WBBL could highlight the global gap as others play catch up
The WBBL might be about to highlight a problem. It's not a problem for Cricket Australia, but it could be for the ICC and the rest of the boards around the world.
There is a distinct possibility that WBBL05, a domestic competition, will be the highest standard of women's cricket played around the world at the moment.
CA's investment in the women's game along with a generation of outstanding players has combined to turn women's international cricket into a tour de force for Australia over the last two years. Since the start of 2018 Australia have played 45 internationals and lost just three, including setting a new world record streak of 18 ODI victories and winning the 2018 T20 World Cup in the West Indies.
New Zealand allrounder and the Adelaide Strikers import Sophie Devine believes the collection of players at the WBBL is second to none and the even distribution of Australian talent across the eight teams makes it the gold standard of women's cricket, at least among the domestic leagues.
"I think at the end of the day they've got the best players from around the world playing in it and I think that makes a huge difference," Devine told ESPNcricinfo. "If you want the competition to be the best you've got to have the best and I think that helps the WBBL in terms of the standard of the game. The collection of players that every side has got, not just overseas but domestic and their Australian players, it just makes such a big difference."
However, there are some big names absent this season. The tournament will be without India's stars without India's stars with the new standalone tournament running from late October to mid-December clashing with India's tour of the West Indies.
West Indies captain Stafanie Taylor, who has signed with the Strikers this season after four years at the Sydney Thunder, is only available for the bookends of the tournament due to that tour but will form a formidable trio at the Strikers alongside Devine and Suzie Bates when available.
Nida Dar will create history as the first Pakistan player in the WBBL and Ireland's Kim Garth returns to the tournament, but what continues to standout is the depth available to Australia and there are concerns the gap will continue to grow.
Elyse Villani has fallen out of favour but was one of the leading run scorers in the WBBL last season and will captain the Melbourne Stars this year. Sophie Molineux has likewise been on the fringes of the national side but is one of the competition's best allrounders for the Melbourne Renegades, and nearly stole last year's semi-final from the Sydney Sixers off her own bat.
However, it's not just the talent, it's the professionalism. The fielding, fitness, and athleticism of the WBBL players stands out to Devine as a leading indicator of why the competition stands out.
"Having the professionalism of the women's game over here domestically, you're not just talking about 15 of your top players being contracted but it's 90-odd players here that are full-time athletes," she said. "That helps raise the standard. And I think the biggest difference I've noticed over the last couple of years are in the field, diving, moving, throwing, catching, all those skills have improved massively over here and that just adds to the whole spectacle of it.
"You only have to look at the semis and the final last year to see how much great athleticism was shown by all the teams out there. So those are the things that make cricket great but it also makes it a great product for people to watch."
Erin Burns' diving stop to deny Molineux in the semi-final and Haidee Birkett's stunning outfield catch stand in stark contrast to some of the shoddy fielding and running between the wickets from West Indies during Australia's 6-0 sweep on the recent tour of the Caribbean.
Devine said the wheels are slowly turning in terms of global investment into the women's game. New Zealand Cricket recently increased the number of central contracts, development deals have been offered and there is a domestic contracts structure albeit at a significantly lower sum than in Australia.
"We've been really fortunate that we've just negotiated a new MOU, with the White Ferns and also some development contracts," Devine said. "So an increase in pay, which is going to help us train more full time, which we've got to do to keep up, not just with Australia but with England, India, South Africa, West Indies. A lot more teams are putting the money and the resources to stay up with the top teams. We're really fortunate for that."
Visibility is another issue. Australian supporters are seeing their heroes, not just on the pitch on free-to-air television, but in places where they have yet to reach in other nations.
"I was in the supermarket the other day and I saw some of the Aussie women's cricket team on [cereal] boxes," Devine said. "Things like that, to me just brings a massive smile to my face to see that there's positive female athletes being represented out there.
"I remember growing up I didn't even know there was a women's cricket team in New Zealand. I was always following the Black Caps and men's teams going around. It wasn't until about the 2000 World Cup that I remember actually watching my first ever women's game down at Lincoln where they obviously won it for New Zealand, their only time so far. I just think to be seen is such a huge thing for young girls growing up to see them and to normalise it as well.
"Particularly cricket, it's so often referred to as a gentleman's game but to see the likes of Ellyse Perry, Meg Lanning, Suzie Bates, there's so many great female athletes out there it's just awesome to see how the visibility is getting better. There's still a long, long way to go but it's certainly a starting point and it's great to see."