In 2009, around 12,000 people were present for the first ever women’s T20 World Cup Final at Lord’s. Many had arrived early for the climax of the men’s tournament, taking place later in the day. 11 years later, nearly 90,000 fans were celebrating Australia’s women lifting the same trophy at the MCG, basking in Katy Perry’s curtain-closing concert.
Women’s cricket has come a long way in a decade or so. The news that this year’s Hundred tournament will begin with a women’s match between the Oval Invincibles and Manchester Originals is something of a celebration of this.
The Hundred will become the first major franchise tournament to launch the men’s and women’s game simultaneously, and both will receive an equal share of the eventual prize money. Having introduced the first professional contracts for female players only seven years ago, the ECB deserve great credit for putting the two sexes on a similar pedestal through their fresh-faced new format.
With the marketing of the tournament being aimed at young families and newcomers to the game, seeing the world’s best female cricketers operating under a similar scrutiny to the men will, one hopes, cultivate the perception of an inclusive, open sport. Role models are key in involving more kids in any sport, and the BBC screening this first women’s match provides the perfect platform for that process to thrive.
Lots of work is still to be done. Despite shares of the prize money, women will still be earning an average of 12% of the men’s salaries. England has also fallen behind the likes of Australia and New Zealand in the coverage of women’s cricket, where tournaments like the Women’s Big Bash League are challenging their male counterparts for TV exposure.
After a global audience of 180 million watched England beat India at Lord’s in 2017 to win the women’s ODI World Cup, an opportunity presented itself to match the work being done Down Under. This has been somewhat squandered during the pandemic, with coverage of women’s cricket decreasing considerably and the men’s game taking centre stage particularly emphatically.
There is also the valid argument that double-headers of men’s and women’s matches will undermine the latter, playing second fiddle to the more famous, more revered male stars.
However, this can be played down by the evidence of previous WBBL tournaments being played in conjunction with the men’s competition. Cricketers such as Rachael Haynes have been hugely complimentary of the system, allowing them more opportunities to interact with the men’s sides and forming a joint identity based on the mantra “one club, two teams”.
Beth Barrett-Wild, in charge of the women’s Hundred competition, is confident that the ECB team working on the tournament, more than half of whom are women, will simply not allow any warm-up acts. Instead, it will give female players an excellent opportunity to grow their game under increased media attention, as well as their profile thanks to the Hundred’s youth-centred marketing.
The reality also is that double-headers are perhaps required in England to give the awareness of the women’s game a slight kickstart, with new viewers happening upon matches they may not ordinarily watch. Indeed, the visibility that the Hundred could provide would be unprecedented in this country.
Despite the many potential complications and necessary limitations of its impact, the new hundred-ball format will undoubtedly be huge for the women’s game. Its key role, having attracted the best female players from around the world, will be to globalise the recent success that Australia and New Zealand have had in pushing women’s cricket to the forefront of national sport.
Until 1999 women – except Queen Elizabeth II – were not allowed in the Lord’s Pavilion as members during play. To be in a position where the Hundred competition could put women’s cricket on, or even close to, a par with the men’s game in 2021 is a marvellous achievement. Let us hope that such a seemingly uncontroversial equality can be normalised in years to come.
Image: Robert Drummond via Creative Commons