India vs South Africa series exhibits how ICC's new Playing Conditions for women's cricket could ruin balance in the sport

With the short boundaries that women’s games already see, the latest ICC Playing Conditions again cut the legs under the bowlers, while giving the batswomen a trampoline.

Snehal Pradhan, February 19, 2018

133.

That’s what India scored at the Wanderers in the third T20I against South Africa on Sunday, only to see it chased down by five wickets. It wasn’t enough. Not nearly, not against a team that has Lizelle Lee, who has the second most sixes in ODIs. Certainly not against Chloe Tryon, who has a T20I strike rate of more than 146.

But most of all, 133 wasn’t enough because it came after 28 September, 2017. Six months ago, 133 might have been enough. Not anymore.

South Africa chases down 133 in the third T20I against India with an over to spare. Image courtesy: Twitter @OfficialCSA

South Africa chases down 133 in the third T20I against India with an over to spare. Image courtesy: Twitter @OfficialCSA

On 28 September, the ICC introduced new Playing Conditions for women’s ODIs and T20Is. Among those was the introduction of two new balls at each end in ODIs, a move that has been in use in men’s cricket since 2011. Naturally, it created quite a bit of buzz, and hogged all the attention. But the ICC also kept alive a rule that has been buried in the men’s game, the batting powerplay in ODIs. Then, it reduced the number of fielders allowed outside the inner circle from five to four during non-powerplay overs. And finally, this last rule was also applied to T20Is as well.

This means that in a T20I, after the first six overs, where only two fielders are allowed outside the inner circle, women’s cricket allows only four fielders along the boundary, as opposed to five in men’s cricket. The decision was discussed by the ICC Cricket Committee, and then ratified by the ICC Women’s Committee and the ICC Chief Executives Committee, in an attempt to make women’s cricket more competitive and high scoring.

At the Bullring on Sunday, India were in with a chance of defending 133, with South Africa needing 43 runs off the last 30 balls. But with only four protecting the boundaries, some intelligent and powerful batting saw the Proteas home, with Tryon finishing on 34 off 15 balls, which included four fours and two sixes.

In T20Is, 133 used to be a tough total to chase down. Batting first, India have scored 133 or less 31 times, and despite it being less than par in most conditions, India have defended successfully on 12 occasions, 38 percent of the time. For scores between 120 and 133, that rate is 63 percent. Globally, teams have a 69 percent win percentage for scores in that range.

But the recent change in the rules has changed the dynamics of the game completely. The average run rate in women’s T20I cricket until September 2017 was 5.84. Since the rule change, the run rate has jumped by more than two runs, to 6.96 in just 13 matches across four series. That’s a difference of more than 40 runs to the overall score.

In one of those games during the Women’s Ashes, Australia scored 178 for 2, their fourth highest total, only to watch it chased down by England with an over to spare. A record was set when two centuries were scored in that game, which also saw the highest aggregate total in a women’s T20I.

In the first T20I of the current series, India created history with their best ever chase, passing 164 with seven wickets to spare. In the next game, a target of 142 was mopped up for the loss of just one wicket. And finally in the third T20I, 133 — which might have been a fighting total last season — was chased with ease.

In the third ODI of this tour, the only to be telecast on YouTube, the (male) commentators were surprised at Proteas captain Dane van Niekerk’s tactics in the last 10 overs. Seeing only four fielders on the boundary, they wondered why she didn’t have more one, calling it a ‘indifferent’ and ‘curious’ field placing, even going so far as to label it a  ‘tactical error’. But Van Niekerk was spot on, and it was the commentator’s research (or lack of it) that was curious. The field restrictions helped India to score 71 off their last 10 overs, a scoreline that will become common in ODIs as well.

What all this means is that par scores, strike rate, and economy rates are all likely to shoot up in the near future, most noticeably in T20Is. Players, pundits and viewers alike will need to recalibrate what a good score means. And if good batting pitches can be found in the West Indies, the upcoming Women’s WT20 is likely to be the highest scoring tournament in the sport’s history.

But the rising water feels muddy, like that phase in swimming where records began tumbling in the 2008 Olympics after the introduction of body compression suits. Since it’s not technology but the playing field that has changed, a more accurate analogy is the change in the depth of the pool in Beijing (three meters deep as opposed to two meters). The greater depth allowed waves caused by athletes to dissipate and gave less turbulence and more speed.

But has the ICC gone a step too far?

With the short boundaries that women’s games already see, this latest move once again cuts the legs under the bowlers in international cricket, while giving the batswomen a trampoline. Does women’s cricket really need to become more ‘competitive’ and ‘high scoring’? One only needs to look at the recent Women’s World Cup, one of the most gripping competitions in female sport, played according to the previous playing conditions. The final, where India fell tragically short of 228, may not have been a run-fest, but it wasn’t a low score by any means. And that was the most competitive and most followed tournament in the history of the women’s game.

The problem is that the lawmakers are holding women’s cricket up to the standard of the men, where homogenous run-fests have become the insufferable norm. Women’s cricket needs to be appreciated as its own sport, not moulded in the image of the Adam. Also, like the recent India-South Africa Test series showed, the best viewing comes when there is a tussle between bat and ball. And with these rules, the ICC is sending bowlers straight from the power play into 14 death overs in T20Is, with batswomen knowing exactly where the ball is coming. If they must persist with such marketing-driven experiments, a balance needs to be provided, like allowing two bowlers to bowl five overs instead of four.

Men’s cricket has already sacrificed this balance at the altar of profitability. Women’s cricket, one of the last refuges of grace, timing and skill, should not go the same way.

The author is a former India cricketer, and now a freelance journalist and broadcaster. She hosts the  YouTube Channel, ‘Cricket With Snehal’, and tweets @SnehalPradhan

Updated Date: Feb 19, 2018







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