Between the end of November and mid-January, there was a distinct shortage of women’s international cricket. This situation was corrected in enthralling fashion by the Australia England series which ended on Feb. 8.
The multi-format series comprised of one Test match, three one-day internationals, and three T20s, the overall winner being determined on a points system, four points being on offer for the Test and two for the shorter-format matches.
As the top-ranked women’s team in all formats, Australia emphasized that status in a convincing win in the first T20 match in Adelaide, while rain allowed only 4.1 overs to be bowled in the second T20 and none in the third. This left Australia with four points and England two, courtesy of one point for the abandoned matches.
Victory for Australia in the Test match at Canberra would have secured an unassailable eight points out of the 14 on offer for the series. In a contest of wildly fluctuating fortunes, the result depended on the very last over, England needing 12 runs to win and Australia one wicket. Commentators and players alike were of the opinion that this was one of the great, dramatic, Test matches, a wonderful advertisement for both the longer format and women’s cricket.
Australia had recovered from a shaky first-innings start to score 337, before England was rescued by its captain, Heather Knight, who scored 168 in a total of 297. After losing the final two sessions of day three to rain, Australia declared its second innings on 216, asking England to score 257 from 48 overs to win in what would have been the biggest fourth innings chase in women’s Test history.
Their top-order batters set about the task with alacrity, reaching 218 in 40 overs, thus requiring 40 in the final 10 with seven wickets remaining, a position from which victory seemed likely. However, Australia mounted a remarkable fightback, claiming six wickets for 29 runs, leaving England requiring 13 runs from 12 deliveries. Instead of attempting to score the runs, the tactic was threefold: To secure the draw, prevent a loss that would have handed the Ashes to the hosts, and plan to win the three ODIs. This safety-first tactic came to naught, as Australia crushed England in all three ODIs.
The thrilling Test-match finish was watched by a combined average audience, excluding streaming, of 437,000 on the Seven Network and Foxtel. This was more than double the final day viewing figure for Australia’s women’s Test against India in October and higher than the opening ODI against England in January. Future opportunities for repeat performances are distant, as Australia’s women are not scheduled to play another home Test match until 2026.
Elsewhere, South Africa’s women, who are ranked No. 2 in the world, hosted the West Indies. An original schedule had the two teams pitched to play three T20Is and five ODIs between Jan. 15 and Feb. 6, hurriedly revised to four ODIs. No doubt, this reflected the desire of both teams to prepare for the eight-team Women’s ODI World Cup tournament in New Zealand, due to start on March 4.
While South Africa had qualified by a superior position in the world ODI rankings, the West Indies came through a qualifying competition in November in Zimbabwe. This was abandoned mid-way through because of travel restrictions imposed on the back of a COVID-19 outbreak. If the tournament had played out to its conclusion, there is a possibility that the West Indies might not have qualified.
Rain interfered with the first match, causing abandonment part-way through South Africa’s reply. The West Indies innings was notable for the performance of opener, Deandra Dottin, who scored 150 out of the total of 224. Dottin was also in the limelight in the second match, sharing a super-over of 25 runs that determined the West Indies as victors after both teams had been bowled out for 160. South Africa clinched the series by winning the last two matches.
Further preparation for the women’s ODI World Cup will take place between New Zealand, and India. Starting on Feb. 9, six matches are scheduled – one T20 and five ODIs – all of which are now to be concentrated in Queenstown, South Island, in order to cut down on domestic travel and reduce the likelihood of exposure to the omicron variant of COVID-19.
The Pakistan women’s team commenced the final phase of its preparations on Jan. 27 with a 10-day pre-departure camp in Karachi, after which the team travelled to New Zealand on Feb. 8. The draw has pitted them against India in their first match on March 6.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh started its preparations at the Bangladesh Cricket Board’s National Academy on Jan. 29. The team has played little ODI cricket since October 2019, apart from the qualifying tournament in Zimbabwe. There, it beat Pakistan and the US, but lost to Thailand. Ultimately, Bangladesh’s lack of game time did not prevent it from qualifying, because its overall ranking was ahead of the other teams in the abandoned tournament.
One of the issues surrounding the setting up of international cricket matches during the coronavirus pandemic has been the cost of creating bio-bubbles. These require sponsorship and/or investment for which a return is expected and difficult to provide in countries where viewing engagement is not strong. This was the case for the underprepared Bangladesh women’s team.
As women’s international cricket emerges from pandemic-imposed constraints, emphasis remains fixed on the short formats.
Although Australia and England’s exhilarating four-day Test match has reignited calls for more women’s Tests to be played, the game’s authorities are displaying limited appetites to encourage it.
Instead, expansion of the women’s game is being expressed in terms of future T20 competitions in India and Pakistan and July’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England. Promisingly, rumors abound of a Test being added to the South African women’s forthcoming short-format series in England.
Surely, multi-format series offer the most immediate route to developing, promoting, and assessing the potential for women’s Test cricket.