In 2017, female cricketers went a long way in establishing their own identities. © Getty Images

In 2017, female cricketers went a long way in establishing their own identities. © Getty Images

“Will Virat continue to play after marriage?” asked the Twitter wits. News of the Indian captain’s nuptials was greeted with tongue firmly in cheek, but in a year when several had to face up to uncomfortable realities about the treatment of women, and their own culpabilities in it, this was another spotlight trained on the hypocrisies female sportspersons in India still face.

The reckoning that has shaken up other industries has escaped cricket so far. Perhaps one is due, perhaps it will take more time. But, on a smaller level, that the status quo was being challenged and fans were prompted to evaluate their own attitudes to the women’s game was the biggest takeaway from 2017.

Mithali Raj, India Women’s Rumi-reading captain and never one to shy away from straight talk, perhaps was loudest with her ‘clapback’ and ‘sick burn’, as the GIF-wielding generation calls it. “Do you ask the same question to a male cricketer? Do you ask them who their favourite female cricketer is?” she demanded of a journalist ahead of the World Cup. Months later, she would go on to say, “Why is it that after 18 years, people still introduce me as the Sachin Tendulkar of women’s cricket? I am here to create my own identity.”

To their credit, in 2017, female cricketers went a long way in establishing their own identities. This time last year, in these same pages, it was pointed out that the women’s game had waded into the mainstream. In a world that was getting more sensitive about not ignoring the achievements of women, with media that was taking notice and brands that wanted to be on the right side of changing attitudes, the players showed with incredible performances that they deserved to be there. Nowhere was this more evident than in India.

Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami became the highest run-getter and highest wicket-taker respectively in women’s ODIs. © Wisden India

Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami became the highest run-getter and highest wicket-taker respectively in women’s ODIs. © Wisden India

Raj and Jhulan Goswami, the veterans, became the highest run-getter and highest wicket-taker respectively in women’s ODIs. Deepti Sharma, then only a teen, took the record for the second-highest individual score with 188 against Ireland. The team made it all the way to the World Cup final at Lord’s, for only the second time.

But, perhaps, it was Harmanpreet Kaur who gave the women’s game most mainstream legitimacy. Her last-over heroics in the World Cup Qualifier finals in Sri Lanka in February, injured hand be damned, to complete India’s highest run chase was celebrated by thousands. But that was only a trailer. The blockbuster came in England in July, when she smashed an unbeaten and scarcely believable 171 off 115 balls — in the semifinal no less, against defending champions Australia no less, while battling injury and severe dehydration, don’t forget. That innings will go down as one of the greatest of all time, without that rider: “for a girl”.

India lost a World Cup they had one hand on, crumbling under the pressure of the stage and a sold-out Lord’s crowd, and the quality bowling of England’s Anya Shrubsole — whose six wickets at the last gasp forced Lord’s to include women’s figures on their honours boards. It will be a game that will always haunt the Indians — but it became the country’s most watched women’s sporting event ever. According to the ICC, 156 million people viewed the event in India, of which 126 million watched the final alone.

Top performances – Women’s ODIs

 

No. 1

No. 2

No. 3

Most runs

Deepti Sharma

787 at 49.18 ave

Mithali Raj

783 at 71.18 ave

Lizelle Lee

717 at 35.85 ave

Highest scores

Deepti Sharma

188 v Ireland

Chamari Athapaththu

178* v Australia

Harmanpreet Kaur

171* v Australia

Most wickets

Dane van Niekerk

31 in 18 matches

Ekta Bisht

29 in 16 matches

Sune Luus

29 in 21 matches

Best bowling

Anya Shrubsole

6-46 v India

Ekta Bisht

5-8 v Pakistan

Rajeshwari Gayakwad

5-15 v New Zealand

 Those in the fraternity knew that one good World Cup run could change everything. But even they wouldn’t have imagined the response the Indian side returning from England got. After nearly two decades, the likes of Raj and Goswami are getting the adulation and the endorsements their achievements merit. And the potential of Smriti Mandhana, Deepti and the upcoming Jemimah Rodrigues isn’t going unnoticed.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India missed a trick in not capitalising on the goodwill generated by the World Cup. The six months between the final and the team’s next international, that too in faraway South Africa, is disappointing. And there is no whiff of a women’s IPL either (although the exhibition women’s Karnataka Premier League game was a start).

A reinvigorated emphasis on fitness and fielding, the intention to build India’s bench strength, two-year contracts for the support staff, and a packed 2018 calendar, however, are welcome. There is an expectation that the downturn that followed the 2005 World Cup final appearance won’t be repeated. There is also an urgency in trying to unearth pace bowlers — a skill India have traditionally struggled for, despite Goswami’s feats — with the progress of the likes of Mansi Joshi, Sukanya Parida, Pooja Vastrakar and Soni Yadav being keenly monitored.

Top performances – Women’s T20Is

 

No. 1

No. 2

No. 3

Most runs

Beth Mooney

226 at 56.50 ave

Suzie Bates

210 at 35 ave

Danni Wyatt

169 at 56.33 ave

Highest scores

Beth Mooney

117* v England

Deandra Dottin

112 v Sri Lanka

Danni Wyatt

100 v Australia

Most wickets

Amanda-Jade Wellington

9 in 5 matches

Hayley Matthews

7 in 3 matches

Holly Huddleston

7 in 5 matches

Best bowling

Molly Strano

5-10 v New Zealand

Afy Fletcher

5-13 v Sri Lanka

Jenny Gunn

4-13 v Australia

Elsewhere, New Zealand and Windies struggled in the one-day game. South Africa, passionate, exciting (Lizelle Lee and Chloe Tryon struck one more six, 49, than the combined efforts of the seven others after them on the list) and diverse, made for fantastic role models as the game grew in their country. Pakistan defeated New Zealand for the first time and Sri Lanka’s Chamari Athapaththu was snapped up by T20 franchises abroad. Australia, meanwhile, again led the way in playing, organising and promoting women’s cricket.

Smarting from the World Cup semifinal loss, the girls from down under retained the multi-format Women’s Ashes at home — but only just, with both teams equal on points. The ongoing third edition of the Women’s Big Bash League improved on its TV ratings and quality of cricket: in just its opening weekend, it broke tournament records for highest team total (Sydney Thunder’s 200 for 6 was bettered a few hours later by Sydney Sixers’s 242 for 4), highest individual score (114 off 52 from Ashleigh Gardner), and two instances of fastest individual fifty.

"The girls are fitter, they are stronger" - Ellyse Perry. © Getty Images

“The girls are fitter, they are stronger” – Ellyse Perry. © Getty Images

“Most of the players have been fulltime elite cricketers for the last 12 months, so that’s always going to lead to development. The girls are fitter, they are stronger, they’ve had more time to work on their technique and get to know their games, so it’s probably not surprising in a lot of ways,” explained Ellyse Perry, the Australian star.

More numbers prove Perry’s point: The number of T20I hundreds doubled this year from three to six. In 2016, 124 sixes were hit in all ODIs, compared to 38 and 63 in the two years before; 111 sixes were struck in just the 2017 World Cup.

Perry, ICC’s cricketer of the year, scripted a memorable double-century in the Ashes Test — which was bittersweet in that so few women have the chance to don whites, and only once in a couple of years at that. The players have said time and again that they’d like more Tests; coaches are convinced it’ll improve standards — but sadly, it doesn’t appear the powers that be are so inclined.

With the World T20 scheduled in late 2018 in the Caribbean, the focus in the coming year will be on the shortest format. Two T20 tri-series have already been pencilled in, in India and England, and so, encouragingly, have matches outside the ICC Women’s Championship. Now that the 2017 World Cup has set the benchmark, expectations for the World T20 are high. But one thing is clear: after a whirlwind year, there’s barely going to be time to catch one’s breath.