Published:  12:00 AM, 20 December 2016

Women's cricket gains in numbers and visibility

Women's cricket gains in numbers and visibility The Melbourne Stars and the Sydney Thunder drew 637,000 prime-time viewers in Australia.
As in most sports, women's cricket has long been overshadowed by the men's game, but there are signs that that is changing. In a window into the growing popularity and self-confidence of women's cricket, Cricket Australia cleared the men's schedule last weekend for the beginning of the second season of the Women's Big Bash League, a Twenty20 cricket tournament.

The strategy worked. A match between the Sydney Thunder and the Melbourne Stars was shown on prime-time television Saturday night and peaked at 637,000 viewers, surpassing the previous season's highest figure. Average viewing figures for matches on the opening weekend were almost half as high as for the recent Australia-New Zealand men's one-day international series. This year, all 47 Women's Big Bash League matches were being streamed online, with 12 matches being broadcasted on Australian TV. Australia has long established itself as the world leader in women's cricket, on the field and off. Since 2009, Australia has won four out of five International Cricket Council global events. There has been a 266 percent rise in maximum cricket earnings for women since 2011-12, and the top Australian players are now paid more than $100,000 a year. The soaring popularity of the Big Bash League also reflects broader advances in the women's game.

In March, India hosted the men's and women's world championships in Twenty20 cricket, simultaneously. The International Cricket Council paid for all men's teams to fly business class, but women had to fly economy class.
But next summer, when England hosts the Women's World Cup, the I.C.C. will pay for all teams to travel business class. In another landmark decision, women will be entitled to the same daily expenses as men, "demonstrates how seriously the women's game is treated now," said Heather Knight, the England captain.There have been other significant developments in women's cricket in recent months. The West Indies became the first team from outside Australia, England or New Zealand to win the Twenty20 world championship. Ticket sales for the 2017 Women's World Cup in England, which begins on June 26, are far higher than for previous tournaments there. Last month, Cricket New Zealand chose a female president, the first time that a test nation had elected a woman to the role. In September, Catherine Dalton, an Irish cricketer, became the first woman recruited to coach a professional men's team.

Perhaps most significant, Australia, which has been awarded the men's and women's Twenty20 world championships in 2020, has decided to decouple the two events, an indication that Cricket Australia believes that the women's tournament can thrive on its own. The division "allows the women's game to stand alone and not be overshadowed by their counterparts," said James Sutherland, the chief executive of Cricket Australia.

While women's cricket, including the Big Bash League, remains subsidized by the men's game, it has been helped by a history of innovation. The first World Cup and the first Twenty20 international series happened in the women's game before the men's, reflecting how the women's game has often had the most dynamic administration and been less encumbered by tradition. In 2014, women's cricket introduced a league system for one-day international cricket, which the I.C.C. hopes to replicate in the men's game. Men's cricket is still attempting to balance the sport's three formats - Twenty20 matches, which last three hours and are the most popular; one-day internationals, which last eight hours; and Test matches, which last five days - but "member countries of the I.C.C. have agreed that the primary format for the women's game should be T20," Sutherland said. The emphasis on Twenty20 cricket, combined with the more merit-based and less hierarchical structure of the women's game, offers hope that women's cricket will gain in popularity beyond the sport's traditional strongholds. The men's game has historically been divided between the 10 so-called full member nations and 95 other countries, which are associate or affiliate members. But the I.C.C. believes that the women's game has the best chance of having a successful team emerging from two markets cricket has long dreamed of tapping into China and the United States. China already ranks 14th in the world based on its performances in the qualifiers for the 2016 World Twenty20.

Obstacles remain. The rate of progress in the women's game has been uneven throughout the world. There remains no women's version of the Indian Premier League, the lucrative Twenty20 league that began in 2008. Bangladesh and Pakistan, two cricket-mad nations, have been much slower to embrace the women's game. In Sri Lanka, an internal inquiry last year found two officials guilty of sexual harassment, and a third of improper conduct, after players on the women's national team were asked for sexual favors in exchange for keeping their places. The amounts players are paid also vary widely. Only in Australia and England are salaries high enough for players not to have second jobs along with their cricket careers.

Even in Australia, women can sign only one-year national contracts, while men have the security of multiyear deals. This week, it emerged that contracts for the women's team mandate that signers acknowledge that, to the best of their knowledge, they are not pregnant. The pay gap remains huge between the men's and women's game. This year, the West Indies men and women won their world Twenty20 competitions on the same day. The men shared $1.1 million in prize money, but the women received only $70,000. "The game is developing at such a pace that one day this might not even be a question," Knight said of the gender pay gap. "I don't think you can put a limit on how big women's cricket can become."

The author is a freelance

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