x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Glass ceiling over women's cricket

Osman Samiuddin finds that the media could do more to promote the ladies' game, which has come a long way, but still lacks popularity.

Except for a few ardent supporters, most spectators present during the women's World Twenty20 final in Colombo were there to watch the men's summit clash that was to follow. Dinuka Liyanawatte / Reuters
Except for a few ardent supporters, most spectators present during the women's World Twenty20 final in Colombo were there to watch the men's summit clash that was to follow. Dinuka Liyanawatte / Reuters

On the second last day of the World Twenty20 in Colombo, Mahela Jayawardene and Darren Sammy held their obligatory pre-final press conferences inside a conference room on the first floor of the R Premadasa Stadium. The cricket world's press was in attendance. Sammy was on second and both spoke at length about what it meant to be playing in the final.

After he left so too did at least two-thirds of the press, if not more, leaving first Jodie Fields and then Charlotte Edwards in front of a handful of journalists talking about one of the biggest games of their lives. Fields and Edwards, leading Australia and England respectively, came head to head the next day in the women's World Twenty20 final, played before the men's final and broadcast live around the world.

The sides played out a terrific final on Saturday, a twisting game that went to the last ball and was won eventually by Australia by just four runs, retaining the title they won in 2010. The crowds were not bad, maybe between 5000 to 7000 and more than for any other game at the women's tournament. But how many were just getting there early ahead of the men's final, due to start less than 90 minutes after the women's final finished?

The thing about that pre-final scene is that it is a pretty significant improvement. Not so long ago, before 2005, there might not have been any journalists. There might not have been a global tournament happening at the same time as the men's version.

Women have played organised cricket for centuries. The first recorded game is supposed to have taken place in London in 1745. The first Test match was played in 1934 (between Australia and England) and in the late 1950s, an international body was formed to run the women's game, the International Women's Cricket Council (IWCC). Cricket's first World Cup, students of history will tell you, was played by women, two years before the men's, in 1973.

But it remained disparate, confined and poorly funded until the IWCC merged with the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 2005. That year was not the birth of the women's game, but it is from then that progress – or not – is now measured.

Belinda Clark retired that year, having captained Australia to a fifth World Cup (but an Ashes loss) and has since been a leading force in the women's game (she is also one of only three female ICC Hall of Famers). Five years ago, she says, she could not have imagined even this.

"We've come a long way in such a short period of time, and five years ago if I was sitting back thinking we'll be in Sri Lanka watching double-header matches [both the women's semi-finals and final were played on the same day as the men's and televised] I would've said I'm not sure we'd make it so far so quickly, but that is what has happened."

The ICC has a significant annual budget set aside for the women's game and promotes the game actively. Seven out of 11 national boards now have their female cricketers on central contracts, thus allowing them semi-professional or professional stability. To qualify as an associate member of the ICC, countries must have a women's set-up as well.

There is a minimum number of matches members must play a year (outside of ICC events such as the World Twenty20). Members must now play at least three ODIs and three T20s (excluding ICC events) in any 12-month period.

Incidentally, the women's game, Clark points out, has no qualms with using Twenty20 particularly as the major platform for growth.

"From the game's perspective its just not viable financially or time-wise [to play more Tests]. Not only is it costly to play, it's difficult to get access for your players to play it, so that's why the shortened form is the vehicle to get out in the public."

For all the progress being made, it is maybe not happening quick enough, or evenly enough. At an ICC brunch on the day of the final, organised especially to promote the women's game, the general consensus was that the gap between the top four, including sides such as Australia and England, and the rest was increasing. More cricket for countries such as Pakistan, India and Bangladesh will be important.

And coverage of the game remains an issue. Claire Taylor, one of England's finest, most successful players, made the point in an essay in this year's Wisden Almanack.

"Other than my inclusion as a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 2009 and reactions to our world dominance that year, there has been little written media coverage," she wrote.

"Journalism extends as far as the replication of ECB press releases on websites, and there are precious few column inches in the sports sections. What hope have we got of attracting new fans when some newspapers don't even print full scorecards of our matches?"

In 2009, notes a hurt Taylor, the women's team were overlooked for the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year in favour of the men's team, despite being "double world champions, Ashes winners, [and] had whitewashed Australia."

Cricket, as Clark points out, has not only been traditionally "such a male-dominated sport," but also one so popular in parts of the subcontinent, an area of the world she describes – politely – as traditional thinking countries as far as the woman's place in society goes.

It is here where greater participation can be targeted, particularly if the target of one million female players by 2015 is to be seriously pursued. Promisingly, the World T20 qualifiers were held in Bangladesh earlier this year where crowds of 10,000-15,000 turned up, according to the Pakistan captain Sana Mir, and the matches were broadcast.

When the Bangladesh Cricket Board (BCB) held open trials for their women's team, thousands of hopefuls turned up (it is often argued though that Bangladesh has a stronger matriarchal culture, distinct from India and Pakistan).

But next year, the 50-over World Cup is scheduled to be held in India and it could be a significant watershed, given the commercial and cultural hold of the game there.

"Absolutely the impact of those [countries like India, Pakistan] on the number of people playing the game and therefore how that flows into how much there is to cover is huge," says Clark.

"To get more people to play the game you need to promote the game and be visible to people constantly."

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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