Choose to Challenge: Levelling the playing field
Continuing our series highlighting the strides made in the women's game when people chose to challenge the status quo, and shining a light on the areas where work remains to be done
2 March 2021, 04:25 PM AEST
Drawing on the theme of this year's International Women's Day – Choose to Challenge – cricket.com.au is exploring the strides made in the women's game, and by women working in cricket, while also shining a light on the areas where work remains to be done.
We will cast an eye on the elite game, coaching, media and broadcast, administration, participation and pathways, as well as looking at the broader picture internationally.
This is part two of an examination into the game at the elite level, following yesterday's look at pay, contracts, conditions and prizemoney.
What's the current situation?
Australia's senior team
Australia's women are playing a broader range of opponents more regularly than ever before.
A large part of this is due to the ICC's Women's ODI Championship, a round-robin tournament running across three years, and which determined automatic qualification for the ODI World Cup.
Introduced in 2014, each of the eight teams play each other once – in at least three ODIs – during each cycle.
The impact was instant. While the number of overall matches Australia have played since the first Championship started in 2014 is consistent with the preceding six years, they previously only played England, India and New Zealand bilaterally, and only met the likes of Sri Lanka, Pakistan or South Africa during World Cups.
The Championship ensures regular cricket must be played by these eight nations and provides a future tours schedule for national boards to follow.
In terms of scheduling within Australia, the advent of T20 cricket brought with it a move towards staging double headers between the men's and women's teams.
For the women, that brought a significant improvement in grounds and facilities, as they played at the best venues the country had the offer for those matches.
While this resulted in women's matches being routinely broadcast for the first time, it only applied to T20 Internationals and, given the significant time span taken to play back-to-back matches, they often played in front of few fans, with many only attending the men's game.
It triggered a change in thinking from the 2017 Ashes onwards, with the growth in the women's game seeing them move to smaller boutique venues, where they attracted standalone crowds.
"The double-header T20s were a really important vehicle to get the Australian women's team on TV because if all the cameras were there, there were fewer barriers and the broadcast partners were more open to it," former CA head of female engagement Sarah Styles told The Scoop podcast.
"They were playing on the MCG but it wasn't what was best at the time because they hadn't got the off-field growth part right, if you put 5000 people in the MCG, you can hear the person on the other side of the stadium have a conversation.
"If you put 5000 people at North Sydney Oval, the atmosphere is phenomenal.
"The people who had been championing the women's game and doing amazing things, had got them to the big grounds and I can remember a bit of tension when I started saying can we take a step back.
"But always being on those big grounds wasn't helping. Yes, it was on TV and you're trying to reach a new audience but if that audience was dialling in to see an empty ground and low atmosphere… well as we've seen the last year, there's a reason they created fake crowd noise.
"They were judging a product without watching a product and that was affecting the growth of the game.
"So we actually took a step back and said how do we just have great experiences for the fans who are coming along? And that's why North Sydney was so great."
That growth, which saw bumper crowds including at North Sydney for the inaugural women's day-night Test in 2017, took a massive step for the 2020 T20 World Cup.
The commitment to holding a standalone event remained, with the T20 World Cup split from the men's event for the first time to allow the women to stand on centre stage.
And the opportunity presented by a once-in-a-generation event like a World Cup saw the organising team think big and schedule the final for the MCG.
Thanks to the mountain of work that went into the #FillTheG campaign and the on-field success of Australia, that final was a resounding success when 86,174 people watched the hosts win the final.
Globally, the opportunities for the game are growing, with women's T20 cricket confirmed to feature in the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham for the first time.
Underage and Australia A
CA have reintroduced Under-19s tours for female players, with squads touring South Africa and New Zealand in recent years, while Australia A toured England alongside the senior squad in 2019, and India A visited Australia later the same year.
The Governor-General's XI match was also founded as an equivalent to the men's Prime Minister's XI game, to be held each year against a touring side.
The ICC have also agreed to introduce the first women's Under-19s World Cup, which was due to have been held in Bangladesh early this year. It has currently been postponed until December but whether it goes ahead as planned remains under a cloud due to the COVID19 pandemic.
The introduction of the Rebel WBBL in 2015-16 was a major breakthrough for the women's game. Previously a T20 Cup had been contested by the state teams while the men played in the KFC BBL.
The WBBL attracts the best players from around the world, and its emergence prompted the England and Wales Cricket Board to hasten plans for their own T20 women's league.
Initially played alongside the KFC BBL, including double-headers, the WBBL shifted to a standalone spot in the calendar in WBBL 2019-20 and is holding its own as an independent competition.
The 50-over Women's National Cricket League was founded in 1996-97, replacing the Australian Women's Cricket Championships which had taken place in a two-week tournament format since 1930-31.
Initially the battle for the Ruth Preddey Cup involved New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia, with the ACT (2009-10) and Tasmania (2010-11) joining later.
Remarkably, NSW have featured in every final, and have won 20 of the 24 titles to date.
The format of the WNCL has shifted over the years and at one point the number of matches was reduced following the introduction of state T20 cricket, but it was expanded from six home-and-away matches per season to eight in 2019-20.
Where do the gaps remain?
Australia's senior team
While limited-overs cricket is booming, the same cannot be said for women's Tests.
Australia's women play far fewer matches than their male counterparts, primarily due to the lack of Test cricket in their schedule.
As noted in part one, the period between June 2019 to the start of the pandemic in March 2020 was Australia's busiest yet. They played a total of 33 matches, including one Test, nine ODIs and 20 T20Is – 33 days of cricket in total.
During that same period, Australia's men played 10 Tests, 17 ODIs and nine T20Is across the same period. Taking into account Tests that finished early, there was a total of 69 days of cricket played (of 76 scheduled).
Australia only don the whites once every two years, when a single Test features as part of the multi-format Ashes alongside three ODIs and three T20Is.
It is a worldwide trend – the last women's Test not played between Australia and England was in 2014, when India hosted South Africa in Mysore.
Since the first women's T20I was played in 2004, there have been 17 women's Tests played, compared to 38 between 1990-2004.
It is a topic frequently discussed, and a complex one.
Speaking to The Scoop podcast last month, Lisa Sthalekar appealed for more women's Test matches to be played, and for the multi-format model to be played against other countries including New Zealand and India.
"Players around the world want to play Test cricket," Sthalekar said. "When you turn on the TV, regardless of what country you're in, you see that Test cricket is the premium product, and its treated that way by all the national boards.
"I can understand that T20 cricket is a vehicle to the game and broadening it and that's why we're in this fortunate situation where the players are getting paid.
"But one thing I'd like to see, and one thing I hope is that the money that's now being earnt, and the commercial value that you're starting to see women's cricket bringing in, that money to be redirected to play the longer format.
"I think we've found the perfect format, with the Ashes series of one Test, three ODIs and three T20s. I don't see why we can't have something similar against India, against New Zealand, South Africa, the stronger counties. Then as time goes on, and the development of women's cricket continues to grow, that can extend to Sri Lanka, Pakistan etc.
"Will we see a five Test series within the women's game? No, I don't think we will and that's okay.
"But I think Test cricket has got to be part of it. There is nothing more than a player you want to see if you're good enough at the best and the hardest format in the game. And females just don't get that chance which is disappointing. "
Limited-overs cricket, and T20Is in particular, have been favoured as a way to attract greater audiences to the women's game.
Australia great and former CA executive Belinda Clark explained the disparity in depth between Australia's fully professional players and other countries, presented another hurdle to playing more Tests in the immediate future.
"I think it comes back to making sure the game is accessible and growing across the globe," Clark said earlier this year.
"My personal view is that T20 cricket still needs to be the vehicle in which to navigate the strength of the game across the globe.
"The longer the format of the game, the bigger the difference between the competing teams, and you get lopsided contests.
"(Limited-overs) is where I would be putting all my attention, all my efforts. That has to come at a cost, and to me that cost is probably the longer format of the game ... whether that's for five, ten or twenty years I don't know."
This was an argument also presented by Federation of International Cricketers' Associations CEO Tom Moffat in January, who explained that when taking a global view, helping more countries join Australia in achieving professionalism was a priority for the organisation.
"The game is largely still amateur in most cricket-playing counties … and most countries don't have any significant domestic structure at all," Moffat told the CRICKETher podcast.
"We love Test cricket and players love Test cricket and it might be a longer-term aim to focus on calling for more women's Tests.
"But at this point in time there are several pressing priorities to be advocating for, including creating the most effective schedule and structure to grow the game, revenue and viewers; providing opportunities for the volume of competitive cricket across more countries; some of the basic fundamentals in employment contracts and actually building the foundations underneath international cricket as well.
"In our view, those are the pillars of a successful and vibrant global game long term and help it keep moving in the right direction at pace."
While men's international tours within Australia routinely see every game played at a different venue, women's tours frequently see some, or all, matches played at the same ground.
However, this trend is changing and Australia's postponed ODI series against India which had been scheduled for January, would have seen all three ODIs played at different venues across Canberra, Melbourne and Hobart.
That move had proved a success at the T20 World Cup, where Australia played each game at a different venue across the country before 86,174 people filled the MCG for the final.
As covered in part one, while male state cricketers play in the Marsh Sheffield Shield and Marsh One-Day Cup, females only play in the 50-over WNCL.
If a male cricketer played every possible day of cricket for his state in a normal non-COVID impacted season (including the final), he would play 44 days of Shield plus eight Marsh One-Day Cup matches; a total of 52 days of cricket.
Each WNCL side plays eight games per season, with the top side sides contesting the final, providing a maximum of just nine days of state cricket per summer.
"At the end of the day we don't play enough cricket. We don't play anywhere near enough female cricket for what we're doing with our program," NSW Breakers coach Dom Thornely told cricket.com.au last month.
"We start in May and we finish at the end of March and the girls get eight games of cricket out of that whole time.
"We would love a full home-and-away season and that's the end goal and everyone knows it, everyone is driven to try and get there."
However, both the ACA and CA high performance manager Shawn Flegler are eager to see it expanded to a full home-and-away season.
"I imagine it'll happen," Flegler told cricket.com.au last month. "Ideally that's where it gets to. Where it all fits in the schedule is a tough thing when you're trying to balance (semi-professional) players' lives outside of cricket.
"I'd love to see a full home-and-away schedule, it doesn't mean the Australia players could be available for the whole thing but that's part of the evolution of the game."
Currently, the memorandum of understanding states there can be a maximum of 10 WNCL matches played per team, and ACA approval to be sought before scheduling more than that number.
The WBBL aims to become the No.1 female sporting league in the world and part of achieving that full be successfully securing a window in the calendar free of international cricket, to ensure the best overseas talent is always available – something that would require cooperation between international boards, as seen with the men's Indian Premier League.