Ashleigh Gardner has come in to bat at No. 8, faces her first ball of the match, the 25th of her career, and clips it so sweetly it almost hums as it clears the deep backward square fence. It's an incredible moment of cricket, like a dream, and it is where the women's game is right now.

The reason Gardner had to smash the first ball she faced is because Australia had got behind the rate. England had hustled well in the field, they had bowled very straight, and after Meg Lanning's wicket, they managed to shut Australia down.

Ellyse Perry and Elyse Villani were batting together in the last Powerplay. Perry had been struggling to get the ball away, but was on the way to another half-century; Villani was new to the crease and it was her facing the first nine balls of the Powerplay, scoring from only the ninth. There are no plays and misses, no savage turn or hooping swing; there is even a full toss. But Villani just can't get the ball away. Perry doesn't fare much better, and they end up with only 16 runs from their Powerplay.

The six and the dot balls, the story of women's cricket.


Most of us have grown up on men's cricket. Our notion of what cricket is could only ever be based on the majority of the cricket we watch, and the era in which we grew up. If you grew up in the '70s, '80s or '90s, women's cricket wasn't part of the cricket you watched. You might have seen tiny bits, years apart, but it wasn't much, and it wouldn't have been implanted in your brain the way other cricket was.

And there are people who, because of their age, or cricket dogma, don't think T20 cricket is proper cricket. Hell, there are a few who still don't think ODI cricket is. Women's cricket is another sometimes seen that way. But it being in this company is also apt, because women's cricket is as alien to the men's game as ODI cricket is to a Test match. It's a different format, still obviously cricket, but its own brand, with its own rules and kinks.

And we can't help but compare things; it's what we do in cricket all the time. But as Kartikeya Date has written, comparing the women's games to the men's is silly. There are many reasons, one of which is the slowness of evolution of the women's game. Men have been paid to play cricket since the 1700s; the women briefly had a professional competition in the late 1800s (before the men who ran it stole all the money) and then became professionals again a few years ago.

The worst thing about the comparison stuff is that most of the talk about what the women's game is really centres on what it isn't. What it is may be the most fascinating part.

When Pakistan faced up against England, we had two horribly mismatched sides. On paper, England had lost their last match, against India, and Pakistan had lost to South Africa, but in reality, the Pakistan women's team is still years from being a top-flight women's team who turn up with a chance of winning the tournament. Five teams looked like they could get into the semi-finals, maybe six if you trusted West Indies' T20 form over their ODI form. Pakistan were not one of them, and despite almost causing an upset over South Africa, they were not supposed to cause England problems.

So here you have the seventh-ranked side in women's ODI cricket, a team that until the previous game had never scored over 200 in a World Cup game, playing one of the favourites, who were keen to atone for a first-match loss, at home. And regularly in the first few overs, the Pakistan women had eight fielders inside the ring. Pakistan have six women whose job it is to stop singles, and two slips. At the crease is no dud: Sarah Taylor, who even with her recent troubles is still one of the best, and quickest, scorers in world cricket. With the smaller ring, and the extra fielder, it's an entirely different environment - it's intense dot balls, followed by regular boundaries.

The dot balls do pile up. Even one extra fielder in the circle changes things. In ODIs since the start of 2015, men have scored 48.3% of their runs in boundaries, and the women are only two points behind, on 46%. What the women don't do is make as many runs overall. There are only three women's teams that average over 250 runs per first innings. (At the Champions Trophy all eight teams averaged more than 250.)

There is also another knock-on effect from the extra fielder; women get run out a lot: 11.5% of their dismissals are from run-outs (even more than lbws); that is way more than the men's 6.7%. This is a big part of the game, and in the second game of the tournament, India ran out four England batsmen. It was the second run-out that showed the world how far India had come, when Deepti Sharma received a ball at point, turned and knocked down the stumps.

That run-out was only one of many incredibly athletic fielding displays in this tournament. The fielding athleticism is the most striking improvement in women's cricket. When Pakistan hit the ball into the outfield against South Africa, they instantly decided on two runs. And there was a time, not even that long ago, when in women's cricket it would have easily been completed. But Shabnim Ismail, the self-proclaimed fastest bowler, was out at deep cover. And as she put it, she didn't have to run that fast because she knows what a powerful arm she has.

The athleticism, smaller ring, and extra fielder in the circle certainly contribute to the extra run-outs, but there are other aspects to it. Perhaps the most striking thing is how many of the women seem to lack the kind of match awareness you'd expect of cricketers who are at the top of their sport.

It's not a lack of talent; it's a lack of time in the middle. Kainat Imtiaz bowls huge hooping outswingers from close to the stumps. What she doesn't do is try for straight balls, bowl cross-seam or bowl wide of the crease. The talent is often there, but it's raw.

The women have not played enough, and mostly they have not played enough under huge amounts of pressure. Most women's games are not televised - they are barely attended, and there is virtually no press there to dissect them. The women go from games in front of family and friends to games in front of huge TV audiences. It's not an easy adjustment.

South Africa made the semi-final despite 18% of their dismissals being run-outs. West Indies won the World T20 last year and were bowled out for 48 (which took 6.2 overs to chase). And the bowling is still a long way from the standard it should be at the top level.

There are too many doorknob spinners delivering naked pies on slow pitches, and while spin is being successful, it's hardly the sort of quality spin that excites or inspires. There is a genuine lack of proper seam bowling in the game - bowlers who can run in and hit the top of off with a probing delivery. The leading wicket-taker at this tournament was South Africa captain Dane van Niekerk, who ended with 15 wickets at 10, going at 3.46 an over from her legspin, while also questioning how well she had bowled the entire time.

It is also possible that the batting has moved beyond the bowling. That happens in cricket all the time. In Mithali Raj, Taylor and Lanning we have three all-time greats. Lizelle Lee, Nat Sciver, Harmanpreet Kaur and Deandra Dottin are all in the list of best hitters ever in the game. That doesn't account for older stars like Suzie Bates or younger ones like Hayley Matthews. The batting is incredible.

And maybe the future of bowling can be seen in van Niekerk's team, four seamers, all of whom bowl a decent pace or move it: Marizanne Kapp has a textbook action; Moseline Daniels bowls left-arm swing; Ayabonga Khaka is tenacious; and Ismail is wild. How is it a team that is ranked only sixth in the world coming into this tournament can have four seamers of this quality?

The truth is, it isn't just South Africa improving, it's everyone. Almost every single question about how a team had improved in this tournament was met by a player or coach saying that everyone had improved. England coach Mark Robinson has not yet been in women's cricket two years, and even he could barely believe the improvement of the teams in that short period.

There are a lot of dot balls, too many run-outs, and on occasion, some filth bowled, but there are also teenage girls hitting sixes off their first ball, a bowling attack with four genuine seamers, and by far the best collection of batting that has existed. Women's cricket right now is claustrophobic cricket that is evolving quicker than any other format. And it is one other thing: the best it has ever been.


Jhulan Goswami looks like a giant compared to her mid-on and -off. Her hair is blowing everywhere in the wind. She looks up and in front of her is Lanning. Goswami is not new to the game; she's been around for years, a true lionheart for the Indian team. But she is bowling to the evolution of the modern game.

Lanning is a professional, has power and timing, can hit sixes, bats long innings, places the ball to every part of the ground, runs hard, and has one of the best support systems in the game behind her.

Lanning and her ilk have owned this tournament. Laura Wolvaardt has made graceful runs. Smriti Mandhana opened the tournament with a bang. There were Lee's huge hits, Taylor's comeback knock, Sciver's two brutal hundreds, Kaur's day of destruction, and the once-in-a-lifetime knock of Chamari Atapattu. All have all been brilliant. It has been the batting, along with few close games and qualification for the finals right until the end that have made this a great tournament.

Almost all the players who have starred in this tournament have got into professional, or at least organised systems, early in their life.

Goswami is 34, and it wasn't until a few weeks ago that she ever played in an Indian side with a full-time fielding coach. But here she is, a legend largely of her own making, steaming in to deliver a ball that beats Lanning for pace, beats her off the pitch, just beats her and takes off stump.

There are some who think that to fix women's cricket we need to shorten the pitch, and yet here is one of the last champion amateurs, blasting through one of the greatest players in the history of the game. If the women's game can invent someone like this from outside their brave new world, what will it be able to unearth from their professional revolution?

When Goswami started playing, being a professional wasn't even a real dream. Playing every game of World Cup broadcast in India was unheard of. And no one expected India to be a force in the game. Her ball to Lanning is an incredible moment of cricket, and it isn't a dream, it is also where the women's game is right now.