Halfway through the second edition of the Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL), the race for the four semifinal spots is heating up in the ozone-less Australian summer. However, the real highlight over the Boxing Day and New Year holiday period, was the fan involvement. The New Year's Day double-header between the two Melbourne teams – the Stars and the Renegades – had about 24,000 people at the ground by the end of the women’s game, which was played before the men. This, despite knowing that there would be a one-and-a-half hour gap between the two games. The same figure last year was around 12,000, attesting to the quality of cricket in tournament.
The best parts of the Women's Big Bash League so far have been factors that scoreboards don’t show. Journalists have had to wait for more than fifteen minutes after the game to speak to players, who would be busy signing autographs for the many fans gathered in the stadium. Even for standalone games at suburban venues, there have been more than enough fans sporting team sheets and wanting autographs to keep the players busy. It is a good indication of how deep the fan engagement strategies of the WBBL have penetrated, and how independent the fan base is from the male clubs.
A number of close games in the hotly contested tournament has pulled people in and kept them on the edge of their seats. Sydney Thunder secured a tense win against Brisbane Heat in Blacktown Sydney. Thunder benefitted from some tight bowling on the part of their spinners, Sam Bates in particular, that saw them defend 132 by three runs. The Renegades too pulled a come from behind win against the Scorchers in Melbourne, coasting home after looking down and out. Needing almost 50 runs in the last five overs, Australian international Grace Harris – clearly in some discomfort due to a right shoulder injury – blasted 39 not out off 17 balls to see the home team to an unlikely victory.
On field, the competition remained as tight as the last round, with all teams still in with a chance of making the semifinals. The last ten days have seen some standout performances, foremost being only the second ever WBBL hundred. But along with the good, there was also the bad, as the competition saw a player sidelined with a horrific freak injury.
The competition saw a freak head on collision rule Brisbane Heat’s Deandra Dottin out of the tournament. Dottin collided with Laura Harris, as the two attempted a catch on the boundary. Harris recovered, but Dottin remained prone on the ground, clutching her face. She was stretchered off the grounds, and X-rays revealed multiple fractures of her cheekbone. She will need titanium plates to be surgically implanted, and will not play any further in the tournament. Fortunately, her eyes were not damaged. The Heat are expected to announce a replacement soon.
Harmanpreet continues to shine
Harmanpreet Kaur continued her fine performance for the Sydney Thunder, scoring useful cameos towards the end of the innings since games resumed on Boxing Day. Scores of 24*, 18, 26*, 17 and 32* have highlighted her contributions. Inexplicably though, her team have batted her at five as opposed to number four, where she has had her best performance with the Thunder and India. Perhaps in a bid to give their middle order batters some time in the middle, but the gamble has cost the defending champions, as they have limped to four wins from ten games.
On the other hand, Smriti Mandhana’s lack of runs has been a worry for Brisbane Heat. Mandhana has made double figures only twice in her last eight innings, which has resulted in her being moved down the order. She did contribute in a shock win over Melbourne Stars, with the ball though. The shock was not the fact that the Stars lost, despite being 100 for one in the fifteenth chasing just 130. The shock was that this is the first time Mandhana has been used as a bowler, having never bowled before for her state or country. Heat have won exactly half of their games, mostly thanks to runs at the top from Beth Mooney. The wicketkeeper-opener has two half centuries since the Christmas break, both setting up wins against scarier opponents.
Devine lights up WBBL before New Year fireworks
Adelaide Striker’s Sophie Devine already led the ‘most sixes’ chart in the WBBL, with seven sixes. She smashed eight more in just one game against an insipid Hobart attack, on the way to the fastest 100 the WBBL has ever seen. Her century took 48 balls, seven faster than the league’s only other centurion, Grace Harris. Only halfway through the tournament, and she has already bettered her own record of ten sixes last year, with 13 to her name so far. She missed the New Year’s fixtures against the table toppers, the Sydney Sixers though, as she flew to New Zealand to play for her domestic side, the Wellington Blaze. Strikers lost both those games though, underlining how heavily the team depends on her, especially with Charlotte Edwards still recovering from back spasms.
The Sydney Sixers have been the team to beat, with their top order firing on all cylinders. In the Sydney Smash against the Thunder, they put up 164, the second highest total of the season and joint fifth-highest ever. They then followed that up with 161 against the Strikers in the New Year. However, they are likely to miss their two South African internationals Marizanne Kapp and Dane van Neikerk, as the two will head to Bangladesh for national duty. There could be more replacements heading Down Under.
Sixers will next face the number two team, Perth Scorchers, who also have five wins. Both teams look on track to make the semifinals, with their batting and bowling units looking good. Scorchers openers, Elyse Villani and captain Suzie Bates, put on the highest partnership of the WBBL 02 so far in their last game against the Melbourne Stars: 116 for the first wicket.
Stars, Hobart Hurricanes, Heat and Thunder all sit in joint third place, with four wins. And with three wins in nine games, Strikers and Renegades sit at the bottom. Both teams will play Stars in the coming days, in what will be a must win games for all three teams.
The two leading teams – Sixers and Scorchers – have been the most consistent so far, and look set to get into the semis first. It will be a scrap between the other four teams for the last two spots, but I would back Heat and Stars, considering they have a favourable draw. The Hurricanes have an uphill task, with games against the formidable Sixers and Thunder coming up. The sheer brilliance of Meg Lanning might just take Stars through, but unless they can find some backbone in the middle order, they may not better last year’s semi final appearance. And if Heat, who have a relatively easier draw coming up, can stop being the most consistent team (they have one win and one loss against every team they have played so far) they could make a surprise entry in the semis.
The writer is a former international cricketer and now a freelance journalist, she tweets at @SnehalPradhan.