With the recent women’s triangular international Twenty20 cricket tournament in the West Indies, Tony Cozier reflects on the rise of the women’s game in an exclusive report for Sport Watch Bristol.
THERE was a typically animated Caribbean atmosphere among the 3,000 or so fans inside Kensington Oval, Barbados’ iconic stadium, on the night of October 26.
They were there for the final of a triangular international Twenty20 cricket tournament between West Indies and England, recreating a rivalry fierce since amateur county players under R.Slade Lucas were the first to test Barbados’ strength on an expedition through the West Indies in 1895.
This was significantly different. Lucas’ team, and all those that subsequently followed representing England, have been male; now, for the first time, the women’s teams were meeting at the famous venue. It was a similar experience for New Zealand, the third team in the series.
The turnout was better than for most Barbados men’s matches these days of declining standards in a small island that has produced a proliferation of the game’s true superstars. The series was televised live on the international sports channel, ESPN, and, as West Indies were victorious, it had prominence on the local sports pages usually devoted to men’s sports.
The experience was further confirmation of the global growth of women’s cricket. It continues to move along the same path as other team sports, such as football, in breaking out of the confines of masculine domination and forging its own identity.
Although played competitively between Australia, England and New Zealand since the 1930s, it was more than three decades before the women’s game took root in the other former British possessions where the men were soon mastering the intricacies of cricket that had been introduced primarily by the occupying military.
To promote its development, the International Women’s Cricket Council (IWCC) was formed in 1958 but, with a lack of funds, it struggled to achieve its goal. The first women’s World Cup was staged in England in 1973, two years before the men followed suit. Even then, it had to be sponsored by the Bahamas-based sporting philanthropist, Sir Jack Hayward, who previously underwrote England tours to the West Indies in 1970 and 1971; to make up the numbers, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago competed as separate teams and Young England and a mixed team of other nationalities were added.
The merger of the IWCC and the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 2005 was a filip for the women. More funds were available for development and major tournaments, such as the world Twenty20 in the Caribbean in 2009 and Sri Lanka in 2012, were dovetailed with the men’s. Seven national associations now have women players on professional or semi-pro contracts.
The inevitable effect has been the improvement in countries like West Indies, India and South Africa and the emergence of Sri Lanka and Pakistan; when the qualifying matches for the world Twenty20 were held in Bangladesh last year, several attracted crowds of over 10,000.
The traditional teams still dominate – of the ten women’s World Cup tournaments, Australia have won six, England three, New Zealand one – but others have begun to challenge. India made it to the final in South Africa in 2005, West Indies in India last year, each losing to Australia.
Until recently, the most identifiable names in the women’s game were Australian and English. The three women in the ICC’s Hall of Fame are Rachel Heyhoe-Flint, as renowned for her game as for her part in the campaign to break down the MCC’s gender barrier, and Enid Bakewell of England, Belinda Clark of Australia.
Tradition dictates that England and Australia still fight for the Ashes in Test matches. Otherwise, the contests are in the shorter formats of Fifty50 and Twenty20. Outside the ICC championships, the itinerary stipulates a minimum of three of the former and three of the latter in any 12-months period.
In addition to the England and New Zealand engagements in the West Indies, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka go to South Africa, England visit Australia for the Ashes and West Indies are in New Zealand over the six months between September and February. Twenty years ago, only Australia and New Zealand were engaged against each other in the same time frame.
The present ICC rankings of India’s Mithali Raj as the top batter (the term coined instead of the mouthful ‘batswoman’) and West Indies’ Stephanie Taylor as top all-rounder, along with West Indies victory over England in the October 26 final in Barbados, further indicate a definite seachange for a pursuit that, not so long ago, received scant attention.
Tony Cozier made his first commentary during the West Indies-Australia series in 1965 and has had a continual presence in cricket ever since. He regularly works for television and radio stations, including the BBC and Sky Sports in addition to his prolific writing in newspapers, books, and magazines.