By Alison Mitchell
England’s thrilling three-run victory over Australia in Bristol was worth far more than the two points on offer in the Women’s World Cup table.
A clash between the game’s oldest rivals always attracts more attention than other matches, and this one was being beamed to a global audience on TV and streamed online, along with BBC and ABC radio commentary (a quarter of a million followed the BBC’s online coverage alone). Social media meanwhile was sending video clips whizzing around the globe faster than a Katherine Brunt yorker. For the good of the game, it needed to be a good match.
Women’s cricket is a growth sport. Commercially it has much greater growth potential than men’s cricket, as it is not yet established in the market. Because of this, the highest profile women’s matches are still adverts for their sport. In an ordinary season, only a handful of matches are televised throughout the year in this country, meaning there is only one or two chances for the England team to impress a wider audience; only a handful of opportunities to capture and retain the attention of new spectators. Consequently, one poor match can leave a casual observer wondering why he or she bothered.
The last Ashes summer – the last time these two countries played each other on these shores – was a case in point. England conceded the trophy and along the way lost a televised Test match at Canterbury in which they seriously underperformed.
It left many infrequent observers of the sport feeling that the women’s game wasn’t as good as they’d been told; the batting wasn’t dynamic; the fielding was tired. I recall Mike Atherton simply writing in the Times that it was “tedious viewing.” Mike Selvey, a supporter of England women since the 2009 World T20 described it as “excruciating”. He continued, “at a time when the game needs all the good publicity it can get, with high-class performances from its elite players, they produced – for anyone who stumbled across it or was drawn to it out of curiosity – the worst possible advertisement.”
Admittedly, this was women’s Test cricket, a form of the game that is a rarity, but it was damaging to the very image of the sport. England’s World T20 semi-final exit at the hands of Australia in 2016 was similarly damaging, as it exposed a level of agility and fitness that was found wanting. I believe the single most important decision of the ICC at this World Cup has been to televise or live-stream every single match. If you see a poor game – and there have been a few involving the lower ranked teams – any negative assumptions that might be drawn about the nature of women’s cricket can be redressed by another match that’s rapidly available to view.
The audience for this World Cup is safely predicted to be the largest in history, and that audience has the chance to be exposed to the very best the game has to offer, because nothing will ever be missed. It’s hard to have a perfect performance and England’s was blighted by a couple of horribly dropped catches against Australia, but around these errors, Brunt and Jenny Gunn thrilled with the bat in a match-winning stand which was peppered with sixes, a glut of runs were saved in the field (most by a sprawling Heather Knight), Alex Hartley bowled controlled left arm spin as if she’d been toying with Australia all her life, and Brunt and Gunn combined again to bowl the final overs and pull off the last ball victory that epitomised England’s passionate resolve to win, and refusal to fold under pressure.
The global audience aside, the match was a brilliant local occasion for Bristol and Gloucestershire County Cricket Club. A vociferous 4316-strong crowd packed into the County Ground and a festival atmosphere was buoyed by giant kangaroos, cricketers on stilts a play area for kids plus a jovial choir. Whilst England have enjoyed sell-out crowds in the last few years for Ashes T20s at Hove and Chelmsford, I cannot recall a bigger crowd, greater sense of occasion or a livelier atmosphere for a modern-day women’s ODI in this country. Attendance records for a stand-alone women’s match in this country will be smashed at Lord’s a week on Sunday no matter who makes the final, as 20,000 tickets have already been sold. In 1993, 5000 watched England lift the trophy at Lord’s. I’ve been at every World Cup since 2005, and save for invited dignitaries and bussed-in school groups, the support has largely come from travelling family and friends (until 2013 I was often the only journalist at England games, too).
Friends don’t ask for autographs, though, and after the game at Bristol, a cheering crowd which had gathered below the dressing room – including a great many young girls and boys – were rewarded with a lengthy autograph and photo session.
There will now be a whole new host of Brunt, Knight, Gunn, Hartley wannabes. If that isn’t healthy for the future of the game, what with the ECB’s All Stars programme to channel the kids into and a host of women’s sections in clubs, I don’t know what is.
It was alarming to watch Luke Fletcher being struck on the top of his head in his follow through whilst bowling for Nottinghamshire in the T20 Blast. It’s time bowlers seriously consider wearing some sort of head protection, because Fletcher turned out to be lucky. If this warning isn’t heeded, the next bowler might not be so fortunate.
Fletcher was a guest on the Tuffers and Vaughan Cricket Show this week on 5 Live and admitted he doesn’t bowl to batsmen in the nets anymore because he and many of his team mates consider it dangerous.
“We’ve had so many close calls in the ten years I’ve been playing where balls come back and you haven’t got time to move,” he said. “Balls are coming back at way over 100mph. Some of the lads still go in the nets but it’s just too frightening. I don’t know how fast that ball came back from Sam Hain, I didn’t even lift my head up, which is probably a good thing.”
It was a good thing indeed. Fletcher was told if he’d been struck on the side of the head instead of the top, the consequences could have been unthinkable. Fatal even. You only need to remember Phillip Hughes to know that isn’t an exaggeration.
Cricket equipment developers should start looking at an adaptation of the scrum cap, similar to what rugby players wear. Some protection is better than none, even if it’s a protective headband, say, that shields the temples. If anything has been learnt from Hughes’ death, it’s that we shouldn’t wait until a more serious incident before taking action. This is our warning.
“Nick Pearce, the England doctor, had one of those (a scrum cap) in his car and he showed me,” said Fletcher. “Whatever it is it has to be quite light. You can’t bowl with a helmet on. It’s quite scary and worrying. Something has to change, because it will definitely happen again.”