Women's game caught in a Test conundrum

Nadine de Klerk says South Africa were "like headless chickens" with the red ball in England last year

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Nadine de Klerk made her Test debut in England in 2022  •  Getty Images

Nadine de Klerk made her Test debut in England in 2022  •  Getty Images

"It's called Test cricket for a reason," is one of the well-worn tropes used to describe the challenges and the thrills of the game's longest format, which is still seen as the pinnacle for most of its players, including women. But, as much as women want in on the red-ball game, they also want proper preparation for the longest format to fully enjoy the experience of playing in it.
"Prepping for Test matches is completely different from a conditioning point of view and from a loads point of view. And if you've never played it before, it's going to be quite hard. It's going to be taxing on your body," Nadine de Klerk, South Africa's allrounder told ESPNcricinfo on the Ladies who Switch podcast. "I feel like because we weren't quite sure how it works against England, we were a bit like headless chickens. But that's a nice thing as well, because you learn from it."
De Klerk was one of nine debutants when South Africa played their first Test in eight years, against England last June and reflected on it as a learning experience. "We played some decent cricket for a team that had nine debutants. It was quite hard on the bodies. Getting out of bed the next day after bowling 14 or 16 overs in a day, you have to be up and down in the field, and being an allrounder, so you have to bat as well, was tough. But we didn't lose against them, which is great," she said.
The draw at Taunton was the sixth successive such result in women's Tests and the 93rd in a 144-match history. That means almost two-thirds of women's Tests have no winners or losers, which could speak to a more tentative approach in the game's most elite format, that most women's Tests are played over four days or, as de Klerk discussed, that there is inadequate preparation to ready players to force a result. "We weren't quite sure how to play. Prep should be changed accordingly and you have to change the way you train," she said.
But how?
South Africa's women's set-up, like most others, does not include a multi-day domestic competition. That stands to reason given the cost of staging those fixtures and the absence of any real reason to have them. Women's Tests are played infrequently - those 144 Tests have taken place in 90 years, since December 1934 - and, these days, very rarely as anything more than one-offs. The last time a two-Test series took place was between India and England in 2006. Simply put, there isn't enough room in the calendar to justify Test-match specific training so players have to learn on the job, as South Africa did, or by watching other teams. De Klerk will have the opportunity for the latter later this month.
She's currently playing regional cricket for The Blaze and lives in an apartment across the road from Trent Bridge, venue of the Women's Ashes Test. She has witnessed the sense of anticipation first hand and hopes to be among the spectators to take in the occasion. "I've seen the banners advertising the game and I've heard there've been quite a few tickets sold," she said.
At the time of writing, 11,000 tickets had been snapped up for the Test, which confirms a record level of interest in the game but one that is unlikely to be satisfied by the schedule. There are only six Tests pencilled in for the current women's FTP, which runs from May 2022 to April 2025 and they only involve four countries: England, Australia, South Africa and India. Two of the six matches are Ashes Tests, while South Africa and India don't play against each other, but only against England and Australia.
"I think it's quite harsh that we get to play England and Australia in a Test match, who play the Ashes every now and again and they get to play Test matches more often," de Klerk said. "But, it's okay because we are playing against the best in the world so if you want to learn your trade and figure out how Test cricket works, it's probably best to do it against teams like Australia and England because they've done it quite a few times. That makes the challenge really good, I guess."
That England and Australia dominate the Test market is to be expected, and most starkly expressed in the women's game. They have contested 51 matches - more than a third - out of all Women's Tests played. West Indies, South Africa, India and New Zealand have all played more than 10 Tests each, but both West Indies and New Zealand last competed in the format 19 years ago, and neither have any Tests scheduled until at least 2025. To de Klerk's point, it means most women's national teams will not have the opportunities to be tested in cricket's sternest way as the gap between the game's haves and have nots continues to widen.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent for South Africa and women's cricket