The losses and the metres gained: Women’s World Cup shows four years of change
And then there were four. Australia, India, South Africa and England remain in contention for the Women’s Cricket World Cup of 2017. But while three finals are yet to come, the pool stage involving all eight teams is the best means to see what can be learned.
Most notably, there’s an excitement about women’s cricket that is very different to tournaments past.
This isn’t about generating a puff piece, all jolly smiles and shiny rainbows — there are positives and negatives to account for.
But overall, it’s hard to deny that women’s cricket is on the march, especially relative to where it has come from.
Most notable has been the broader standard of play. Professionalism has only started to come into effect in the last couple of years, and even then only in some of the participating countries.
But it is already having its effect.
The biggest advances have come in batting. Where women’s cricket as a sport was once more inclined to be attritional, players are scoring faster, hitting further and hitting harder.
This year’s World Cup has already seen two more centuries scored than the 2013 edition.
More significantly though, only four of the 11 hundreds in 2013 were scored at a strike rate above 90. This year, that has shot up to 11 of 13.
Back in 2009, there were three individual centuries in the tournament, and only four team scores of more than 250. In 2013, there were eight innings over 250.
This year, it’s up to 14. Every second game in 2017 has topped that mark.
Three scores this year have been over 300, with England powering to 377 and 373. The number of sixes hit in the past three Cups has gone from 47 to 67 to 97.
That’s reflected in the run-scoring, too — in 2013, current West Indies skipper Stafanie Taylor was second on the tournament tally with 314. This year, seven players have already passed that mark.
Seam bowling and fielding are the areas that need to catch up to this improved batting.
Increasingly, we’ve seen teams turn to spin in an attempt to rein in rampaging batting sides, forcing players to make their own pace on big shots. The seamer is starting to look like a threatened species.
Fielders, too, have had plenty of rabbit-headlight moments, when cuts and drives are smashed straight at them.
Far too many shots have simply been allowed through, benefiting the batsmen while frustrating bowlers and fans. Raise fielding to match the strokeplay, and the contest will soar.
Improvements in coverage, competitiveness a good sign
The second aspect that has improved vastly is coverage. Four years ago, I had to follow the World Cup from home using a range of unreliable and dubious means that probably shouldn’t be catalogued.
No one was hiring anyone to cover it. When Australia won the final, none of the papers even had it front page on their websites, let alone print editions.
This time around, we’ve been at the ground, commentating every Australian game live for ABC and BBC radio, while every match in the tournament has had a visual broadcast thanks to the ICC combining with various TV stations and streaming platforms.
The papers and wire services have done written coverage, and even Australia’s pay dispute hasn’t taken all the headlines.
The third improvement is competitiveness. This edition of the tournament has had most of its teams there and thereabouts, rather than several purely making up the numbers.
South Africa has made the jump, after years of floating around at the level below the contenders. Semi-finalists, having produced some fighting efforts against the main threats in Australia and England, the Proteas have the capacity to make their first final.
Pakistan and Sri Lanka had a tough run of results, but both had higher-ranked teams in trouble. The inability to finish those games off hurt them, but neither had a series of walkovers. And remember that those teams had to win through a tough qualifying comp even to be here.
Windies’, White Ferns’ struggles a negative
As far as negatives go, the demise of the West Indies is most glaring. Finalists at the last World Cup, champions at last year’s World Twenty20, the 50-over side from the Caribbean just didn’t show up.
Being beaten is one thing. Losing all concept of how your sport even operates is quite another.
Time and again, West Indies battled through innings at barely two or three runs an over, responding to any early threat by shutting up shop.
Special mention to Chedean Nation, who batted in every game for a tournament strike rate of 48. The approach was as baffling as it was redundant, ceding all initiative in a game that can accommodate a tempered approach, but requires scoring above all else.
Let us hope this shadow of a team knows a way to resume corporeal form.
New Zealand was another, underperforming substantially. Before the tournament, the starring roles played by many in the squad during recent Big Bash and Super League seasons suggested this unit could go all the way.
Teenage leg-spinner Amelia Kerr was sensational, but the batting too often gave way.
A washout against South Africa may have cost a couple of points, but that was no sure thing. Against the other three eventual semi-finalists, New Zealand folded meekly.
The concern with Pakistan and Sri Lanka is working out what’s next. Where games slipped away, it was down to basics: mistakes in fielding, running, pacing an innings.
But these are vastly experienced players. Nine of Sri Lanka’s squad are aged 30 or more, half a dozen of Pakistan’s best XI are over 29.
There may not be a huge amount of upside left, unless a drastic extra investment in coaching and training can reap rewards.
Failing that, it remains to be seen whether either nation has a next generation.
India has some the same issues, though more overall quality in its playing group.
For all of the four previously mentioned teams, coaching needs to place an emphasis on positivity.
Under pressure, especially with the bat, there is a tendency to go back into shells. Perhaps batting out 50 overs in a lost cause is important to help a team develop confidence, but the ability to find ways to score singles, rather than simply offer defensive shots, should be the focus in limited-overs games.
Smarter scheduling could increase crowd numbers
Scheduling has been the last drawback — often three or four games have been staged at once, with several days free either side.
This is a relief for the media corps shuttling back and forth, but ensures audiences are lower for each match on radio, television, and in crowds.
Realistically, midweek neutral games were never likely to draw hordes — we saw the same in the men’s 2015 World Cup.
But when England took on Australia at Bristol, several thousand filled the small county ground, and apparently the final at Lord’s has already sold something like 15,000 tickets. There is interest there, if it’s catered for.
England and Australia again would be the best contest for crowd numbers, though India’s involvement might be best for the development of the sport globally, and South Africa might be best for the energy and interest of a new contender.
However it goes, the Cup has already proved a success. The dinosaurs, as per their brief, have rapidly begun to die out.
Conversation around the sport has mostly been positive and enthused. If the last four years have brought so much change in women’s cricket, the next four are set to be a fair old ride.
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