The 2017 Women’s World Cup marks another sea change in attitudes to women’s sport in the UK, writes BBC commentator and former Middlesex Women’s skipper Isabelle Westbury.
Cricket is celebrated for embracing players of all shapes and sizes. Ironic then that it has taken somewhat longer for the sport to accept other differences. At first, it was class, whether you were a professional or an amateur. Thereafter cricket wrestled with South Africa’s apartheid regime. A few years on and still the sport struggled; only this time, neither class nor colour were factors.
Women in cricket have for years been a quaint afterthought. Inevitably a discussion of the topic would revolve around whether skirts were still worn (not since 1997), if it was true that a woman had invented overarm bowling (charming, but unlikely), whether women could cope with hard balls (this doesn’t even merit an answer) or even, most damming of all, “Do women actually play cricket?”
It is therefore little surprise that acceptance of women as a legitimate part of the cricket conversation has been slow. Some thought that it might never come. Indeed, in England at least, almost two years ago to the day, it appeared that years of hard work in promoting the game and creating its first professional athletes could be undone when the home side succumbed feebly to Australia in an Ashes Test broadcast live to the nation. It was an unfortunate match, framed by long periods of tedium which proved dire enough for many to forget that, as with all sport, men’s included, not all matches can be scintillating spectacles.
Despite this, over the past few years efforts have been made, mainly in the name of equality and atonement for decades of discrimination, to cover the women’s game, on radio, in print and latterly on screen. Yet the sentiment has remained, a feeling of unease almost, that these newly professional women have had to play with an added burden on their shoulders; not only must they win, but they must win in a fashion that vindicates their existence.
It has been a struggle. The chicken-and-egg debate is ongoing: should we invest in women’s sport to raise the standards or raise the standards before investing? Both sides have vocal proponents. As a result, we’ve had it neither one way nor the other, to the satisfaction of nobody.
Last week however, England versus Australia once more, something clicked. It was hard to put a finger on it at first, but it was in the air. The buzz as the national anthems were belted out – this wasn’t just the players getting wound up, the mood was pervasive. Where previously a women’s match was the preserve of young girls and their dutiful, often reluctant, fathers, the crowd in Bristol were a varied bunch. It still had its eager schoolgirls. But it also had its eager schoolboys, watching Katherine Brunt in much the same way she once revered Darren Gough. More telling still, the game attracted grown men, and women. They were not there for inspiration or for gender equality, but for a spectacle, a contest, a pint or five and a good drubbing of the opposition.
“How are you enjoying the fact that the nation is right behind you? The crowds looked like they got a bit patriotic!,” remarked former England captain Michael Vaughan to Anya Shrubsole, England’s opening bowler on BBC Radio 5 Live. “That was as noisy as I’ve known a game,” replied Shrubsole, before adding, to Vaughan’s delight, “and the crowd were getting stuck into the Aussies, which is what you want.” And it wasn’t just Vaughan who wanted in on the women’s success; where once England’s male cricketers recorded dutiful, scripted good luck messages to their female compatriots, England batsman Alex Hales spontaneously took to Twitter to announce his support for a job well done. Others will follow; it’s a cultural shift, subtle and slow, yet notable.
No doubt the attraction is in part due to a rise in calibre. After 19 matches, 86 sixes had been hit. England have gone past 350 twice. Records tumble match-to-match. There are athletes in the field and controlled variation in the bowling. The gap between the best and the up-and-coming has narrowed. There is work to do of course, most notably the tactical element, stuck on defensive mode, but these small margins are often the last to change, and in time they will.
Then there are those moments of magic – unquantifiable, over in a flash, but forever engrained in our minds. Versus New Zealand on Wednesday, England’s Nat Sciver, cruising towards another century, deftly whipped a yorker back between her legs. It was a nutmeg, nay a “Natmeg” the internet screamed, as the realisation that this was no mistimed drive soon spread. The clip went viral. The innovation, the timing, the pure audacity of the shot – paradoxical perhaps that such fleeting perfection, over in a flash but the culmination of years of toil, has more scope to stretch and expand the game than a dozen tight thrillers that paved the way before it.
In years gone by there was a reluctant acknowledgement, almost said to avert accusations of sexism, that women’s cricket might one day, in the long run, prove lucrative. In a world of fast-moving consumerism, intent on short-term gains, such vague sentiment called for little investment. Suddenly though, women’s sport has clicked, and it’s on the market. Male sport is in many respects a saturated field; breaking into men’s Premier League football coverage without a spare billion or two is futile. Women’s sport, however, requires relatively little investment for potentially exponential returns. It has started already of course, but intermittently, with the foresight of Manchester City’s women’s football team, Wimbledon’s equal prize money, Australia’s WBBL and equal sponsorship of the women’s boat race. More now will jump on board.
Money makes the world go round. It would be naïve to presume otherwise. Embrace this, and it will help women’s cricket go round too. The England versus Australia match, the Natmeg, and the tournament as a whole, is opening eyes, not in decades or years, or some hypothetical utopia in the future, but to something just around the corner.
This is business, in every sense, because the likes of last Sunday’s spectators provide the return for those that hold the purse strings. The litmus test is a simple one; a sport breaks through when the punters leave the ground burnt to a crisp and struggling to walk in a straight line. On Sunday they did just that.