In the first double-header of the new Hundred, a joyful innocence continued to radiate from the women’s competition. While the men’s Hundred is highly skilled in every department, especially fielding, it does tend so far to suggest a slightly more condensed, and more complicated, version of the county T20 Blast.
In the women’s match, in front of a crowd that grew to 6,317 spectators, London Spirit chased down Birmingham Phoenix’s 128 with three wickets and four balls to spare. It was a record crowd for a women’s domestic cricket match outside London, and roughly doubled for the men’s match which started 45 minutes later and ended in Birmingham winning with three wickets and three balls to spare.
The joy in women’s cricket stems from it being a new profession for so many players. A couple who emerged in this game were Issy Wong and a left-handed opener Naomi Dattani.
Wong, aged 18, dyed blonde and aiming to become the first England player of Chinese descent, bustles to the crease and bowls as fast as she can, which is currently in the 70s mph. Given how she fancied bowling at the death for Birmingham, even though it did not quite work out, she will soon be box office.
As in the first women’s Hundred game at the Oval, the quality was variable, especially in fielding, which veered from very good to very poor, but this serves to make a sudden collapse more likely and the outcome more unpredictable. London Spirit appeared to be cruising to victory with 21 wanted off 21 balls, but lost two wickets in succession, then a third to a splendid run-out from a hard flat throw. This was followed by a bad misfield which conceded the winning boundary.
For Birmingham, the established England wicketkeeper/batsman Amy Jones scored a fine 33 off 16 in partnership with the lefthanded Eve Jones, who off-drove strongly, but the home side could not quite redeem their slow start. After 35 balls the captain of England and London Spirit, Heather Knight, brought on her seventh bowler, herself, and took a wicket first ball so that Birmingham had made only 37 for three wickets from their first 36 balls and were always just behind the game.
In the men’s game the standard of fielding was superlative: they have, after all, been paid more to practise for longer. Highlights included the boundary catches by Chris Wood and Roelof van der Merwe, and particularly the caught-and-bowled by the New Zealand fast bowler Adam Milne, when he bowled a leg-break which came back at him quicker than he had delivered it to Ravi Bopara.
Zak Crawley batted for all but one ball of London Spirit’s innings, contributing 64 off 40 balls to their middling total of 145. Eoin Morgan made a modest 13 off 13 balls before being caught at long-off off the bowling of Benny Howell, who might have felt he had made a point: given his medium-paced variations and hitting he might have had a call-up by England.
For the shot of the day, the female candidates were several ramp-shots perfectly executed. From the men’s game the two most eye-catching shots were, firstly, by Birmingham’s Liam Livingstone whose straight-drive into the upper stands resembled his hit at Headingley. Secondly a ramp for six by Chris Benjamin, signed by Warwickshire only two weeks ago, who took the Phoenix home.
Benjamin is a 22-year-old Durham student from South Africa, with an English father, who has just got a first in accountancy. “I still need to pinch myself,” he said. “This is something I’ve dreamed of for a long time.”