A seminal tournament
At Lord’s on Sunday (July 23), at the ICC Women’s World Cup 2017 final, you could tell the new converts to women’s cricket from the vanguards. One group, beginning their chants back at the tube station, snaked past the barriers, the waved buntings and flags festooning gloomy grey skies. The other walked around glazed eyed and slack jawed, delirious at the response, but also periodically pinching themselves that bloody hell, this really was happening.
A little over a year ago, crowds in India for an unpublicised ICC Women’s World T20 2016 were sparse. Four years ago, at the 2013 World Cup, matches scheduled in Mumbai’s Wankhede stadium were shifted to Brabourne to accommodate Ranji matches.
For a sport used to such apathy and empty stands, the 27,000 or so people at the home of cricket for the finale of a successful tournament was a defining moment. Mithali Raj’s ladies wouldn’t have played in front of so many even if you added all their paying spectator numbers from the past three years.
But at no point all tournament was anyone there to get or give feel-good prizes for participation. In the early days, you might have seen the posters around town and people come to support the girls almost as a favour, but they almost always went back thrilled about the competitive, edge-of-the-seat, classy cricket.
All matches were, in a first, either televised or livestreamed. Both organisers and players can take credit for the record viewership figures: TV audience reach was over 50 million at the group stage. The impact of having visuals of the feats at the World Cup – from the Natmeg to Sophie Devine and Harmanpreet Kaur’s launches over midwicket, to Laura Wolvaardt’s silken drives, to Dane van Niekerk’s skiddy legspin – in firing imaginations cannot be overstated.
The unequal DRS
Of the 31 games in the tournament, ten had provisions for DRS. Nat Sciver became the first to be given out on review in the women’s game, when Raj’s call was on the money.
But with not all games televised, not all games had the full 16-camera set-up required for DRS. Which was a) confusing for the captains, as Heather Knight put it b) unfair to teams like South Africa and Pakistan, who might have liked the option to challenge a few crucial decisions given against them c) absurd, when the livestream video, with the benefit of replays from its minimalistic set-up, showed the umpire had got it very wrong.
For the ICC and its broadcasters, it was a budget concern to extend the system – along with the third umpire needed – to every game. The trade-off – brought on by economics and all the right intentions – was to make every ball of the World Cup available to view online.
“Since it’s completely new to us and it’s only been available in some of the group games, it’s been quite hard to know how best to use it,” said Knight. “I think it’s a brilliant addition to the game and where the game is going.”
If DRS and video seemed to expose the umpiring in the women’s game, the men and women in the middle have their own explanation: In the women’s game, the ball is slower, so it takes more time to travel after pitching, something umpires unfamiliar with women’s cricket may not be tuned in to spot.
The milestone 100s
Katherine Brunt, Sana Mir, Suzie Bates, Amy Satterthwaite, Shashikala Siriwardene, Deandra Dottin, Stafanie Taylor, Merissa Aguilleira and Mignon du Preez all marked a special 100 during the World Cup – that’s how many times they’d represented their country in ODIs.
That there were so many milestones to celebrate in a clutch is perhaps a pointer to how one generation of cricketers has benefitted from slightly busier and more stable schedules than what seniors might have got. The ones that follow in their footsteps might, encouragingly, get there sooner.
The most remarkable milestone was of course Raj becoming the all-time leading run-scorer in women’s cricket. She was one behind Tammy Beaumont on the tournament charts, but that still took her to 6190 career ODI runs. It’s likely that the India captain, along with Jhulan Goswami, the leading ODI wicket-taker, might end her career without a big title, but it’s only fitting that when the world was watching, the two were again at their best.
Bat edges ahead
The biggest change in the women’s game in the last couple of years is that batters are getting better and more confident in going over the ropes. The pulled in boundaries help a little, but most of the record 111 sixes struck this year would have cleared the ropes anywhere.
The encouraging thing is that we still don’t often see mishits go for big ones. Teams without the naturally-built sloggers seem at a disadvantage as women’s cricket too becomes a power game, but the more petite girls have made up for muscle with a higher backlift, good timing or using the pace of the delivery.
The bowlers, pacers especially, have been slower to adapt. And with spin preferred by almost all teams but South Africa, who go in with four quicks, it might be a while before teams bring in exciting fast bowling talent.
The dot ball percentage in women’s cricket tends to be high. But with greater stress on fitness, and strength and conditioning, the players have been able to be on the field longer and less drained, even at the end of a month-long tournament.
Ahead of the tournament, it was suggested the 2017 World Cup would be the most keenly contested, with teams bridging the gap to the likes of Australia. Few, though, would have expected to use Harmanpreet’s monster 171 not out to back that theory.
Raj has backed a women’s IPL, and it’s an idea whose time has come. Also vital across the world are the simple stuff: more internationals, more games on TV, more funds, a stronger domestic structure. And more faith that given a chance, people will embrace women’s cricket.
A part of the World Cup’s success is that it made gender irrelevant. “We have boys as well now coming up to us,” says Jenny Gunn. “And that’s when you know that you’re doing something right, when young kids, doesn’t matter what gender, are really excited about women’s cricket.”