When you step off the tarmac and walk into the terminal at Cheddi Jagan international Airport, the first thing you see is a large poster featuring several captains of the women’s teams competing in the Women’s World T20, demanding that you #WATCHTHIS.
And for much of the 30-minute drive to the centre of Georgetown, reminders that the tournament kicks off here are as ubiquitous as the Guyanese flag or the pastel and white wooden clad houses.
The first standalone tournament of this type marks another important step in the progress of the women’s game. Mind you, it feels like there have been so many milestones, so many turning points in the past few years that it sometimes seems the game is galloping up a moving escalator.
But some are climbing faster than others.
The Federation of International Cricketers Associations (FICA) recently released a report on women’s global employment – the first of its kind. The findings were both encouraging and a reminder of just how far the sport still has to go. But the most glaring observation is that there is a real danger of a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots.
There have always been a handful of countries – England, Australia and New Zealand in particular – who have dominated international cricket but the advent of professional contracts in Australia in 2013, followed by the launch of the Women’s Big Bash League and the significant pay increases for female players announced in the 2017 Memorandum of Understanding, puts Australia in its own league. According to FICA, Cricket Australia has the only fully professional domestic structure in the world, giving them a depth in talent of which many other countries can barely dream.
Some, such as England, India, West Indies, New Zealand and South Africa are classed as “fledgling professional”. Others are considered “amateur”.
But what does that mean ahead of the opening day in Guyana?
Theoretically, Australia should be out-and-out smoking favourites for this tournament. Yet the side with the most resources and investment comes into the competition without any world titles in the cabinet, after losing the 2016 WT20 final to West Indies and failing to make last year’s World Cup Final in England. That clearly rankles with the world’s No. 1 side in all formats.
“There is no hiding behind the fact we’re really disappointed we don’t have any World Cups to show for the last couple years,” said Australia coach, Matthew Mott. “But, you know, our winning percentage is very high. I think tournament play is a different beast. I think our consistency over the last few years is unquestioned, and that shows in the world rankings.”
Despite significantly increased investment by the ECB in the past few years, the lack of a deep production line is highlighted by England’s sweating over the fitness of allrounder Katherine Brunt. Brunt’s back injury, which threatens her whole tournament, has left England with difficult selection choices because they have no like-for-like replacement. They are world champions in the 50-over format but their success at the top sits on a pyramid that is still relatively hollow.
England are hardly alone in this and they fare much better than others. The WBBL is the only fully professional T20 domestic tournament in the world, with the ECB’s Women’s Super League the sole semi-professional competition. All others are considered amateur by FICA.
New Zealand are a team in transition but in recent years have not had the sort of results that have kept them in the top tier of the game in the past. While their new captain, Amy Satterthwaite, believes they have, in the past, punched above their weight on the world stage, she hopes the report and the threat of the widening gap will inspire more action at home.
“I think it [the FICA report] had a pretty fair reflection on where things are at in the women’s game,” said Satterthwaite. “It’s awesome to have a report like that out in the open and I guess express where the women’s game is at. It almost forces countries, whoever they are, to really look at their game and assess how they’re going about their structures and ask themselves if they’ve got it right. I don’t know if we’ve got it right, but we can keep reflecting on that and building on it.
“I do think New Zealand Cricket are taking it very seriously. I know at the board they’re talking about it a lot, and that’s something that’s at the forefront of our minds.”
While Satterthwaite believes the support back home will grow no matter the result of this tournament, India are a side that knows what a financial difference success by the national team can bring. India’s World Cup showing, in which they were defeated by England in a thrilling final, led to bonuses for players worth three times their contract, followed by significant increases in their contracts. The hopes remain high for a Women’s IPL – what would an India title do for that? – something that could be a worldwide game changer.
Sometimes, the will is there but the resources are slim.
“I think when you look at how we rank – in terms of money, I think, I believe West Indies don’t have that sort of money like Australia,” said West Indies captain, Stephanie Taylor. “They have tried their very best in terms of giving players contract. And every year they review it and it increases little by little. And I believe it will get better. It might not be the standard of the men. But we hope that one day it will get to a point where we are professional.”
Meanwhile, other countries look on in envy. According to the FICA report, there are just 120 full-time professional players on permanent contracts in the world. Three teams competing in the Caribbean have none: Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Ireland. The domestic structures in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka could not even be properly evaluated by FIFA because there was a “lack of sufficient information.”
And yet, the beauty of T20 cricket is that a game can be bent and swayed by a single belligerent innings, a searing spell or an unexpected collapse. Bangladesh’s shock victory over India in this year’s Asia Cup will spur them – and others – to fancy their chances of causing an upset. Asian teams, in particular, will hope that conditions similar to those of the sub-continent will to some extent give them something to exploit over teams like Australia. More teams now have players who can take a game away from opponents with one outstanding performance.
“I think that the [Bangladesh} team that has the courage to play well can play against any team,” said Bangladesh captain, Salma Khatun, speaking through a translator. “I do accept the fact that some teams are better. On a given day, even team like Bangladesh can create some disturbances to any the team.
“I’m very positive about it and don’t consider the so-called big teams as much different from us.”
And although expressing modesty and declaring that no team can be taken lightly has become something of a cliché in sporting tournaments, the top teams – the ‘haves’ – will be wary of the pitfalls the ‘have-nots’ can provide.
“We know as well as anyone, we found out the hard way, you can be playing good cricket and have a bad patch and can cost you a World Cup” said Mott. “We’re under no illusions that sometimes the best teams don’t win World Cups. That’s happened across the world before.”
Because there is more at stake here than a title. For some, success could bring change at home and go some way to ensuring the gap doesn’t become an insurmountable chasm.
They will hope those in charge of their livelihood will #WATCHTHIS and be impressed enough to jump on the escalator.