An indicator of the lay of the land and a boost for South Africa, the country

This World Cup brings global sporting action back to South Africa, that too with a women's tournament

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
There is no better time to be a women's cricketer. There's more playing opportunities and professionalism than ever before; more money, more interest and more attention on the game than at any time in its history and naturally, more at stake.
The T20 World Cup is among the game's biggest prizes, and this one, the first since a packed MCG told us women's cricket was hitting all the right notes, is particularly significant. A pandemic has come and (almost) gone since that memorable day and the women's game suffered disproportionately because of it. FICA's Women's Global Employment Report noted that as tours and fixtures were cancelled over the next 18 months, only five countries - Australia, England, India, New Zealand and South Africa - maintained their pre-pandemic playing days while the rest of the ODI nations' matches halved. In essence, this is the dividing line that defines the next phase of the professionalism of the women's game: who gets ahead and who gets left behind. This World Cup will serve as an indicator for the lay of the land.
But it is also - and you wouldn't ordinarily say this about a World Cup - a shop window of sorts. The WPL auction will take place on day four of the tournament, after nine of the 10 teams (Ireland are the exception) will have played their opening matches. The performances in that first round could change the lives of players who end up securing big-money deals and the WPL as a whole is likely to change the landscape of the women's game and perhaps, even reduce the gaps in the international game which stem from differences in infrastructure and investment.
The best and the rest
As far as this World Cup goes, there's a clear front-runner: Australia. It could turn out that the real competition will take place between England, India, New Zealand, South Africa, West Indies, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Ireland to decide who will lose to Australia in the final rather than a competition for the trophy itself. That's not to put a damper on things but we have to be realistic and acknowledge how far ahead of the pack Australia are. FICA called them the "global leader in the women's game," as they've been to six of the seven T20 World Cup finals, won five, and they have only been beaten twice (once in a Super Over) between their 2020 T20 World Cup win and the start of this tournament.
But there is one thing that may prove challenging for the defending champions. Australia have never played a T20I in South Africa and have only toured the country for one white-ball tour - the 2005 Women's World Cup - and yes, they won that too. That competition was held upcountry while this one will be played in the Western and Eastern Cape, venues that are completely foreign to Australia. They came in expecting pace and bounce and have been surprised by the slow nature of the coastal wickets including the tired Newlands surface where they beat India in their first warm-up match on Monday.
Australia and India are the only two teams to have been given a practice match at a World Cup venue, and it was on Australia's request - because they play no group matches at Newlands and expect to make the semi-finals, which will both be played there - and have been given some opportunity to get to grips with the surfaces. They may not be entirely to Australia's liking, which could tilt the balance, but probably only slightly.
As for the challengers, India, buoyed by their Under-19 Women's T20 World Cup win and the WPL on the horizon, and England, ranked second, are the obvious candidates but don't count out at least two others. New Zealand were the only team to beat Australia in a regular T20I in the last three years and have a good mix of youth and experience. South Africa, apart from being the hosts, are two-time semi-finalists and believe this to be their full circle moment. Their coach Hilton Moreeng is in his 10th, and likely last, year in charge and has overseen their full transition: from amateur to professional to pushing for major tournaments, and deserves a crowning moment send-off. The Dané van Niekerk saga aside, South Africa have a strong outfit with several match-winners, who will want to make the most of their opportunity to do something special in their backyard.
This time for (South) Africa
Upto the point that Shakira sang those words to open the 2010 Football World Cup, South Africa was considered a premier destination for major sporting, and especially cricketing, events. It had hosted the 2003 Cricket World Cup, the 2007 T20 World Cup, the 2009 Champions Trophy and the IPL that year. Since then, South Africa has fallen away sharply as ageing infrastructure and high-level corruption have left the country on the brink of being labelled dysfunctional. There have been rolling electricity blackouts every day since Christmas 2022 and for a record number of days last year. The World Bank ranks it as the most economically unequal country on earth and Forbes magazine has rated South Africa as the most dangerous place for female travellers. Yet, here we are.
This year, South Africa has launched its own franchise T20 league, played host to the inaugural Under-19 Women's T20 World Cup, it's about to host the senior Women's T20 World Cup, and will host the Netball World Cup in the winter. The costs of keeping the lights have all been borne by the tournament organisers, with the ICC funding the generators that will be used at Newlands, Boland Park and St. George's Park over the next two weeks. The country's premier sports broadcaster, SuperSport, who still largely hire women in a decorative rather than substantive role, have changed their tagline to "Here for Her" in a bid to show their support for women's sport. They broadcast more of it than ever before and given their presence on the continent as a whole, that means women's sport is getting extensive exposure and it also affords the opportunity for South Africa to celebrate women.
It is also a chance to enjoy South Africa's stadia, which, as Eoin Morgan told ESPNcricinfo while playing for Paarl Royals at SA20, still carry a certain charm because of the grass embankments. While grounds in other parts of the world are entirely built up, Newlands, Boland Park and St. George's Park all retain an informal atmosphere, where picnic blankets can be laid down, umbrellas and gazebos put up and a proper party had. And there's every chance of that happening. The Women's T20 World Cup comes in the midst of a summer where locals have regained their love of cricket (thanks, in no small part, to that SA20) and are filling stands with a fervour not seen before. Ticket sales are said to be progressing steadily and decent crowds are expected throughout with the municipalities in Cape Town, Paarl and Gqeberha also doing promotional work.
The City of Cape Town - the municipality of the city - has taken ownership of the bulk of the marketing and on Saturday held a beachfront event, with all 10 teams present, to launch the tournament. Each captain was gifted an individual and locally significant trinket. Heather Knight got a doek (an African head scarf) and was shown how to tie it, Hayley Matthews was given a skirt, Laura Delany got a beaded necklace and Harmanpreet Kaur, an apron, although it's understood she does not cook. Well meaning as the City was, their item of choice for the South African captain was, let's say, hopefully ironic rather than symbolic. Sune Luus was given a wooden spoon (and fork).
Still, there's no better time to be a women's cricketer, Luus confirmed at the captain's press conference, especially a cricketer leading her team in a home World Cup.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent