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How 'yet another' Australia vs England Women's World Cup final is an eye-opener

The ICC Women’s World Cup 2022 started with an upset. Hosts New Zealand, who were being touted as one of the key challengers for the trophy after their 4-1 series win over India, were defeated by the West Indies in the opener on March 4. Not many had thought of the team from the Caribbean as a top-4 contender.

The first 10 days of the tournament witnessed quite a few close games and some more upsets. Particularly surprising was England’s run, with the defending champions losing their first three games and finding themselves facing an early exit.

But here we are now with a Final fixture that we have seen innumerable times in the ICC tournaments history – Australia vs England. Should we really be surprised that it came down to this again? No.

South Africa did well in the first half of the tournament but fell short of making it to their first-ever final. They were handed a big 137-run defeat by England in the semifinal. The way England were able to come back from a do-or-die situation to make it all the way to the Final speaks a lot about the team’s character.

Since the first edition of the ODI World Cup in 1973, Australia have been the champions six times and England four times. New Zealand are the only other team to have gotten their hands on the trophy.

These two countries have had the longest history of cricket, but why is it that their dominance in women’s cricket continues when their stronghold in the men’s game is long gone? The answer lies in the domestic cricket structures in these countries.

Reaping the rewards of domestic cricket structures

While the Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) is widely credited for Australia’s dominance in the last five years, the Women’s National Cricket League (WNCL), the domestic 50-over tournament, has been giving Australian women the opportunity to play highly competitive cricket since the mid-90s. Seven state-based teams compete in the WNCL and a few overseas players have also flown down to play in the league over the years.

England’s now-defunct Kia Super League also gave local players an opportunity to play along with international stars in a six-team franchise-based tournament. Post pandemic, England’s domestic structure has gone through a major overhaul. There are now eight regional centres that each have their teams competing in the 50-over competition, named the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy, and the 20-over tournament, the Charlotte Edwards Cup. Apart from the 16 centrally contracted players, each regional centre also has a number of players with domestic contracts. There are in total 67 professional women cricketers in England and Wales currently.

The England and Wales Cricket Board’s new format league The Hundred has the same franchises running teams in the men’s and women’s competitions. The first edition in 2021 attracted a lot of attention from the fans and media, and the scheduling of women’s and men’s games on the same day at the same venue gave the young players a wonderful opportunity to play in front of packed crowds in a high-octane atmosphere.

The right grooming effect

Being professional or semi-professional sportspersons from a young age has given the upcoming players in these two countries the freedom to focus on their game to a large extent. Earlier, even the top women cricketers of the world had to hold other jobs and pay for their tours themselves. Sharing dressing rooms and playing with and against the international players in the domestic leagues grooms these players to take on the best in the business and prepares them to handle the pressure of challenging situations within games.

Over the last few years, many players like Australia’s Annabel Sutherland and Darcie Brown, and England’s Sophia Dunkley and Charlie Dean, have emerged from these leagues and taken to international cricket like duck to water. After England found themselves in a situation where they needed to win every match to stay in contention in the World Cup, Dean and Dunkley put up some brilliant performances. Dean’s 4-wicket-haul against India and Dunkley’s two 60+ scores played a big role in taking the team to the finals.

While talking to the media post their win against South Africa in the semifinal, England’s star batter Danielle Wyatt acknowledged the benefits the young players are receiving from the domestic tournaments in England. She was all praise for Charlie Dean’s swift and successful transition to international cricket. “She’s performed well, last few years with the Southern Vipers back home. And then The Hundred for London Spirits. So now she’s showing off here on the world stage how good she is,” Wyatt said.

Haunting dilemmas in Indian women’s cricket

Indian women’s cricket has a lot to learn from the likes of Australia and England (Source: Twitter/ICC)

If we turn our sight to India, we find a whole different picture. Before this one, India made it to the knockouts of the last three ICC tournaments. In 2017 and 2020, it was the pressure of the big stage that prevented India from laying their hands on the trophy. The lack of experience in playing high-intensity cricket and being involved in tight match situations has been a chink in India’s armour.

The Indian women’s team went without any international cricket for the entire first year of the Covid-19 pandemic and domestic cricket in the country suffered even longer. Although the Women in Blue put up a few good games against Australia in 2021, in the run-up to the World Cup, they suffered a series of losses against all the top teams – South Africa, England, Australia and New Zealand. Defeats to these four teams in the World Cup again resulted in India getting knocked out of the tournament even before the semis. If this doesn’t set the alarm bells going, what would?

Can a Women’s IPL solve it all?

There has been a long-standing demand for a Women’s IPL from the fans. But the lack of one isn’t the only shortcoming in the Indian domestic setup. At the senior level, India has One-day and T20 tournaments in place that have 37 competing sides. When the talent is divided into those many teams, the level of cricket naturally isn’t as high as that of a 7-8 team tournament. More so, a big chunk of the Indian internationals plays for the same team – the Railways. It should come as no surprise that the Railways have won the One-day Championship 13 out of 16 times and the T20 trophy 9 out of 12 times.

There are ‘Challenger’ tournaments held for both formats with the best performing players from all the domestic teams divided into 3 or 4 sides. However, a tournament with just seven matches cannot give the players sufficient game time and experience.

In a positive development, the BCCI has proposed a six-team Women’s IPL from 2023 and the Pakistan board has also expressed its willingness to get a women’s version of the PSL. A mini women’s CPL will start in the Caribbean later this year.

If women’s cricket has to become more competitive globally and if we want to see new World Champions, it is imperative that the administrators in these emerging nations put thought and planning behind the domestic structure. Organizing a few games or tournaments just to tick boxes or to push aside a bigger conversation around the future of the game is not doing much to narrow that gap.

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