England won all seven matches of their white-ball series in the West Indies but, despite the positives they will take into the upcoming T20 World Cup, the tour should act as an alarm bell over the growing performance gap in international women’s cricket.
At the end of the powerplay in the final match of the T20I series, the West Indies were 16-4, Freya Davies, Nat Sciver and Issy Wong all having already opened their wickets tally. Just over 11 overs later, Davies trapped Cherry-Ann Fraser lbw to finish off the West Indies innings, bowling them out for their lowest-ever total in T20Is (43). England only needed 39 balls to complete a clean sweep of the tour, Sciver hitting the winning runs to finish unbeaten on 20 off 12.
With Jon Lewis appointed as head coach just a week before they flew out to Antigua, winning seven games from seven looks on paper an overwhelming success for a winter tour. But, with a World Cup around the corner and the gap in quality between England and the West Indies, winning cannot be the only judgement of the tour’s success for Lewis. The constant rotation of players in and out of the XI and multiple roles in which many of them were tried showed a captain and coach testing the waters in preparation for a big year.
Of those who passed their tests with flying colours, the obvious positive to point to is the bowlers. Charlie Dean and Lauren Bell in particular took the chances offered to them with both hands, finishing the T20I series with 20 wickets between them. In a side which is over-saturated with quality spin bowlers, Dean has forced her way into contention for a spot in the best XI, taking three wickets on her T20I debut and following up with another four in the next game. With Sophie Ecclestone passing a record number of women’s international wickets in a calendar year (56), and Sarah Glenn ranked second in the world for T20I bowlers, that’s no small achievement.
Bell took 4-12 in the fourth T20I including two wickets in the first over of the West Indies chase and has added considerably to England’s options in the powerplay. Finding considerable movement with the new ball, after going wicketless in her first two T20I matches this summer, Bell has capitalised on the chances she was given on the tour and nailed down her spot in the squad. Davies too showed the considerable depth England have in their fast-bowling ranks, taking 3-2 in 2.2 overs in the final match in Bridgetown. Considering Wong was unavailable for the majority of the tour with quad tightness and Freya Kemp returned home with a stress fracture in her back, England’s quality in depth will be a massive tick checked off their list.
In contrast, there will still be questions remaining over how England’s batting lineup matches up to Australia’s and India’s. While only one of England’s batters (Danni Wyatt) registered fifty in the T20I series, seven of those involved in the recently concluded series between India and Australia passed the half-century mark. England were playing on slower pitches with bigger boundaries in the Caribbean, but none of their batters were able to summon a performance with the ruthlessness required which would ensure victory over the other two best sides in the world.
Sophia Dunkley was England’s most consistent performer but wasn’t able to kick on after making a start and ensure the game was out of reach by the halfway stage. As a unit, England were unable to put together a score of over 160 in the T20Is. With Alice Capsey a doubt to make the T20 World Cup after fracturing her collar bone and Lauren Winfield-Hill underwhelming on her return to the side, England look like they lack individuals to inject the same dynamism that Australia and India possess in bucket loads.
India and Australia have contested the last two global T20 finals, in the Commonwealth Games and the T20 World Cup, with India twice beating the Aussies at those two events. They went toe-to-toe in thrilling style in their five-match series, and will be the teams to beat when the next World Cup starts. England have been closely matched with India – England should have beaten them in the Commonwealth Games, and came out on top in the bilateral series between the sides this summer. But the fear is, with India unearthing a new superstar in Richa Ghosh, that Harmanpreet Kaur’s could close the gap on Australia and leave England behind.
However, zooming outwards from England’s narrative, the focal takeaway from this series should be the growing chasm between nations in the development of the women’s game. It’s not new information or a problem anyone is unaware of, but never has it been more glaringly uncomfortable than on this tour. The last time the West Indies beat one of England, Australia or India in a bilateral series was in 2010. If you add South Africa and New Zealand to that list, it’s 2016. As national boards commit resources to grow the size and calibre of infrastructure beneath their national teams, they are leaving behind those who have not. West Indies are struggling without Deandra Dottin and Stafanie Taylor, but the lack of professionalism and depth in player development means there isn’t anyone who can replace them.
It’s not a problem that can be pinned solely on individual boards, struggling for cash and falling behind in multiple aspects of the game. It’s a problem the game must address as a whole. Uncompetitive series where one side dominates to the extent England have done on this tour are not marketable products, in any format of the game. The lack of quality and accessible broadcast coverage along with poor marketing around the series in general completes a vicious circle which stifles growth and sells the game short. What should be taken away from this tour from an England perspective is that whilst women’s cricket is thriving at home and in their marquee series, it cannot continue to do unless the top table stops shrinking.