IT’S JUST NOT CRICKET...
AS THE MEN’S GAME LURCHES FROM ONE CRISIS TO THE NEXT, WOMEN’S CRICKET HAS TAKEN OFF AND IS WINNING OVER THE PUBLIC, WRITES FIONA BOLLEN
One year ago tomorrow was a beautiful late spring day at North Sydney Oval when Australian superstar Ellyse Perry raised her bat not once, but twice, during the women’s Ashes Test.
It confirmed Perry as one of Australia’s great athletes as she turned her first career hundred into a first career 200.
It also signalled women’s cricket had truly arrived.
Matches throughout that Ashes series sold out grounds and then-host broadcaster Channel 9 was forced to move games to its main channel because of demand.
But on that Saturday, as Perry found her groove in the middle, people were taking notice. More than one million viewed Perry’s 213 not out online, while more than 4 million minutes of that Test were watched live on the Cricket Network. There were more than 3 million views on social media and nearly 13,000 people went to the ground to catch some live action.
That series told the public women’s cricket was here to stay, but to understand how it got to that point, you need to go back a bit further.
Things have been on the up since a pay dispute between players and Cricket Australia (CA) was settled in August last year. It was an agreement that delivered a financial windfall for female cricketers that finally meant they could earn a living from the sport they had for so long only played for the love of it.
But women’s cricket being at its highest point didn’t just start with money or a domestic T20 competition in the WBBL three years ago.
It was a change in thinking that began several years ago. Not one specific meeting where, boom, everything changed, but a rough timeline can be etched out.
While outgoing Cricket Australia CEO James Sutherland has presided over a disastrous period in the men’s game, including the ball-tampering scandal and accusations he’s fostered a win-at-all-costs culture, his advocacy of women’s cricket has been an almost inverse success.
He had been in the job since 2001, but when his own daughter hit a roadblock in her cricket pathway, his advocacy for women’s cricket went from in-principle to having direct understanding of the issues girls faced to play through their teen years.
So it was about four or five years ago that the female game we have today started to get real backing.
“I think we started to realise we needed to take stronger and affirmative action to correct things but then also to take quantum leaps to get the momentum going,” Sutherland says.
“Within that there are various pockets of the game where we’ve simulated true investment.”
This included a milliondollar Growing Cricket for Girls fund that offered incentives for clubs to start new girls’ teams to stimulate participation at grassroots level. And then the WBBL, which is a month out from its fourth season and has proved a game changer for players and fans alike.
“The WBBL put us ahead,” says Sydney Thunder captain and former Australian vicecaptain Alex Blackwell.
“We needed to move on a few things: professionalism and having the best domestic competition in the world.
“I do believe our contracts, especially since the MOU (last year), are quite groundbreaking and put us ahead. And (the WBBL) is the best domestic competition around the
We want our game to remain relevant and sustainable in the future
“If you go right to the top of strategy, we want our game to remain relevant and sustainable in the future,” Sutherland says. “It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s a business imperative.”
Cricket is enjoying a new wave of interest and women and girls are at the heart of it.
Four years ago, Cricket NSW replaced the Breakers Junior Cricket Leagues with WBBL-branded competitions under Thunder and Sixers, 38 teams at that time. Those numbers almost doubled year on year for the next two seasons and by last summer they had 309 teenage girls’ cricket leagues in NSW. They hope that will go beyond 400 this summer.
Nationally, there are 619 new girls’ teams. Six of every 10 new participants are female and they now have a 70-30 overall breakdown of male to female participants, and are rapidly closing the gap. It’s the highest year-onyear growth figure Australian cricket has ever experienced. “Lots and lots of people deserve a pat on the back for what’s been achieved over the last few years,” Sutherland says, “but I still believe we’re making up for lost time and while we might not have been able to properly invest in the women’s game over decades gone by, we are in a position to do that now.”
One area that didn’t need attention was at the top.
The Australian Women’s team has always been dominant on the world stage and are currently the number one ICC-ranked nation in one day and T20 cricket.
The team boasts two of the world’s best players in Perry and Meg Lanning. Alyssa Healy has been destructive with the bat the past year, as has Megan Schutt with the ball. While other players, like Rachael Haynes and Nicola Carey, have enjoyed a second coming on the back of professionalism.
“It was almost by chance that we had created an environment that we were creating the best cricketers in the world,” Sutherland says.
But the new MOU took things to another level even for those players.
The minimum salary was $40,000 but is now $72,000 and by the end of the deal in 2022 that will be nearing $90,000. Earning a six-figure salary is now possible for players on national contracts.
The WBBL has played a part here too.
Australian players like Sophie Molineux, Georgia Wareham and Tayla Vlaeminck are part of the Australian World T20 squad whose campaign got under way this morning. At 20 years of age (or nearly 20 in Wareham’s case), they have benefited from a connected pathway that has accelerated their ascension to the national side.
The top players have a quality competition to hone their game, but it also allows some to play on when their representative time ends.
“I was very close to choosing career over cricket at one point, and if it wasn’t for the semi-professional contracts that were available at that time, I would have chosen career,” Blackwell says.
“(WBBL) definitely has kept people more interested. I’m still playing (for Thunder); I would have ended. I was on a two-year deal and I’m really excited to still be able to play cricket because I’ve got a lot to offer on the field.” You can’t be what you can’t see, and women’s matches on free-to-air and pay TV as well as bigger grounds around the country have given young girls visible role models.
Thousands turned out to watch the Australian team during a T20 series against New Zealand last month; Allan Border Field in Brisbane sold out.
What stood out for parents with their daughters at the third match in Canberra was the effort by players to engage with fans post-match.
The Jones and Geeves families waited by the fence for signatures and fathers Chris and Brenden couldn’t believe how much time players gave to their daughters Gracie, 8, Dayna, 9, and their friends.
Both girls were avid cricket fans before but now they’re diehards. And they believe they can achieve what these players have too.
“It makes me want to play cricket more and play for Australia,” Gracie says. “It makes me want to be just like the girls in the team.”
A new generation is being brought up with sport where the men’s and women’s games are treated equally. It doesn’t stop here. Those in and around the game are predicting growth to continue at a rapid rate and break records in years to come.
As the Australian team prepares for next week’s World T20, they also have one eye on the 2020 tournament that will be played here.
Sydney will have the two semi-finals at the SCG, with the final in Melbourne. Organisers want and expect nothing less than full houses at Australia’s world-famous cricket venues.
“The World T20 in the early months of 2020 will be a watershed for women’s sport in Australia,” says incoming SCG Trust chief executive Kerrie Mather.
“The SCG is hosting both semi-finals in front of what we expect will be sellout crowds and the biggest broadcast audience for women’s sport since the Sydney Olympics.
“The tournament, featuring the 10 best women’s teams in the world, will provide the platform for the next stage of growth in women’s sport in Australia.”
And in just a couple of years, the team could look very different to the one challenging for the world title now as that new connected pathway floods the system with talent.
“(The future) is about getting this wave of juniors at the entry level and senior primary and early secondary, getting them through, so just not starting cricket but actually wanting to play and keep coming back,” Sutherland says.
“Hopefully through weight of numbers as girls and women come through from those entry-level programs to the next stage, that will be a matter of course. “But again I come back to being impatient and saying let’s not let it be a matter of course and let’s see how we can accelerate this.”
Meg Lanning bats in the Twenty20; Rachael Haynes (above),All of it — grassroots, WBBL, contracts and pay — made sense from a business perspective.
Test Captain Meg Lanning. The national women’s team’s NSW players Nicola Carey, Rachael Haynes, Ellyse Perry, Ashleigh Gardner and Alyssa Healy. Clockwise from above: Ellyse Perry and Amanda-Jade Wellington; fans Lily Pendlebury and Gracie Jones with Megan Schutt; Alex Blackwell, and Ellyse Perry.