendering the urn 6-10 on points, suffering numerous batting collapses - most notably in Hove when they were bowled out for 87 in the second T20, chasing a mere 108. It followed on from their poor performance with the bat in New Zealand back in February, leading to the loss of two of the three Championship ODIs. They finish the year fifth in the Championship rankings, thus facing the awkward position of possibly having to qualify for a World Cup they will be hosting.
Nonetheless, the Ashes series marked significant progress for the women's game, with every match - including, for the first time ever, the Test match - televised ball by ball on Sky. The print coverage was also unprecedented, and the record crowds - 22,000 people all told, notwithstanding the 5500 who turned up for the women's half of the Cardiff double-header - suggested that the women's game is now a valued product in its own right.
The fact that women's cricket is now attracting top-calibre male coaches, who have made a name for themselves in the men's game, adds to that impression.
In the wake of England's Ashes debacle, Paul Shaw, Head of England Women's Performance for the last two years, stepped down and was replaced by the highly regarded Sussex coach Mark Robinson. Prior to the series, Matthew Mott, the former assistant coach to the Australian men's team, had taken over from Cathryn Fitzpatrick as head coach of the Southern Stars, and seems to have enjoyed remarkable success with his side.
Australia currently sit atop the IWC rankings and, according to the new ICC rankings for women's cricket announced in October, were this year confirmed as the top-ranked side in all three formats of the game. Mott aside, there is no doubt that the pay rises announced by Cricket Australia and the state associations back in May have had a significant impact, ensuring that those contracted to CA can now earn up to A$85,000, while those at state level will now earn a minimum of $7000.
Perhaps only New Zealand have this year bucked the general trend towards appointment of male coaches: in April, former captain Haidee Tiffen took over as coach from Hamish Barton. It's a move that seems to have paid off for the Kiwis, who have, over the past 12 months, risen from bottom of the table to third in the IWC rankings following successful series against England, India and most recently Sri Lanka, who they whitewashed in both the ODI and T20 formats. The supremely talented Rachel Priest and captain Suzie Bates averaged 158 and 129 respectively against the Sri Lankans in the five-match ODI series. While Sri Lanka were heralded as an up-and-coming side after the last World Cup, in 2013, they have continued to struggle against the top sides this year, reflected in their current last-place position in the IWC points table.
India's own loss to New Zealand at home marked a poor year for them results-wise. While Mithali Raj's long reign at the helm saw her awarded the prestigious Padma Shri back in April, her side finish 2015 only just ahead of Sri Lanka in the IWC table.
The recent news that the BCCI has finally agreed to award contracts to its women's team, more than a decade after doing so for its male players, will no doubt be extremely welcome. It also means that all the top eight nations now have contract systems in place, marking yet another significant step forward for the women's game.
The launch of the inaugural Women's Big Bash League in Australia earlier this month, makes it the first franchise T20 tournament for women anywhere in the world. Comprising 59 matches over 51 days and offering all participating players a minimum retainer of A$3000, the tournament has attracted stars from England, New Zealand, South Africa and West Indies, as well as luring some big names (notably Australia's own Lisa Sthalekar) out of retirement. With wide-ranging media coverage and crowd sizes to match, as well as the promise that eight of the games, including the final, will be televised, it has already revolutionised domestic women's cricket and looks set to continue doing so into 2016 and beyond.
The media storm that followed the Ashes Test match in Canterbury in August: Australia's 161-run triumph was swallowed up by the critique of England's turgid performance with the bat, in particular the 436 dot balls and 34 maidens that were played out in their first innings. Mike Selvey's piece in the Guardian was especially damning, describing it as "excruciating" and calling for the abolition of women's Test cricket altogether. The fact that Canterbury had still been the most competitive Ashes Test match of the 2015 summer to date was conveniently overlooked in the rush to criticise. Parity with the men's game is still, it seems, a long way off.
New kid on the block
Twenty-two-year-old Queenslander Grace Harris: Australia's new trump card, a power hitter, who, as captain Meg Lanning puts it, "can come in and hit sixes for fun" (still a rare quality in the women's game). Following an ignominious debut against Ireland in August, when she ran out team-mate Ellyse Perry and made a duck, she recovered to win Player of the Series, and went on to feature in all three of the Ashes T20s, finishing with a strike rate of 170.68. Watch out for fireworks in the World T20 next year.
What 2016 holds
The final of the inaugural WBBL is scheduled for January 24. It will be followed later in the year by England's own version, the Women's Cricket Super League, which will see the 80 best players in England, and up to 12 of the best internationally, competing in six teams (hosts yet to be decided) for a multi-thousand-pound prize fund. Both tournaments have the potential to be game-changers for women's cricket.
The Women's World T20 kicks off in India in March. England, who lost to Australia in the final last time around, will be looking to avenge their Ashes defeat in what will be the first real test of new coach Mark Robinson's leadership, though no doubt Lanning's side will have other ideas.
And, of course, the last round of the IWC is due to conclude in November, with it becoming clear which four of the top eight nations will automatically qualify for the 2017 World Cup. It will certainly give this year's Championship fixtures added zest.
Raf Nicholson is a PhD student, an England supporter, a feminist, and fanatical about women's cricket. @RafNicholson