By Ned Vessey
A great deal has been written about the impact of the pandemic on cricket both in England and elsewhere. Men’s cricket, globally, seems to be slowly recovering – as I write this Australia and India are battling out in front of 20, 000 socially distanced fans, and Mumbai Indians have recently been crowned IPL champions for the fifth time.
But what about the women’s game? What effects has this pandemic which has changed so many aspects of our lives had on a sport which was enjoying rapid growth amongst girls in England, and which back in March had 86,000 people watch the T20 World Cup final?
There is plenty of cause for optimism, but most of this optimism is in England and Australia, and there is perhaps a danger that the pandemic will have widened the already existing gap between these two nations and other international sides.
I spoke to Mark Mitchener, who has had the misfortune of having to watch me bat for the Canford Cygnets, our club side. More importantly, Mark has covered women’s cricket for the BBC Sport website for over a decade, and knows the game inside out.
I chatted to him about the Women’s Hundred, which was meant to mark a new era for the English domestic game. The competition has been postponed until 2021. Could this mean a year of lost opportunity? Interest in and exposure of women’s cricket has been swiftly picking up momentum before, and even more since, England’s 2017 World Cup win. What are the potential effects of not having the Hundred this year? Mark says it may be a waiting game, and that “in terms of fan engagement, we may not know the full impact until next summer” when the Hundred has actually been played.
In the Hundred’s absence England still managed to take on West Indies in a T20 series, and there was the domestic 50-over Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy, which as Mark pointed out “generated more column inches than expected. Live online streaming helped with the fan engagement, as did BBC radio commentary on some games.” Meanwhile Sky showed the final. Despite England’s 5 – 0 rout of the West Windies, and the Heyhoe-Flint Trophy’s success, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that these did little more than fill a gap. While they might have helped to sustain interest, they won’t have had the exponential growth in terms of fan engagement that the ECB hopes the Hundred will have. The path ahead remains somewhat uncertain.
This is not only the case in England, but worldwide too. The Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) finished with a Sydney Thunder triumph on Saturday, and it displayed some significant spectacle and talent. This came not least from the likes of Heather Knight and Sarah Glenn from the English contingent. The WBBL provides strength in depth for the Australian national team – as Mark pointed out – whilst also allowing overseas players to participate in high class and competitive cricket against the world’s best.
But what about the countries that those players come from? Outside of England and Australia, the picture is a little more worrying. “The worry in a post-Covid world means that cash-strapped national boards are most likely to organise bio-secure bubbles for their most financially viable cricket – and that means men’s internationals and T20 leagues, with women’s cricket sometimes an afterthought, as the lack of international fixtures since March shows,” said Mark. The likes of South Africa were unable to fly out to England for a series this summer, even while their male counterparts were travelling to the IPL. India and New Zealand have seen their opportunities limited since the pandemic started. As Mark told me, many of these problems stem from a lack of funding, which could potentially only get worse as time goes on.
The global women’s game outside of England and Australia faces a nervous wait. There is plenty of cause for optimism, as the WBBL and the upcoming Women’s Hundred demonstrate, but there are reservations too. Only time will reveal the exact implications of the pandemic on the women’s game.
Image: Robert Drummond via Creative Commons