Women’s T20 World Cup and the ability gap
Sri Lanka threatened to shake up the status quo, as did Ireland, but their cases of so-near-yet-so-far only go to show that the gap in women’s cricket is as challenging as ever.
For one glorious moment in the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup 2023, Sri Lanka sat on top of Group 1.
Albeit on a technicality, they were ahead of the mighty Australia. Here were the underdogs, led by their pugilistic captain Chamari Athapaththu, neglected by their home association, lost to public consciousness between world cups, shaking up the status quo in global women’s cricket.
On day one of the 2023 World Cup, they rocked up to Newlands and spoiled the home fans’ party. A couple of days later, they brushed aside Bangladesh. A semi-final appearance, which might have seemed an outrageous bet ahead of the tournament, was suddenly an audacious possibility. Not since the heady days of 2013, when they defeated England and India at the 50-over World Cup, was there so much excitement around the team.
“The first game of the whole tournament with Sri Lanka upsetting South Africa laid the platform for this tournament to be full of upsets and shocks,” Sophie Devine, New Zealand skipper, would say later.
The sentiment, while strong, was wishful. Sri Lanka’s dream was dented when they lost to Australia by 10 wickets. It was dashed when they were bundled out for 60 against a resurgent New Zealand. A campaign that began with so much promise was handed a chastening reality check.
Then there was unfancied Ireland. In the warm-ups, they beat Australia. In the tournament, they took the West Indies to the final over. On Tuesday, they were within five runs of beating India when the rain came. Full points for heart and effort, for making their matches hard-fought, but they will return still waiting on the W.
The Sri Lankan and Irish campaigns are both cases of so close, yet so far. They are a reminder of the potential in women’s cricket, of what can be achieved with just a little more. A chance for that elusive win, to inject unpredictability into a global tournament, to give neutrals that underdog story we so crave. But in the end, they highlight, once again in a world cup, the gap that exists between the top teams and the rest.
Resource-rich countries have helped build women’s cricket up to the product that demands greater investment and attention. But the realities of global cricket economics, and unequal opportunities mean that recent Women’s World Cups have teased to be, but very rarely are, tournaments of shocks and upsets. This isn’t to take away from the well-deserved successes of the top of the pyramid, but rather throw light on the inequalities and challenges at the bottom, which hold both the teams and women’s cricket back.
Sri Lanka, Athapaththu lamented after the loss in the high stakes match against New Zealand, “don’t have experience for this kind of game”. They had not play a T20I for nearly two years after the 2020 World Cup. Among the teams at this World Cup, they’ve played the least number of matches across formats since then.
“The youngsters need some experience not coming from playing in the nets. They need to play more cricket in future, that’s what we want to do … We have to play a lot of cricket against the top four teams, so then we can improve our cricket and we can build good teams. We need some matches in the future, so I hope [Sri Lanka Cricket] will organise some tours for us.”
The players, including the swashbuckling Athapaththu, were ignored in the Women’s Premier League auctions. More than the loss of income, missing out on league cricket in the top nations means they miss out on opportunities to gain experience “for this kind of game”.
“Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – we have to develop our structure,” said Athapaththu. “Essentially try and do [our] best to rebuild the structure. Now I feel we have a lot of youngsters, so if we restructure our domestic level, hopefully in the next two years we can build good teams in Sri Lanka.”
Perhaps alive to the fact that the WPL was only the latest in a series of examples of how Sri Lanka were falling back from the pack in terms of resources, the Sri Lankan board increased the women’s match fees, from USD 250 to USD 750, with a USD 250 bonus to each player for every match they win.
It’s the kind of investment the Federation of International Cricketers’ Associations have been calling for to bridge “the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’”. Because, FICA says, there is a “clear correlation between on-field performance, and off field structures and investment”.
To hear their captain, Ireland stand as proof of that investment. Five years ago, during their previous appearance at a World Cup, captain Laura Delany fought back tears after their loss to Pakistan. “It’s so incredibly frustrating,” she had said. “if we were professional, I wonder what score would have been out there today.”
Now, backed by contracts and investment, Ireland are back playing on the global stage, and pushing the teams. In November 2022, they beat Pakistan in a T20I series.
“One area that I suppose has come on leaps and bounds is just the professionalism around the game in our squad,” said Delany. “Cricket Ireland brought in full time contracts back in March and I think our performances have definitely improved because of that. And I’m really excited about where this team can go … I know that we’re heading in the right direction irrespective of the results.”
The likes of New Zealand, who have the investment but not necessarily the domestic structures, know they have their work cut out to keep up with the resource-rich Australia, England and India. During a disappointing campaign, where they failed to make the semi-final again, a frustrated Sophie Devine declared their domestic system just wasn’t good enough.
“In terms of what we’re seeing now around the world in England with The Hundred, the Aussies have led the way for a long time with the Women’s Big Bash, and now the women’s IPL, it’s going to strengthen those countries a lot,” added all-rounder Amelia Kerr. “When I’ve gone to Australia, the resources they have to train is outstanding. We’ve been very fortunate this year with New Zealand Cricket in terms of our match fees being equal to the men. That allows us to earn more money so we can train more – most of us now do cricket full time, which is only going to help our game, not having to work a job and then train late at night – so we’re heading in the right direction.”
As Kerr puts it, less inequalities will pull up women’s cricket as a whole: “Yes, we’re behind the other countries but I think if all countries can get that opportunity and the resources, it’s going to help grow the women’s game and improve all teams around the world.”