Women’s Cricket – I am lucky enough to be currently in Australia where the seventh edition of the Women’s T20 World Cup is being played. We’ve seen record crowds – 13,432 for the opening game in Sydney – and the reception has been overwhelming.
I have spent the last decade researching the history of the women’s game and recently published a definitive history of the sport in England. Few people know this, but women’s cricket has been played for as long as men’s cricket.
It all started in a village green in England in the 18th century. The first recorded match was played in 1745, between women from two Surrey villages, Bramley and Hambledon (one of the most famous early cricket grounds), with the teams distinguished by the color of their hairbands.
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From hurling games to organized chases, one of the first women’s clubs, the White Heather Club, was formed in 1887 by the women of the Yorkshire aristocracy.
But a major turning point in the history of women’s cricket came with the creation of the first governing body.
The First World War encouraged women in a number of ways, and many women’s sporting organizations were formed in the years after 1918. A turning point for cricket came in October 1926 when a group of women’s hockey players traveled to Colwall to Herefordshire to play for a few days. Marjorie Pollard, who wrote Cricket for Women and Girls (1934), recalls:
After the game we sat in the Park Hotel in Colwall… and discussed how cricket could become real to us; it was no longer an elusive thing that was half afraid of ridicule. We reflect, we reflect, we talk.
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Hence the Women’s Cricket Association was born: “to provide facilities and unite those women and girls who previously had few opportunities to play cricket after leaving school”. County clubs and associations were formed, matches were played and a decade later there were 105 women’s clubs affiliated to the WCA.
By 1934, the appeal of women’s cricket had spread across the ocean where associations were formed in Australia and New Zealand. This global reach means it’s time for women to play internationally. The England team thus sailed to Australia, where during the 1934/35 Australian cricket season they played three Test matches, of which they won two.
International cricket continued to be played as long as women could afford to travel, and in 1958 it was agreed that an International Women’s Cricket Council should be formed.
The purpose of the board was to further promote international tours, as well as to provide an “international liaison for the discussion of any matter relating to the Games”. The founding members are the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Netherlands. Membership gradually expanded as women’s associations were established in India (1973), the West Indies (1973), Ireland (1982), Denmark (1983), Pakistan (1997) and Sri Lanka ( 1997).
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The first Women’s World Cup was the product of a casual conversation between then England captain Rachael Heyhoe-Flint and millionaire entrepreneur Jack Hayward. Organized in 1973, the Hayward cost £40,000 to cover costs and involved seven teams: England, youth teams from England, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and an International XI (made up of players from all countries participants).
The tournament was such a success that the MCC, which had refused to host the 1973 final, agreed to have women play at Lord’s – the ‘Home of Cricket’ – for the first time. On August 4, 1976, led by Heyhoe-Flint, England met Australia there and won a historic one-day international (ODI) by eight wickets.
The lack of money and resources in the women’s game has always been a barrier, which is why in the nineties a closer relationship with the men was sought. In 1992, New Zealand became the first Test-playing nation to combine men’s and women’s cricket arrangements, followed by England in 1998. In 2005, the Women’s International Cricket Council (IWCC) agreed to cede control of the world women’s game to the male-run International Cricket Council (ICC), and all remaining women’s national associations were absorbed by their male counterparts.
Throughout its history, the women’s game has been an amateur pursuit, played simply for the love of the game. But hooking up with men allowed more money to flow into women’s cricket. In May 2014, the ECB made history by introducing the first women’s professional contract, awarding it to 18 of England’s top players.
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There are now professional contracts in every country competing in the T20 World Cup, including Thailand, who played in the competition for the first time this year.
“T20” – the shorter version, with each team having 20 overs to score as many as possible – was first played professionally in 2003 and has proven to be an excellent vehicle for advancing the women’s game.
In 2009, the ICC organized the first T20 World Cup for women cricketers (originally known as World Twenty20). It was held in England at the same time as the men’s tournament. The semi-finals and final were “double-sided” with the women’s match immediately preceding the men’s, which helped the women’s team gain more audience and media coverage.
With the passage of time, the profile of women’s cricket has grown so much that there is no longer any need for men to be roped in. The 2018 World T20 in the Caribbean was the first to be organized as a standalone tournament, with the current World Cup in Australia taking place seven months before the men’s tournament, allowing the women to have the focus for themselves.
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The final Women’s World Cup 2017 (ODI) was watched by more than 180 million fans, and every one of the 30,000 seats in the final at Lord’s, which England won, was filled. World Cup organizers are now hoping to go one better and are packing the 95,000-capacity Melbourne Cricket Ground for the final. If this is achieved, they will break the record for the largest audience at a women’s sporting event, currently 90,185, set during the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup final in California. Women’s cricket came out of the men’s shadow. The improved quality of the game attracted spectators while the increased incentives provided financial security, twin phenomena that fueled the advancement of the women’s game.
Women’s cricket is not the same as men’s cricket, and there is no reason to think so. But the real question is, should it be?
Maybe that will never happen because… it’s called “The Knight’s Game” for a reason. But what if women’s cricket was decoupled from the men’s game, or at least seen as a complement to the men’s game?
Perhaps then it will attract thousands of viewers to the pitch consistently and regularly build a significant audience across TV and OTT platforms.
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Maybe then young girls around the world can consider the sport as a sport worth pursuing as a career.
Well, we don’t have to deal with hypotheticals anymore, and women’s cricket doesn’t even have to move away from men’s cricket to achieve that.
It is clear for all to see that women’s cricket has become an institution in itself. And by having this identity, they have also managed to crack a code that will help them change things for generations to come.
No, women’s cricket has not been able to cut the tendrils that anchor it to the men’s game, but women in the sports business have learned to work with their partners to cultivate a strong sense of self.
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“I don’t think women’s cricket can be separated from men’s cricket for long, but it is a step in the right direction,” said former India player Karuna Jain. “Where we are now is way ahead of what many of our predecessors thought perhaps. These crowds are coming because the quality of cricket has been so good of late.
“In terms of equal pay, it will encourage more girls to take up sport. Now it could be a career. It wasn’t like that before, but it’s a step in the right direction and it’s only going to get better.”
This is his new identity, being able to leave behind what he is and see what he can be.
A strong sense of self, says former India captain Shantha Rangaswamy, is the reason for the success of women’s cricket over the past five years or so.
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This is an understated achievement as the proof is in the pudding as nearly 50,000 packed the DY Patil Stadium in Mumbai as India took on Australia in the bilateral Twenty20 Internationals series.
Each of these five games saw a beautiful cross-section of genres and cultures that culminated in this field. In fact, the organizers have placed on the doors of some of them “stadium full, entrance closed” posters.
A five-game series that even has close games
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