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

The Daily Telegraph (Sydney) - - Saturday Extra -

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

world.”

We want our game to re­main rel­e­vant and sus­tain­able in the fu­ture

James Suther­land

“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.

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