Women's cricket December 30, 2017

The biggest, boldest year in women's cricket

An exciting and well-covered World Cup took the game to the next level

England won the World Cup final, which was the country's most watched televised cricket event of the summer © Getty Images

The year 2017 was really all about the 11th Women's World Cup. The international year began in February, with the qualifying tournament in Colombo, which provided a rare opportunity for Associate nations - including, for the first time, Thailand - to meet some of the top-ranked teams. While India, South Africa, Pakistan and Sri Lanka all successfully qualified, as expected, for the World Cup, there was good news also for Ireland and Bangladesh, who retained their ODI status until 2021 by virtue of reaching the Super Sixes stage. The final, between South Africa and India, ultimately came down to a thrilling final-over finish: with India needing eight off the final two balls, Harmanpreet Kaur struck a six and took two off the last.

The World Cup itself, hosted by England in June and July, was already destined to be a historic occasion even before the first ball was bowled. In May the ICC announced there was a tenfold increase from the 2013 edition in the prize money, with US$2 million up for grabs - a move ICC chief executive Dave Richardson labelled as "the first step towards greater parity and recognition". The TV coverage was also transformed. At the last World Cup, only ten games were broadcast. This time around, every single one of the 31 matches was either televised or live-streamed around the world, with coverage available in nearly 200 different countries. This investment by the ICC paid dividends: the group stages ultimately reached a global TV audience of over 50 million people (80% higher than in 2013).

The cricket on show did not disappoint. Overall the tournament clearly demonstrated the progress made in women's cricket in the last four years: 15 innings passed the 250 mark (as against eight in 2013); 14 hundreds were scored (there were 11 in 2013); and Chamari Atapattu's 178 not out and Harmanpreet's 171 not out, both against Australia, became the third and fifth highest scores in women's ODI cricket, respectively.

The hosts were involved in several nail-biters, beating Australia by three runs and knocking out South Africa - who had reached their first semi-final in 17 years - by two wickets, with only two balls remaining. For England, whose players paid tribute to coach Mark Robinson for turning their fortunes around, their win at home in front of a sellout crowd was the stuff dreams are made of.

Harmanpreet Kaur's unbeaten 171 in the World Cup semi-final will go down as one of the best innings in the game © Getty Images

India, who faced up to England in the final at Lord's, might have thrown away their chance at glory - losing seven wickets for 28 runs in their unsuccessful chase - but the frenzied reception that greeted them on their arrival in Mumbai showed that they had won hearts nonetheless. The captain, Mithali Raj, also secured her place in history, becoming the leading run scorer in women's ODI cricket during the tournament. While the side have played no internationals since the tournament concluded, in what some have lamented as a lost opportunity, there is evidence that the BCCI's attitude towards women's cricket may be slowly softening: renewed central contracts were awarded back in May, with pay increases apparently on the horizon in the new year, and each World Cup squad member was gifted Rs 50 lakh (approximately US $77,800) on their return.

But every World Cup produces losers as well as winners. For West Indies, 2017 will be a year they will be happy to forget: five losses in seven World Cup matches, including being bowled out for 48 and beaten by ten wickets by South Africa. It was a performance that led to the subsequent removal of the entire management team, including the coach, Vasbert Drakes. The side's ODI and T20I whitewash of eighth-ranked Sri Lanka in October will have been scant consolation.

Australia too will consider themselves to have underperformed in 2017. Cricket Australia's new MoU announced in August, ensured that they continued to race ahead in the professionalisation stakes: Australian international female cricketers will now earn an average of A$180,000 (approx. US$137,000); and the rewards extend downwards, with all state players to be paid at least A$25,659, and those playing in the WBBL A$10,292. But it was a settlement that came too late for the defending champions, sent packing at the semi-final stage thanks to an annihilation at the hands of Harmanpreet.

Australia's year did end on a high: in November they successfully retained the women's Ashes trophy (which they had won in England in 2015) by drawing the multi-format series 8-8.

The jewel in the crown of the series was once again the one-off Test match, the first four-day women's game to be played since the last Ashes Test in Canterbury in 2015.

Ellyse Perry made Australia's highest Test score - 213 not out - in the Ashes Test in Sydney © Getty Images

Ellyse Perry's incredible innings of 213 not out saw her enter the record books, but proved not quite enough to secure a result, with England hanging on through the fourth day for a draw. Overall the success of the event - 12,674 fans in attendance across the four days at North Sydney Oval - led to some criticism of the ICC for its failure to support the women's Test format, though all indications are that the policy of no Tests outside of the Ashes will continue, at least in the short term.

But despite their Ashes success, and with one eye on the 2018 World T20, Australia have stumbled in the shortest format this year. They lost not just the T20 leg of the Ashes but their home series against New Zealand in March, during which they were routed for 66, their lowest ever T20I score.

For New Zealand, that performance was surely the high point of a year that as a whole has been rather disappointing. The pre-tournament World Cup favourites failed to even reach the semi-finals, bowled out for 79 in their head to head against India, in a performance which left question marks over their big-game temperament. In November they suffered their first ODI defeat at the hands of World Cup wooden-spoon holders Pakistan, a team fresh from the upheaval of losing Sana Mir as captain after she had a very public disagreement with the PCB management.

New Zealand can perhaps seek solace in the fact that their players continue to light up T20 franchise leagues in both England and Australia. With all matches in WBBL 2 live-streamed free, and six of the KSL group-stage games plus finals day in Hove shown live on Sky, women's franchise cricket continued to thrive in 2017. All three centuries hit across the WBBL and the KSL were by New Zealanders - Sophie Devine, Suzie Bates and Rachel Priest.

High point
The sellout World Cup final at Lord's. Expectations of a successful day were high but nobody could have predicted what eventually transpired - the biggest occasion women's cricket has ever seen, with fans queuing round the block to get into a match that was watched by more English viewers than any other televised cricket event in the 2017 summer.

An unforgettable day for all concerned, not least for the cricket on show: thrilling, edge-of-the-seat stuff as Anya Shrubsole ripped through the Indian tail to make English dreams come true. It truly was a watershed moment for the women's game.

South Africa opener Laura Wolvaardt made four half-centuries in seven innings in the World Cup © ICC/Getty

Low point
Difficult, this one - it's been a good year - but Cricket Australia leaving its women's team unemployed in the middle of a major tournament is certainly a contender. With the existing MoU expiring in the middle of the group stages of the World Cup, Meg Lanning and Co were caught bang in the middle of the pay dispute and left wondering if they'd be able to pay the rent upon their return home. Did it contribute to Australia crashing out of the World Cup in the semi-final? Hard to say, but it certainly wasn't a good look.

New kid on the block
Eighteen-year-old South African opener Laura Wolvaardt continues to make waves, following her international debut last year. Her classical style has continued to yield runs aplenty, including a second international century against Ireland in May, and a 324-run tally (at an average of 65) across the World Cup, winning her a place in the ICC's team of the tournament. The doctor-in-training has big decisions ahead of her, but for now cricket remains on the agenda. She's currently to be seen playing for Brisbane Heat in the third WBBL.

What 2018 holds
There's another World Cup in November - in the T20 format this time - the first standalone tournament to be played in the format. West Indies will be playing host and looking to defend the title they won in India in 2016. Can they recover from their nightmare 2017 in time?

Following India's success at the 2017 World Cup, there have been some intriguing hints, too, about the possibility of the first ever Women's IPL taking place before 2018 is up - something to look out for!

Raf Nicholson is a writer on and historian of women's cricket. @RafNicholson