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The sixth edition of the Women’s T20 World Cup concluded last year, and in contrast to previous editions, amid much fanfare. Much of this can be put down to the immense success of the 50-over equivalent held last year which saw England beat India in front of a sold-out Lord’s stadium.
To a lot of viewers, this felt like the dawn of a new era. After years of striving for legitimacy and acceptance, women’s cricket had finally established a firm presence in the landscape of mainstream cricketing consciousness. With the game in ruder health than ever, it’s worth looking at how it serves to impact an ever increasing number of stakeholders in an ever increasing number of ways.
Let’s begin with the players themselves. Today, players like Harmanpreet Kaur, Smriti Mandhana, Alyssa Healy and Sarah Taylor are almost household names and bonafide superstars. The increased fame brought with it a commensurate rise in commercial potential.
The BCCI increased its contract retainers by more than three times last year, in the process making some of India’s cricketers the richest in the world. Cricket Australia increased their budget for salaries by almost 8 times last year. Players now have bat sponsorships, adorn billboards and even have biopics in the works. For players like Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami, it marks the pinnacle of a nearly two-decade long struggle spanning the length of their careers. To hear them talk about the change in public perception and the game’s rise from obscurity to what it is today is heartwarming.
Just by virtue of being outdoors, playing cricket has helped women past and present shed the restriction of domesticity that is often placed upon them
Away from the players, the ICC themselves are slowly beginning to understand the potential offered by the women’s game. A survey conducted in 2017 indicated that cricket has over 390 million female fans and in excess of 680 million people interested in women’s cricket. Moreover, more than 70% of cricket fans worldwide indicated that they wanted to see more televised coverage of women’s cricket.
This was reflected in broadcast statistics too. More than 180 million people were estimated to have tuned into the 2017 Women’s World Cup, a 300% increase over the 2013 edition, while the final shattered all records to become the most watched women’s cricket match of all time. It was also the most watched cricket game of any category in the UK, a statistic particularly poignant in an Ashes year. If these haven’t impressed you yet, then consider that more people watched the final than the average Premier League football game. Or that #WWC17 was the most tweeted hashtag in women’s sport in 2017.
The game had well and truly captivated viewers around the world. T20 leagues in England and Australia were marketed like never before and a concerted effort was made to reach a global audience. It helped immensely that superstar Indian players like Mandhana and Kaur lit up games on a daily basis, a surreal experience for Indian fans previously starved of seeing their players in foreign leagues. It has grown to the point that domestic games such as India A vs India B are now televised. A market previously considered to be saturated for cricket unearthed a new and willing consumer.
England will face Australia in the @WorldT20 final! 🏴
Sciver and Jones fifties lead a comfortable chase after a top bowling effort kept India to 112. England win by eight wickets!#ENGvIND scorecard and highlights ➡️ https://t.co/cTQekzgLT7#WT20 #WatchThis pic.twitter.com/2UoXE6xWO4
— ICC (@ICC) November 23, 2018
Lastly, it is important to never underestimate the importance of women’s cricket on the women themselves. The very history of the game, as Rafaelle Nicholson argues, in the formation of the women’s cricket governing body and their subsequent activities were great enablers to uplift the standard of life for women in 19th century England. They defied conventional societal norms by allowing women to play a sport previously considered too masculine and even called for a shift in domestic duties when women had to leave on long tours to different countries, leaving any children or household chores to the husband.
Just by virtue of being outdoors, playing cricket has helped women past and present shed the restriction of domesticity that is often placed upon them. As the game grows more professional, we can see the effects trickle down into the grassroot level. Whereas previously, young girls interested in the game found no avenue to play, there are a number of women’s leagues propping up all over the globe, right from Canada to Australia.
A lot of writers have commented on the fact that the biggest boon for women’s cricket has been the conscious decoupling from the men’s game. Oft cited reasons for the erstwhile lack of attention given to women’s cricket were the slower paced nature of the game and its relative lack of power. While these aspects of the game have undoubtedly improved over time, they still lag considerably behind. So what has changed? For one, most people now view the women’s game as just that, a game, and do not compare it with their male counterparts.
If anything, it reminds them of an aspect of cricket that many have seen erode in front of their eyes, its innocence. Sanjay Manjrekar wrote at length about how, in covering the 2013 Women’s World Cup, he re-acquainted himself with some of cricket’s lost pleasures, such as a flight, turn and swing. The power based nature of the men’s game means that edges and miscues often land in the stands, and consequently, spinners don’t flight it like they used to and seamers don’t swing it like before.
This joy isn’t just restricted to him though. Umpires of international, domestic and amateur leagues are often unanimous in declaring that they prefer to adjudicate women’s games as the players tend to be more respectful and play the game the way it was always meant to be played – in good spirits, with a smile on the face.
For all the benefits of a brighter spotlight, it brings with it some dangers as well. The years to come will surely see the dark spectres of match fixing, ball tampering and other such scandals try to breach the walls of women’s cricket. You really hope that the ICC and different cricket boards have learnt from the past and prevent this as best as possible. Increasing salaries help, but there also needs to be educational programs and greater regulation of global T20 leagues as well.
Ultimately, the game needs to preserve what makes it so attractive, a simple contest between bat and ball.