Was it when dismayed faces in Mohali, Virat Kohli’s among them, greeted India Women’s narrow three-run defeat by West Indies at the World T20 in the Indian sides’ first double-header on home soil? Or when, before the tournament, Mithali Raj and Harmanpreet Kaur stood shoulder to shoulder with MS Dhoni and Kohli on billboards and in ads? It might have been when Stafanie Taylor and her team joined Darren Sammy’s men in lighting up Eden Gardens with their sixes and their spirit, shaking up the world order. Or in the fantastic response to the inaugural Women’s Big Bash League, the even better reception to its sophomore effort, and the flurry of matches thanks to the ICC Women’s Championship.
Any which way, at some time in the past year, women’s cricket waded into the mainstream.
The old battles – for contracts, professionalism, facilities, game time, administrative acknowledgement – had just been won (The devil, though, was in the detail). Some unfinished ones – for respect, against sexism, and for more column inches, screen time and pay – found new supporters. The response to Chris Gayle’s thoughtless remarks to a female reporter on the sidelines of the BBL, for instance, with Cricket Australia calling it “workplace harassment”, felt like cricket’s old boys’ club might be ready for a shake-up.
The challenge for sides will be in maintaining this kind of calendar in 2017, outside of the World Cup in July and before the next Championship cycle kicks in. Match practice will be vital considering the growing gap between the top nations and the rest.
The cricket field had become like any other workplace for women. Now it needed to be moulded into a welcoming one.
The new challenges were – and will be through the next 12 months and more – about tackling increased scrutiny; embracing modern cricketing attitudes to run-making, squad selection and training; sharing revenues and developing innovative marketing strategies; ensuring diversity in teams, audiences and administrations; creating a positive, supportive work environment and addressing the systemic inequalities between the men and the women. It’s a to-do list only missing world peace and global warming.
Encouragingly, there were more matches in 2016 than in recent years.
In 2015, India Women played a pitiful eight international matches across formats. All against New Zealand. In 2016, they were busy all year round: They bookended their year with travels to Australia, where they had a historic T20I series win, and Thailand, between which they hosted Sri Lanka and West Indies, and played the Women’s World T20 at home. They featured in 26 international games, and would have played at least three more if the BCCI hadn’t decided to forfeit their ICC Championship series against Pakistan.
World over, there was nearly a 77% increase in the number of international matches from last year. Most heartening was the number of One-Day Internationals played, even though it was a non-World Cup year.
Limited-overs women’s internationals played
The ICC Women’s Championship can take most credit for this. In its effort to assure the top eight teams of at least three ODIs against one another and bring context to bilateral clashes, it has been a success in its maiden iteration. But the boards of Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, West Indies and Ireland deserve acknowledgement for hosting more than the minimum matches asked of them.
The challenge for sides will be in maintaining this kind of calendar in 2017, outside of the World Cup in July and before the next Championship cycle kicks in. Will the boards, especially those of the top four sides who will not be kept occupied by the qualifier, ensure enough top-level game time for their best?
Match practice will be vital considering the growing gap between the top nations and the rest. There are only two players each from Pakistan and Sri Lanka in all of the top 20 charts for bowling and batting in ODIs and T20Is. The Asia Cup saw Thailand and Nepal struggle to put on anything in the neighbourhood of a competitive score.
Sixes hit per match in ODIs
Besides, like with so much cricket in the past decade, more players have the power and training and freedom to consistently find the boundary. But this has left some teams exposed. It isn’t that the principles of patient accumulation, dot-ball pressure and finding the gaps that have so often defined the women’s game have no place anymore, but teams will require a revaluation of their approach to building an innings and getting that game-changing impetus. More sixes were struck this year than in the past two combined. For example, where no England player had ever hit more than one six in an innings, six did so this year. And Deandra Dottin wasn’t the only one getting into double-figures for the year in terms of sixes hit.
In India, the domestic tournaments were a reminder of just how much catching up needed to be done. Railways’ dominance showed few signs of easing up, though there were signs of a fight in the shortest format. Low-scoring games were the norm, and rain, which robbed teams of momentum in the 2016-17 season, didn’t help.
The maiden Under-23 tournaments were a success, with the likes of Deepti Sharma, Devika Vaidya and Meghana Sabbineni building on age-group performances and making the step up to the senior level. Waiting in the wings were Under-19s Jemimah Rodrigues (Mumbai), Anusha N (Andhra), Prathyusha C (Karnataka) and Tanushree Sarkar (Bengal). Rodrigues, who impressed last season, has three centuries across tournaments in the 2016-17 season so far and has done well for herself with the ball too. She featured prominently in Mumbai’s Under-19 Super League title win, with fifties in the semis and final against Uttar Pradesh. The promised, and much delayed, Under-16 tournament will be a welcome addition to the 2017 calendar.
The Indian board has lagged behind others in promoting the game in the media (the women’s team only just got their own Twitter account) and getting women’s matches on TV – or at least live-streamed into phones and computers. The next generation of cricketers may not have had the chance to be inspired by Taylor’s manic 51-ball 90 against India in Vijayawada this year, but they did get to see Harmanpreet Kaur set the WBBL alight. And at the dawn of another year, that will count for something.