The Women’s Game: A Beacon For Change

The history of women’s cricket is a tapestry as rich and absorbing as that of their male counterparts. However, its lack of exposure has often left it marooned at the very extremity of the British public’s peripheral vision. For the sake of cricket’s popularity, this needs to change.

Indeed, the sport on the whole has been in a suspended period of soul searching of late. Long have its major issues hung in the air, lingering like the smell of gone-off tuna in a student kitchen.

One-day cricket has gone stale and Tests are soon to be obsolete. Meanwhile T20 franchises are a purge on traditional batsmanship and a threat to England’s precious domestic identity. – The drones of experts, pundits and ex-players alike, all lamenting cricket’s slow descent into oblivion. Frankly, the procession of eulogies has become tiresome and the arguments promise to rumble on in the same way as “hard Brexit” rhetoric.

Little do they know that the solutions are being strongly supported by the developments manifesting in the women’s game.

Free-to-air Women’s Big Bash an instant hit

On Saturday 10th December, Cricket Australia launched its sophomore Women’s Big Bash tournament, WBBL|02. The franchised T20 tournament kicked things off via a televised double header with the aim of building on the encouraging strides made during last year’s inaugural T20 showpiece. And they nailed it.

The bumper weekend saw a whopping 637,000-peak viewership during the Thunder-Stars showdown, a 67% increase on last season’s average. Meanwhile the whole weekend enjoyed a handsome 14% rise from WBBL|01’s average TV audience, an increase of 36,000 viewers.

The eight-team city-based franchise league has been taken on this season by free-to-air Network Ten. What’s more, its broadcast on opening weekend included a mouth-watering Sydney Thunder – Melbourne Stars Saturday night clash. This fresh New South Wales/Victoria showdown marked the first time a stand-alone women’s sporting match has featured on a network’s premier channel during prime time hours in Australia.

A 10-year Ashes hangover

Meanwhile in the UK, Test cricket flounders in TV ratings and crowd sizes outside of the London Tests. The contrast between 2005’s manic end-of-summer celebrations, with Freddie and KP leading the charge, and the almost communal sigh of relief at the conclusion of the ten-Test Ashes bonanza in 2015 is rather disturbing. Undoubtedly, today’s hindsight would have us believe that the 2005 Ashes series was the pinnacle of British cricketing prosperity.

Channel Four’s free-to-air coverage peaked at 7.4 million viewers during that historic series. Fast-forward 12 years and the popularity has plummeted consistently behind an expensive Sky Sports paywall; only one and half million tuned in across the entire first Test Ashes win in Cardiff in 2015.

Of course it would be foolish to believe that all of cricket’s problems could be solved by free-to-air TV. But it is clear that when history was being made over a decade ago, there was at least a British public on hand to witness it.

Nowadays, it wouldn’t matter if Joe Root made 200 and then took all ten 2nd innings Aussie wickets to win the Ashes on the final day at the Oval; for young sports fans, he’d still be difficult to pick from a crowd of Joe Bloggs.

On the other hand, women’s cricket in Australia is looking to combat the obscurity. The WBBL is out to provide children with a fresh generation of sporting heroes and role models, lighting it up for the entire nation to see. Conversely, English children will have to be fortunate enough to have someone to take them to the ground this summer or for a parent to fork out for a Sky Sports subscription.

Greed: the root of Cricket’s evil

Although what’s also worth mentioning is that T20 cricket is far more marketable than Tests. Thus to imply that English Test cricket is less popular solely due to a lack of exposure is utter poppycock. It remains unclear whether a free-to-air English Test would enjoy similar spikes in viewership as the WBBL in Australia.

However, the point is that both women’s cricket as a whole and men’s Test cricket are in need of more exposure in order to recapture popular favour. While the women’s game has now made that step in Australia, English cricket has been stifled by greed and this threatens to continue for the foreseeable future, with Sky’s TV deal with the ECB up for renewal in 2019.

No leagues, no context

Another aspect, which has been up for constant debate, is the structural deficiencies in cricket. The men’s current international setup, which consists of stand alone bilateral series organized by the respective nation’s boards, has little context outside of playing for ICC ranking points, a mystical measure of success providing nothing more than bragging rights.

There are no international leagues or conferences to prevent the threat of dead rubbers. Indeed, 20 out of this year’s 37 series of three matches or longer resulted in damp squibs across all formats. A league set-up would also put a stop to perceived “warm-up” tours such as Pakistan’s Test series in New Zealand or cavalier practice tours for upcoming World Cups and Champions Trophies.

Thus, the issue lies within the series construct. A match-up between two sides and among all of cricket’s formats are effectively independent events, which create little spice for contests outside of the traditional rivalries. Again, this is where the women’s game steps in to provide intriguing insights that have thus far gone largely unappreciated.

Women’s game: a trailblazer

In 2013, the Women’s Ashes series established a points system, which amalgamated Tests, ODI’s and T20’s. This was in order make more of a contest out of what was originally a two-match Test series. The English captain at the time, Charlotte Edwards hailed the groundbreaking system. “It preserves Test cricket, which is the most important thing, but equally we get to play the more popular formats…the media and public has a huge demand for [it].”

The result was that it provided context for the entire series. There was always the sense that there was something to play for, and this concept maintains fan attention. Whereas in the men’s game, when South Africa gave Australia a whitewash drubbing in a one-off five-match ODI series, there was nobody that cared too much. It bordered on parody. For a start there were no real ramifications; no ground lost in a title chase, no incentive to spur on a ragged Aussie outfit such as an automatic World Cup qualification place. What mattered more to the whole of Australia was the impending Test series.

But the argument here is not that such a points system should be implemented across the men’s game. It was of course trialled during England’s home summer this year and was largely ignored. However, the format need not be replicated, more taken heed of. Since the basis of such a scoring system strives to replicate the context that a league or conference would so easily provide.

A year later, the women’s game then went one better by setting up the ICC Women’s championship, a league-based system which would take into account ODI series played between sides over a 24-month cycle – some two years ahead of even the ICC’s proposed men’s Test league and talks for T20 and ODI counterparts.

The men’s international game is in a primitive state

Indeed, if we are to look at the franchised T20 tournaments, the most popular product in modern cricket, its simplicity stands out as a real attention grabber. A league system followed by playoff knock-out rounds – the format precedes logic in all other sports and yet in everyday men’s international cricket it remains an untrustworthy enigma.

It is this failure to embrace a trusted system, which has helped to alienate audiences and nations alike. The women’s game is leading the way, while the men are still lost in the dark ages.

Concern over women’s Tests

The developments made in the women’s international game have been encouraging as it continues its emergence into a professional era. And having come to the fore at a time where sport is more a product than an art form, naturally its focus is slightly more skewed towards the shorter, more marketable formats.

Of course, Tests remain a crucial and prestigious element for all of women’s international cricket stars. But as the sport drives for funding and support, it has become a luxury for a chosen few: there have been a grand total of 15 women’s Test matches since 2005.

The problem which has arose as a result is that there is little chance to attract TV deals for Tests. And the domino effect leaves a lack of money available to even fund matches. As a result, every Test played is meticulously critiqued and rigorously assessed for faults, which has created setbacks.

Sadly, the 2015 Ashes Test served up a lacklustre snooze-fest at Canterbury. England poked and prodded almost 73 overs-worth of dot balls to reach 168 in the first innings, a spectacle that indeed was worth missing for a spot of wall gazing. The rare showcase thus provided damning condemnation as opposed to the fruitful investment it was seeking.

With scrutiny so acute that the Sky cameras were seemingly boring holes in the back of the players’ heads; the spectacle was butchered in the reports that followed. Most notably was the scathing match review by Mike Selvey in the Guardian.

Lack of experience deeply rooted in Test mires

“It was excruciating [to watch],” writes Selvey before going on to ask why women “want to play a form of the game that is patently unsuited to their skills.” His assessment however, does seem to overlook the connotations of a fact that he himself mentions: 15 Test matches in 10 years.

How on earth can you expect good quality Test match cricket, when it is a game that is almost as alien as Polo, Pelota, or Camogie? These international sportswomen have played cricket for most of their lives but Test match quality is on yet another level. It’s the format which requires the most patience, the most technical capability and the highest resolve. It cannot permeate into a player’s game through sheer determination, training or ritualistic prayer. Game time is what’s needed.

In the men’s game, take a look at Zimbabwe. After 20 months out of Test cricket, they play a two-match Test series against New Zealand and they get hammered. Look at Bangladesh. A more experienced side would have beaten England 2-0 in that November Test series. But the inexperience was telling. Bangladesh were a mere 200 Test caps light of their English counterparts. And when the going got tough, the hosts were incapable of closing a tight game out.

Similarly, it could be argued that teams like Ireland need to play Test cricket to maintain their competitiveness. They’ve shown recent regression when up against the top eight in the shorter formats; they were hammered by both South Africa and Pakistan in 2016. With the longest format promising challenges to and thus improvement in technique, footwork and shot selection, the statement is hard to contradict. And all of this has been accentuated by the workings within the women’s game.

A beacon for change

Cricket will always be heavily debated and scrutinised. Despite its many encouraging murmurs on future projects, it will leave none of us remotely surprised if equally nothing materialises. What cannot be said, however, is that we haven’t been shown the way. The pathway to fruition is being demonstrated and accentuated by the current workings within women’s game.