Mithali Raj-led team India haven't had any game-time since the Women's World Cup 2017 final. © AFP

Mithali Raj-led team India haven’t had any game-time since the Women’s World Cup 2017 final. © AFP

In the 78 days since leading India to the final of the ICC Women’s World Cup 2017 at Lord’s, Mithali Raj, the captain, has been a busy person. In her own words, it took her a couple of months after that July 23 final to even unpack. None of this, though, was because India Women were on the field playing cricket, building on their World Cup successes and capitalising on the goodwill from their campaign to fill up stands. The World Cup runners-up will unfortunately not be in action till next February, when they travel to South Africa. The first domestic commitment for most senior players too is only in December.

The team’s sparse calendar is a reminder that despite the unprecedented reception for the World Cup, it is no guarantee of more matches; the wheels of administrative change in that regard move slowly.

As far as getting actual game-time goes, it would appear the ICC Women’s Championship remains the best bet for female cricketers.

In its first edition, which began in 2014, the championship ensured that teams went into the 2017 World Cup more prepared, more competitive and more closely matched than ever before. A problem in the past was that Australia, England and New Zealand played a lot among themselves, meeting lower-ranked teams often only in global tournaments. The championship, which demanded that each of the top eight teams play the others for at least three ODIs each, was a drastic change from that, and made for many firsts. It wasn’t a surprise that this World Cup, which featured a dramatic nine-run win in the final, came with a massive jump in standards from the past edition – more centuries were scored (14 in 2017 to 11 in 2013), more sixes were struck (111 to 67), more 250-plus totals were posted (15 to 8) and all at a considerably improved run-rate.

As a result, expectations will be high from the second edition of the Women’s Championship, which was launched with considerable media blitz by the ICC on Monday (October 9).

India’s tour of South Africa too will be played as part of the Women’s Championship. The second edition, which will run from 2017 to 2020, will decide the top three teams out of eight that will join hosts New Zealand for the 2021 Women’s World Cup. The first round begins on October 11, with Windies Women hosting Sri Lanka. England will travel to Australia for their three ODIs, which will form part of the multi-format Ashes tour, the same month, while New Zealand have their first away bilateral series against Pakistan, in the UAE. South Africa and India then bring the first set of matches to a close on February 10. In all, before the next World Cup, the teams can expect to play at least 21 ODIs.

The ICC’s announcement highlighted how this time, the games will take place in a different environment. According to a survey conducted by the cricket body, since the World Cup, 67% of sports fans have said they’ll take a greater interest in women’s cricket, and 50% of the children who watched in June have been encouraged to take up the sport. New “markets” have been breached, the ICC have been at pains to point out.

However, it would seem that there have still been some opportunities missed.

Mithali Raj and Anjum Chopra at the second edition launch of ICC Women's Championship. © ICC

Mithali Raj and Anjum Chopra at the second edition launch of ICC Women’s Championship. © ICC

The championship still includes only eight teams rather than ten, with Bangladesh and Ireland continuing to be trapped in that limbo of being too good for the Associates, and not good enough for the top eight. This decision is not a surprise, with ICC officials having suggested earlier in the year that an expansion would have to wait – but it does little to address the fact that these teams too desperately need the boost that comes from playing the best sides regularly.

“It’s hard not to feel that ICC have missed a trick,” Ireland’s Ciara Metcalfe, who also coaches the Under-19 side, told Wisden India. “Both [Ireland and Bangladesh] clearly have established players and quality that would carry them through, but playing ten fixtures over a year, opposed to 30-plus that some countries are playing, [makes it] a no-brainer … Leaving both teams out for another two-year stint seems a pointless exercise and is only increasing the gap between top cricketing countries and the minnows.”

“We haven’t performed as well as they (the ICC) would want or we would want, but I am not sure that we will until we get more of a chance to practise those skills that we want,” Ireland’s Isobel Joyce had said after their unsuccessful World Cup Qualifier earlier this year. “We have played so few 50-over games in the last couple of cycles. That’s partly to do with the fact that it’s a ten-team T20 World Cup, so that’s been our focus. More 50-over cricket is really important, but if we don’t perform at 50-over level, then we are less likely to get more 50-over cricket, so we are kind of in a Catch-22 situation.”

Also noteworthy in the ICC’s announcement is that “no other ODIs can be scheduled along with Women’s Championship series”.

In the last few years, bilateral series sometimes included four, five or even seven ODIs, which led to situations where one team took away maximum ICC Championship points, but the other won the series. The ICC’s latest caveat is seemingly to ensure the primacy of the championship and maximum context for the ODIs. But this could be a step backwards. If precedent is anything to go by, it is unlikely boards will back additional ODI tours outside of those absolutely required of them.

Recent reports have indicated that the powers that be are keen to restrict all men’s ODI series to three matches as well. But that is in a potential 13-team league, which seeks to address the issue of too much cricket being played – neither of which is relevant in an eight-team women’s set-up, where a Test too is as rare as a sexism-free Twitter feed.

With the stand-alone Women’s World T20 scheduled in the Caribbean late next year, the focus of teams is now on T20s. And with no limit on the number of bilateral T20Is, it could be another indication of how the authorities see the shortest format as the way forward for the women’s game (notwithstanding its continued absence from the Olympics or Commonwealth Games – but that is a discussion for another day).

If we’re looking for positives, it could be interesting to see which of the boards embrace the added onus of keeping their best cricketers busy. There could potentially be more triangular and quadrilateral contests – formats that continue to be popular in the women’s game. And if the ICC really are keen to build on the momentum, it is also perhaps time for a Youth World Cup, and for boards to organise ‘A’ tours.

Either way, the next few months will prove just how transformative the “summer of cricket” has been. Now is no time to take the foot off the pedal.