Until October 2017, Deandra Dottin, Shandre Fritz and Meg Lanning were outliers. They were the only three athletes who had cracked the century code in women’s T20Is. Dottin crossed her mark against a then inchoate South Africa in 2010; it is still the fastest century, scored off a blitzy 38 balls. Lanning plundered 126, still the highest individual score, against a defenceless Ireland in 2014. Fritz's innings is almost forgotten, coming against the Netherlands, also in 2010.
Back then, it only confirmed what the world knew; that T20I centuries are freaks, just like Dottin, Lanning and Fritz. One was the most powerful hitter in the game at the time. The other is the most superlative batter in the world across formats. And the third had just one more score above 50 in her career.
And then everything changed. After three hundreds in its first 13 years, there are now nine centuries in women's T20Is, six of which have come in the last nine months.
So when did the continent drift so far and so fast?
March 2018. England were in India for a T20I tri-series also featuring Australia. England's batters walked in, chasing an improbable target of 199 after India put up their highest T20I score. What followed was batting pyrotechnics from England, in particular Danielle Wyatt, who scored her second T20I century in as many series. England chased 199 with eight balls to spare, marking the highest-ever T20I chase. But something far more insightful was happening at the boundary line.
As Wyatt began her onslaught, Natalie Sciver came out to have a hit outside the boundary. A member of the coaching staff lobbed balls to her, which she smashed cross-batted towards a fielding pugg net just a few feet away. Except the balls didn’t zoom into the net; they dropped tamely in front of them despite the considerable power Sciver was applying. A closer look revealed that they were not cricket balls, but heavier, softer, cricket-ball sized medicine balls.
"Power needs priming" explained coach Mark Robinson in his last press conference of the series. "When you go to a lighter ball (after hitting a heavy one), your muscles are primed, your bat-swing is going to be quicker and more dynamic", he continues. "That’s the theory. We’re trying to copy from other sports, baseball and things like that, to try and make a one percent difference."
It is an indication of how seriously teams are taking the power-hitting aspect of the game. The England team spent their winter preparing for this tour with a month-long camp, where they worked specifically on developing their T20I skills. Among their coaching staff in India was Julian Wood, a specialist power-hitting coach, who has also worked with the Australian women’s team.
Power-hitting is coming into focus in women’s cricket, a direct progression of professionalism. Most international athletes no longer have to juggle their careers with full or part-time jobs. This in turn frees them up to look at other aspects of their game besides the skills, specifically physical and mental training. With the physical base in place, players have now looked to develop the techniques to specifically target the boundaries. Batters like South Africa’s Lizelle Lee and India’s Harmanpreet Kaur often take guard on the centre wickets after their nets, and train specifically to hit the ball out of the park.
The results are there to see from among the top teams: When India toured South Africa in February this year, the two teams hit 42 sixes in the five-match series. For perspective, the entire women’s World T20 of 2016 saw 43 sixes across 23 matches. As many as 30 sixes were hit in seven matches in the tri-series in India mentioned above. And England, South Africa and New Zealand are currently contesting a tri-series, one that has already seen 35 sixes hit in six games.
But have the players suddenly gotten fitter, stronger, and better at power-hitting technique? Is there more to the glut of runs seen over the past nine months?
In five years' time, 28 September 2017 might well be seen as an inflection point in women’s cricket. The ICC’s new playing conditions came into effect, mandating that two new balls be used in ODIs and the batting powerplay be retained. Besides that, it allowed only four fielders outside the inner circle in both ODIs and T20Is.
The effect was immediate. "We talk a lot about finding the fifth gap," said Haidee Tiffen, head coach of the White Ferns, New Zealand’s women’s cricket team. With only four boundary fielders, the batter has a pretty good idea of where the ball will be bowled. This reduces the decision-making part of the batting process, and all that remains is the execution. Tiffen continued: “It’s about looking at the field and thinking, what shot that needs to be played to get that fifth gap?”
The result: T20I run rates have risen from 5.84 (before 28 September 2017) to 7.03 since. And they are only going higher. Five of the top six totals have come in the last nine months, the latest breaching the 250-mark. New Zealand hold the top four ODI totals, three coming in this month against Ireland, the highest of which was 490.
So is that it? Are changed fielding restrictions the big reason why we are seeing batting hegemony?
There’s more to it.
If you are wondering how Sciver was warming up outside the boundary while an international game was in progress, it’s because boundaries are pulled in for women’s cricket. In August 2016, England hosted Pakistan, and in one ODI, scored 378 for 5. The boundaries in that game, and in the series, were the minimum permitted by the ICC, 55 yards. While the move was panned by some as demeaning to the women’s game, Robinson defended it when in India earlier this year. "They (female cricketers) have played on boundaries that were — not too big for them, but were — quite intimidating, especially on slow wickets," he said. "So what we tried to do was experiment with smaller boundaries. Our challenge as coach is to get them to express themselves, get rid of the fear.
"What they learned was they don’t have to over-hit the ball. Then they learnt that they can hit sixes." Indeed, the boundary sizes in the tri-series in India were the maximum permissible, 65 yards. Yet players like Wyatt were regularly hitting the sight screen.
India's February tour to South Africa also featured short boundaries, not that it mattered to some. “To be honest I don’t really care what the boundary size is”, said Lee, one of the best hitters in the game. "At the end of the day, if you hit the ball the way you should, you will clear any boundary."
Perhaps this is the biggest shift: in the mind.
"Obviously if the boundary is smaller, a lot of the players will take it on more. I think if the boundary is a bit bigger, they would think about it twice”, said Lee. Once small boundaries helped players develop confidence in their bat-swing and their improved fitness, boundary sizes became irrelevant. This mental shift was a big part of England’s winter preparation. “We did two things: trying to change attitudes as well as trying to change skills," said Robinson.
What also changed is the way players were judged by the team management. "Often you can see players just need that confidence and that reassurance to play that (aggressive) style of cricket," said Tiffen. "We're really encouraging our players to go out and play with that freedom and sticking to their game plan. If that means hitting over the top then they try that." Tiffen acknowledges the struggle of balancing freedom given to players with the needs of the team though. "You’re always looking at the score board and the situation and trying to adapt."
Now consider this: Joining the England team for the tri series in India — but not part of the squad — were Lauren Winfield and Georgia Elwiss. Both were working with the coaches in a remedial capacity, addressing specific areas of their game. Rather than being dropped from the system entirely and asked to make their own way back, they were given a safety net within it. Few things allow an athlete the reassurance to bravely express themselves more. This also demonstrates the pseudo-professionalism of the women’s game; while the England team is well supported, county players are virtually unpaid, and depriving Winfield and Elwiss of their contracts would have been like cutting the safety cord if they started feeling light-headed after summiting the Everest.
Like multiple lines of dominoes converging into one massive cascade, these factors have had a stark effect on T20I hundreds. So rare are hundreds, that ESPNCricinfo and Cricket Archive, two of the primary resources for cricket statistics, don’t have a ‘most hundreds in a career’ tab for T20s. In the first three series played under the new rules, three T20I centuries were scored, two in the same match. The most recent century, Tammy Beaumont’s 116 off 63, was brought up in just the 14th over of the match, setting England up for their record score of 250.
Where does India stand in this deluge? Since 28 September 2017, only three Indians have strike rates of more than 130 (minimum qualification 100 runs), and two of those just about make the list. It is one indication of how the Indian approach towards T20I is yet to catch up with the rest of the world.
Why though? Why the rule changes? Why the skyrocketing scoring rates?
Just look at the current tri series in England for answers: teams are playing an unprecedented two T20Is in one day. In so many ways, women’s cricket is bending over backwards to make sure it is spectator and broadcaster-friendly. The need to make the game a spectacle is understood by both players and administrators, resulting in a push towards entertainment as well as excellence. These athletes can’t just be at their best, they have to do it in a way that brings more people into the game.
There is another side to this story though. In the last nine months, women’s cricket has seemed like a video game in which half the players have been buffed, and the other half nerfed. Most coaches and players are now expecting bowling to catch up, and provide the next evolution in the game. How and when this will happen against a heavily stacked deck remains to be seen. After all, the house always wins.