Women’s T20 World Cup 2023 relationship status: It’s awkward
If the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup 2023 were a person, you’d be taking them out for ice cream and lending a sympathetic ear.
First, the tournament in South Africa was delayed by a year because of the pandemic. Then it had the unenviable task of taking the stage after the spectacle that was the 2020 edition, with its record audience of 86,174 at the MCG, an appearance by the great Billie Jean King and a performance by Katy Perry, all on International Women’s Day. If that wasn’t a tough enough act to follow, the T20 World Cup now stands to be upstaged by the inaugural Women’s Premier League as the hottest women’s cricket event of the year (the Under-19 Women’s World Cup has already claimed the title of coolest thing to happen in cricket in 2023).
All this while the World Cup wards off the bad press of the home team dropping their inspirational captain, a potential English boycott of the player of the match awards because of their Saudi oil sponsor, and existential questions about the competition itself.
Looming over the World Cup, larger than the Table Mountain in Cape Town, is the Women’s Premier League. The WPL carries with it the excitement of a revolution in women’s cricket, and its auction – set for February 13, three days into the tournament – will be the spark that lights scores of dreams. But, for the women at the World Cup, the concept of having their value so publicly ‘bid’ for is still unfamiliar and the prospect of big money – or going home empty-handed – is likely a distraction.
“We are all mature enough,” said India captain Harmanpreet Kaur, claiming that the players aren’t distracted by the promise of new riches and employment, especially on the eve of their match against Pakistan. “You know what’s important for you and how you need to keep your focus.”
Captains such as New Zealand’s Sophie Devine and Meg Lanning were more straightforward about the mixed feelings. “It’s the elephant in the room,” said Devine. “It’s naive to think that it’s not going to be a distraction. I am really excited about it. As female cricketers, this is something we have never been through before. On every scale, it’s going to be awkward. That’s the word we have spoken about.”
“We’ve spoken as a team about letting people deal with it how they feel is best,” added Lanning.
While players learn to deal with a life-changing payday (or not) outside the dressing rooms, the WPL should remind boards everywhere of the deepening divide in women’s cricket. Year after year, the FICA (Federation of International Cricketers’ Associations) highlights how boards that are either unwilling or unable to invest in women’s cricket structures in their country produce teams that fall back in performance, creating an ability gap with those teams that do benefit from investment. With the dazzling investment into WPL creating a new “top of the pyramid” for female players, this disparity is only going to increase.
“The gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ highlighted previously has remained during the report period, with a clear correlation between on-field performance, and off field structures and investment,” the FICA global employment report 2022 notes. “Whilst some of this is the result of the level of prioritisation given to the women’s game in certain countries, some reflects the significant inequality in overall global game economics.”
To be clear, this inequality in investment, ability and opportunity predates the WPL. An ICC event always brings it to a head in a few ways.
The T20 World Cup, since its second edition in 2010, has been about a game in which 22 women either hit, throw or catch a ball, and in the end the Australians win. Despite the interruption to the norm from the West Indies in 2016 and rare challenges from India and England in one-off matches, there is little reason to suspect that this aphorism will change in 2023. Australia remain the only “established professional” team as per FICA. Although England, New Zealand, India and South Africa have improved to “progressive professional” teams, the West Indies, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Ireland remain firmly “fledgling professional”.
Then, every World Cup comes with the reminder that the “world” in the name is doing a lot of heavy lifting. This T20 World Cup, for instance, remains limited to 10 teams; this number is expected to increase to 12 by 2030. The U19 World Cup did better with 16 teams. For contrast, the FIFA World Cup this year will have 32 teams participating.
As it stands, the T20 World Cup carries prestige, but has its task cut out to remain the pinnacle of its sport and provide the best advertisement for women’s cricket. It could be argued that the Commonwealth Games, where women’s cricket was introduced in 2022, come with more national pride; competitions such as FairBreak Global are more representative; and the best franchise tournaments produce more competitive games.
This is an exciting time for women’s sport. Across disciplines, it is attracting new audiences, new interest and new investment. Cricket is very much a part of this story. But in that journey, is this T20 World Cup specifically set to stand out as a milestone? Perhaps not.
However, make no mistake: Any excuse to watch the top cricketers of the world on the same platform is a good one. Lanning is back from a mental health break, Heather Knight from an injury-enforced one and Shafali Verma after a victorious U19 World Cup campaign – and those are only some of the rich cricket narratives on offer to keep you glued to screens till the final on February 26.
And of course, if there is an upset, this tournament will go down as one of the most memorable editions. Just as MS Dhoni’s men and their 2007 campaign in South Africa are inextricably linked with the start of the men’s IPL, although the tournament was announced before their World Cup win, the 2023 winners could be the faces that launch the next phase of the women’s T20 revolution.