The first cricket World Cup, in 1973, was played by women, and was made possible thanks to relentless efforts from the legendary Rachael Heyhoe-Flint and her close friend Jack Hayward, the Wolverhampton Wanderers FC benefactor. The Women’s Cricket Association paid £40,000 towards the cause, while Prudential contributed £100,000.
The tournament featured seven teams, not all of whom were international. Two of the teams were Young England (an age-group team) and an International XI (a cobbled together side from players Rest of the World side). There was no knockout match.
There were no professionals in the England side, who won the tournament. Contemporary media pointed out that it was a team of “four housewives, nine teachers, and one secretary”. Heyhoe-Flint herself taught Physical Education and wrote for The Telegraph. She was also one of a handful who were allowed paid leaves by their organisations to play in the World Cup.
The sheer workload Heyhoe-Flint had to take boggles the mind. As mentioned, she was the reason the tournament happened in the first place. She led her side in the tournament, penned the match report, sent it over to The Telegraph, ring home, change, and play her ukulele to entertain her teammates.
That was how it all started.
Long, long ago
Women’s cricket in England dates back to at least 1743, though White Heather Club – the first ever women’s cricket club – was founded in 1887. Three years later, two teams of female cricketers – called, rather unimaginatively, the Reds and the Blues – travelled through the lengths and breadths of England, challenging local teams.
While Lillywhite’s Annual extended support towards the idea of women playing cricket, the concept drew flak from mainstream media. The opinions ran on the lines of “cricket is essentially a masculine game”; or “the man of the future will be the stocking-mender and the children’s nurse;” or “girls of the future will be horney-handed, wide-shouldered, deep-voiced … and with biceps like a blacksmith’s”. And so on.
All that changed slowly after the foundation of the Women’s Cricket Association in 1926 – a body that ran independently of the MCC, TCCB, or ECB, till 1999. They popularised cricket by accepting membership at five shillings (though it was an amount too high for the working-class); schools and colleges were roped in; and they introduced a cricket week at Malvern (that still takes place).
Women’s Cricket, edited by Marjorie Pollard, first came out in 1930; laws of women’s cricket were formalised in 1931; and an “international match” was played between England and Scotland in 1932. In 1934-35 the England side left the shores for a full tour of Australia and New Zealand, including Test cricket in both countries.
Women’s cricket has come a long way since.
Fast forward to 2020
This edition was supposed to be special, and ICC and Cricket Australia had left no stone unturned to make this an unprecedented success. The T20 World Cup final was scheduled on, fittingly, International Women’s Day. The venue, Melbourne Cricket Ground, is the only active cricket ground in the world that can accommodate a hundred thousand people. Global superstar Katy Perry was roped in to perform to mark the occasion.
The tournament witnessed some fantastic cricket played in excellent spirit (with Thailand Cricket leading the way), gathering generous crowds throughout. Hosts and defending champions Australia added to the attraction by making it to the summit clash. They were up against India, who attract more followers away from home than any other country.
Eighty-six thousand one hundred and seventy-four people swarmed to the 'G during the course of the match, roughly seven times the previous record (12,717) for an ICC Women’s global event final, set at North Sydney Oval in the 2009 World Cup.
The seven-fold increase in crowd size is indicative of how women’s cricket has grown over the years. Till 2016, the men’s and women’s editions were played simultaneously in the same country. The semi-finals and finals were often played on the same day at the same venue, one after the other, the women’s matches having to rely on (without much success) their men’s counterpart to attract crowds.
All that changed in 2018, when West Indies hosted the first ever standalone Women’s T20 World Cup. As is often the case, Australia, as hosts, took it to the next stage by ensuring the final was a gala event, worthy of the occasion.
Australia had already taken giant strides towards women’s cricket. Over the years, the WBBL has been a roaring success, not only in terms of quality of cricket, but also a source of income for the professionals and as an opportunity for budding cricketers to rub shoulders with some of the all-time greats.
ICC had announced a prize money of $1.475 million for the champions (and $737,500 for the runners-up). While this was a significant increase on the 2018 numbers, it was still $885,000 less than what the winner of the Men’s T20 World Cup champions will receive. CA stepped in. They promised $885,000 to the Australian team – basically match the amount for the men – if they won the tournament, which they did.
Meanwhile, New Zealand Cricket had already set a benchmark by announcing paid maternity leave for their cricketers. Amy Satterthwaite had already availed the leave during the tournament (she even showed up with the infant during one of New Zealand’s matches!). CA followed suit as well.
England and India, too, had meanwhile taken strides in terms of pay scale since they made it to the final of the 2017 World Cup. While England have offered a 40% raise, the top Indian pay bracket went up from INR 1.5 million to INR 5 million. The Pakistan cricketers, not all of whom have central contracts, have been inspirational in keeping women’s cricket alive in their country.
Significant moves also came from the ICC – an organisation that had dished out separate treatments for the two sexes till as late as the 2016 edition, discriminating in travel, accommodation, and even allowances.
All that is a thing of the past. With higher payments, standalone tournaments, bigger coverage, superior facilities and infrastructure, and T20I status to all T20 matches between countries, ICC has helped erase some of the chasm between the men’s and women’s versions. With the major countries stepping up as well, women’s cricket has finally become a sport that girls can aspire to take up as a profession.
Women’s cricket is as exciting and intriguing as it has ever been at any point in history. The next logical step will be to extend the enthusiasm and encouragement to the 50-over format. If the 2017 edition is anything to go by, there is reason to believe that the rise will continue.
What about the Indians?
India might have lost the final, but they have been part of the most-followed women’s cricket tournament ever, one that culminated in an extravaganza matched by none. They have been part of history, have and as is often the case, the team and the game will help each other grow.
The 2017 final, followed by the entire nation back home, was a watershed moment that went a long way in making the game popular. As discussed, it attracted better packages, and earned some of them contracts at both the WBBL and the Kia League.
The idea of a Women’s IPL is being toyed with. An exhibition match between two teams was played in 2018. In 2019 there were three teams, playing each other once, followed by a final and now a four-team tournament is on the horizon. Things are definitely looking up.
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