UK is only just coming to terms with the rather anticlimactic finish to the Champions Trophy and it’s time already for another major global tournament, this time featuring the ladies.
In many ways, this is going to be a landmark edition of the Women’s World Cup. There’s more prize money poured in by the ICC, an unprecedented coverage plan is in place, DRS will mark its debut in women’s cricket; an absolute iconic figure of men’s game has been appointed brand ambassador and, in general, a more-than-usual buzz about the competition. The ICC has indeed left no stone unturned in their bid to employ this showpiece event as an opportunity for women’s cricket to spread its wings far and wide. And in its own little way, each of the factors have contributed significantly towards narrowing down the gender gap in the sport.
The total prize money on the line is ten times of what the winners of the 2013 edition bagged and filters down the ladder to ensure that none of the participating nations go home empty-handed. In fact, there’s incentives for even each win at the league stages. It might be little exaggeration to call it being rewarded ‘appropriately’, but it’s a start nevertheless.
For those who missed out on watching Jhulan Goswami become the leading wicket-taker in ODIs, here’s the chance to catch the batting maestro Mithali Raj climb to the top of all-time leading run-getters’ chart. In the Caribbean those who saw their ladies ruffle a few feathers and bring home a coveted T20 trophy last year, will be tuning in again to see if their side has the potential to do a double. There is little doubt that bringing the top brass of women’s cricket into the living rooms will not entice the audience or get them talking. And if all of that manages to inspire even 11 kids back in each of the participating countries to pick up a bat, or a ball, this World Cup would have taken a definitive step towards enhancing the stature of their cricket.
But women’s sport would be hoping that isn’t the end in itself.
Several players in the lead up can be heard echoing the same sentiment – it’s the most open tournament you’ll see in a long time. Many will vouch for the fact that the performance gap between the participating nations is down to the bare minimum. That the ‘dark horses’ might not win the title but could well drag a team or two down with them on their way out. And that is further vindicated by the results, or even just the semifinals lineup, of the just-concluded Champions Trophy.
But this is far from being true, for the gulf of class between the likes of Australia, England and New Zealand on one side and the other five participants of this tournament is quite telling. In the 44 years of World Cup’s existence – and women’s cricket in general – none of the teams have been able to threaten the supremacy of the Big Three. And while India and Winides have come close to claiming silverware in this century, and others have sporadically sprung a surprise or two every now and then, the inconsistency in results remains a major contributing factor to mediocre interest levels in most Asian and African nations. That, in turn, has directly impacted the quality and quantity of cricket.
To curb that, ICC set in motion a first of its kind ODI Championship in 2014 where the top-eight ranked sides were put in the pool and made to play each opponent once in at least a three-match series over the course of two years, either at home or away. This not only gave bilateral series the context they had been long yearning for, and a chance to build rivalries, but also addressed the oft-quoted complaint of lack of game time between successive global events.
With as many as 28 bilateral series packed during August 2014 and November 2016 period, and each getting a bare minimum of 21 ODIs each, teams got a chance for extensive travel, to understand their team composition and that of the opponent better, in foreign conditions. Consequently, it brought in more analysis and that had a telling impact on how women’s cricket looked at fitness and preparation. And make no mistake, it did enhance the level of competitiveness but only between the immediate neighbours in the rankings. A cursory glance at the Championship score sheet will reveal that we were back to square one.
Finishing as runners up in the 2013 edition, Windies did stun New Zealand in the opening round of the Championship at home, but that, and a couple more hard-fought wins against England, remain their only success against a team ranked higher than them. South Africa proved a tough a nut to crack only for the Asian trio, barring a defeat or so. Pakistan and Sri Lanka merely drifted away, around the halfway mark itself, as also-rans. At home, India were stunned by South Africa and New Zealand which left them in a tricky spot when one round had to be forfeited. As a matter of fact, the fate of the series that was eventually never played, was what kept two deserving candidates on the edge of their seat before points were awarded to Pakistan, who dragged India into the qualifying round and cleared the path for Windies to go through with a top-four finish. As far as the top slots in that coveted half of the Championship table were concerned, the only element of interest was in what order will the three giants finish.
For England it’s a good omen that they have a hat-trick of ICC crowns they’ve staged at home. For Australia to win it, it will be merely asserting a fact well established. New Zealand have, probably, the most rounded squad to add to their only title and jump into the fray as genuine title contenders. That said, as much as it superficially promises to be another skewed points table, the next five could be closest to posing a greater challenge than they ever have. But for them to lay their hands on the glittering trophy, it will take a lot more than just an upset to prove they are not here to make up the numbers.
Come what may, this World Cup will mark a turning point in the women’s game, much like how the first one did.
For now, it’s time to get set for the mega event, with the best that the teams have got, and renew some classic rivalries. One of the marquee events would be when England and Australia – who account for nine of the 10 trophies thus far – face off before the Ashes later this year. India and Pakistan, often robbed of absorbing games due to political tensions, will make for another sell-out contest. There are devastating hitters, value-for-money bowlers and gun fielders in all sides, and some of them will leave the tournament having created a legacy for themselves. The stage is set for definitely the most-anticipated World Cup ever. Only if the competition can match up.