Women’s BBL set to reignite England Women
A little over four months after losing the Ashes in bruising style, England women begin their journey of redemption at the home of their victors.
On Saturday December 5, England team-mates Kate Cross, Lauren Winfield and Nat Sciver go head-to-head in the opening match of the inaugural Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL), as Melbourne Stars take on Brisbane Heat. There, at St Kilda’s Junction Oval, they will contest a double-header of T20 revelry, sparring with some of the best in the world.
The encounter marks the first major step towards achieving full domestic professionalism in the women’s game, and a reinforcement of the continued development still being undertaken in the sport. Development that is hoped will encourage a new generation of girls, who for too long have been overlooked, to take up cricket.
It also acts as a curtain raiser to an intense 2016 for England Women’s cricketers. While already international trendsetters – awarding full-time contracts to 18 players and securing a historic standalone sponsorship deal – the next 12 months have the possibility of being era defining in England. Few other years have had so much riding on them.
Indeed, the importance of the WBBL as the starting point for change and England’s recovery cannot be underestimated. So useful is it seen by the ECB in the progression of the nine England internationals competing, that they are permitting them to commit for as long as their teams remain involved.
The revelation came in stark contrast to the governing bodies’ original request, which required a hasty return mid-January ahead of the competition’s conclusion for a training camp prior to February’s South Africa tour. It seems a logical arrangement however, to allow the players a chance to feast on a rare gluttonous offering of competitive fixtures when so often they find themselves restricted to slender match pickings.
Looked through the prism of the upcoming Indian-held World T20 and it reveals a positively forward-thinking decision by those in authority. Having lost the final to Australia in 2014, an improvement in power hitting and aggressive flair was deemed necessary. Yet the newly honed destructive panache deserted England when needed most in the recent Ashes series – striking 17 fewer boundaries than their Australian counterparts. In a game where nuance and astute use of skill overrides bludgeoning strength, the difference proved costly. The WBBL, then, provides England’s elite an opportunity for condensed learning from their international peers, an invaluable examination of their abilities and, maybe more notably, the freedom to rekindle their mojo.
Finding that conviction again could turn out to be fundamental to WT20 victory, but before travelling to Asia, England visit the Cape to contest three crucial ODIs. Automatic qualification for the 2017 World Cup, which England will host, still hangs precariously, and with only three more series after this, two of which are away, they cannot afford to let vital points slip. Currently fifth in the Women’s Championship, the competition used to determine qualification, England sit one spot and two points behind South Africa. They must finish in the top four if they wish to bypass a hazardous – and potentially embarrassing – knockout stage and ensure a place at their own tournament.
The home advantage benefits aside, the 2017 World Cup represents a truly unique occasion to engage with a clear-eyed and eager public. At a time when so many pursuits jostle for mainstream attention, here lies an opening to make a lasting impression and accelerate the shifting perceptions of women’s sport. No occasion is more likely to propel England’s cricketers to household names than this.
Building on the extensive work already undertaken to raise awareness is complicated though, with no live matches set to be shown on free-to-air television during the tournament. If hearts and minds of those outside cricket’s core fanbase are to be won, as is the aim, then limiting their ability to witness any on-pitch accomplishments first hand certainly hinders that objective. It also places extra pressure in the lead up, substantial efforts now required throughout next summer to boost visibility.
The significance of the opportunity is not lost on the ECB, though, who in the aftermath of a disappointing summer have made substantial changes, not least the high-profile appointment of Mark Robinson as coach. As cricket manager of Sussex for the past 10 years, Robinson won two County Championship titles and another four pieces of silverware. Importantly for England, he is known throughout the system for his knack of reviving those whose self-belief has waned. Injecting confidence in a team blessed with bountiful talent but ravaged by inner-doubt could be Robinson’s most telling influence when he takes over in the new year.
The South Africa series also offers an early insight into Robinson’s impact on the side. With little background in the women’s game and such a short period to adapt, the squad is expected to consist largely of the same set of contracted players to have featured for much of 2015. England used just 16 individuals across all three formats in that time, and although demonstrating trust, it points to a lack of competition coming through the domestic system, too.
To that end, Clare Connor, in her role as England’s Head of Women’s Cricket, must be heralded for beginning the process of closing the gap. Next summer the Women’s Super League will be introduced in England, a domestic T20 competition comprising of six-club franchises. Funded to the tune of £3million over four years by the ECB, the aim is that – alongside providing an improved standard of cricket and income to those not on national contracts – it’ll capture the nation’s attention with an array of international poster-players to encourage interest.
Eyes merely need to be glanced at their football colleagues to see what can be achieved: attendances are up by 50% in the domestic league following the summer’s third-place World Cup finish. Whatever the outcome in 2016, it looks set to be a watershed year: successful and the sport’s landscape should be permanently transformed for the better.