WBBL opportunities and depth of talent pool set Australian women's cricket apart | Geoff Lemon

The Guardian

The Guardian

Author 2019-11-06 19:30:26

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There was a buzz this season when Phoebe Litchfield started her Big Bash career. A 16-year-old playing a ramp shot for four over the wicketkeeper’s head a few balls into her batting debut. The way she flayed boundaries from Australian national representatives Ash Gardner and Erin Burns. She made 26 that day, then doubled it next game in a big run chase for the Sydney Thunder.

Martina Hingis was 16 when she won Wimbledon, Sachin Tendulkar was 16 on Test debut, Mohammad Ashraful was 16 for Bangladesh’s first Test century, and 16 was one of the many ages that Shahid Afridi could have been when he made the then-fastest ODI hundred from 37 balls.

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Sport, music, writing, art: audiences love prodigies. There’s a particular thrill to seeing someone perform at a level that seemingly should be beyond them; they can’t yet legally buy a tequila shot but here they are rifling a forehand winner or doing a line at an Oscars after-party. Our hearts swell with vicarious pride. It’s hard though for wunderkinder as grow older, and the precociousness that set them apart evaporates as their contemporaries catch up. Hingis retired aged 22, Ashraful never made good on his promise and was eventually banned for corruption.

The point about Litchfield was that another huge talent is on the way for Australian cricket. Add her to the list. The women’s game in this country has burgeoned in the past five years, since the WBBL provided a forum for players and the pay deal of 2017 provided professional contracts. The success is especially evident in the make-up of national squads.

The movement is most apparent in comparison with England, the only other national with fully professional women’s contracts. For a long time both line-ups had been very static, with only a handful of top-line players available for selection. The same names were picked regardless of recent results. There was little competition for the best talent. By 2016 Australia started bringing in a few WBBL players ahead of that year’s T20 World Cup, but accelerated that change after losing the final. England moved on a couple of older players after a semi-final collapse, but changed very little from then on.

If you look at 50-over cricket, still the premium format of the women’s international game, England debuted six players from 2016 to today. Australia debuted 14.

England’s Beth Langston, Alice Davidson-Richards, Katie George and Bryony Smith have barely played: eight matches between the five of them. Alex Hartley played 28 but this year lost her national contract this year, while only fellow left-arm spinner Sophie Ecclestone has played consistently since her debut.

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In the same timeframe Australia brought through Grace Harris, Beth Mooney, Tahlia McGrath, Amanda Wellington, Lauren Cheatle, Ash Gardner, Belinda Vakarewa, Sarah Aley, Nicola Carey, Sophie Molineux, Georgia Wareham, Tayla Vlaeminck, Erin Burns and Heather Graham, a selection of talent across all disciplines. Big hitters, class openers, left-arm swing, all-rounders, ripping leg-spin, proper pace, everything is represented.

All of them are still playing domestically and still in contention for national honours. Only Aley would be unlikely, at age 35 with selectors favouring a youth policy, but she is still one of the WBBL’s most parsimonious bowlers and can’t be ruled out. Queensland all-rounder Delissa Kimmince was an older player who forced her way back into the Australian side through the Big Bash.

In T20 internationals the difference in new player numbers is smaller – a dozen debuts for Australia since 2016 compared to 10 for England – but those English players have been given little time in the side. Australia’s recent players have been picked a total of 144 times, England’s 68. Of those, only Ecclestone has played more than 10 times.

Then there’s another level of players who are yet to represent Australia but couldn’t be far away. Seamer Maitlan Brown and leg-spinner Maisy Gibson are leading the WBBL wicket tally this season, with Gibson stringing several good years together for the Thunder, and Brown offering the full package of athletic fielding and lower-order striking for the Renegades. Off-spinner Molly Strano is another who can’t be far away. Sammy Jo-Johnson is an older all-rounder who could follow her Queensland colleague Kimmince. Madeline Penna and Hannah Darlington are good emerging bowling prospects. Kirby Short has had several productive seasons with the bat for Brisbane, Naomi Stalenberg has promised a lot as an attacking striker without yet finding consistency, Erin Fazackerly was a surprise run-scorer for Hobart last year, while Georgia Redmayne has been class if a back-up wicketkeeper is needed. Then there’s Litchfield, half a generation younger still.

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All of these players – those picked and those yet to be – have made their case via the 20-over tournament. They have been on television, had big crowds, played at the Waca Ground and the MCG. They have got the credibility that comes with being seen. In the first WBBL season, Amanda Wellington was shredding leg-breaks past groping edges, Beth Mooney was striking boundaries over cover, and both were soon in national contention. More recently Burns and Graham have got their reward for seasons of consistency.

England administrators are aware of the disparity and want to develop their own next tier: they’ve recently announced an expanded professional contract list and a system of eight regional academies to play high-level tournaments across 50 overs and 20, as well as the women’s portion of the new 100-ball competition that will start next July.

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It will be hard for any of this to have the same effect, though. The academy games won’t be broadcast and will only attract the attention of a few badgers. BBC TV is only screening eight matches from The Hundred, and it’s not clear how many others will be on the pay network that broadcasts men’s games. Visibility was the key in Australia, putting players on television where they had to deal with the spotlight, experience scrutiny, and get supporters interested. Making the league feel legitimate helped lift the interest and the standard.

Now, the WBBL is in its standalone window, a regular presence on free-to-air TV, drawing decent ratings and being treated with respect as its own sporting event. Sometimes the best players soak up the oxygen, like when Ellyse Perry and Alyssa Healy batted through an entire innings for the Sixers last week. But across eight teams are enough opportunities for the next level down and the next generation to come. Even in five years, the evidence for that is clear.

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