Women’s cricket must avoid mistakes of men’s game in club v country battle

Women’s cricket must avoid mistakes of men’s game in club v country battle - Reuters/Niharika Kulkarni
Women’s cricket must avoid mistakes of men’s game in club v country battle - Reuters/Niharika Kulkarni

When Nat Sciver-Brunt scooped Alice Capsey for four in Mumbai on Sunday, it ended the inaugural Women’s Premier League – a tournament perhaps even more revolutionary than the first Indian Premier League.

While the IPL, which launched 15 years ago, heralded the change in the ecosystem of men’s cricket – from a structure revolving around the international game to one in which domestic cricket would become ever-more dominant – the WPL brings two seismic changes simultaneously. Like the IPL, it marks a move from the sport having international competition as its beating heart. Yet, far more than the IPL, the WPL will also be a tool to popularise the game.

The difference in the number of sides and the length of the tournament – with the IPL season comprising 10 franchises and 74 games to the WPL’s five and 22 – will decrease in the years ahead, and might even be eradicated altogether.

“It’s going to shift standards across the world,” says Heather Knight, who played in the inaugural WPL season for Royal Challengers Bangalore. “The resources and the money that they’re able to throw at it are just not like anything I’ve ever experienced before.” Coming from the England captain, it is a striking comment.

For the international game, the WPL, and the growing prominence of other leagues including the Hundred, is both an opportunity and a threat.

“The unprecedented profile and financial opportunities that it has offered so many players in India and some of the best players in the world is only good news,” says Snehal Pradhan, the International Cricket Council's manager of women’s cricket.

In some ways, the women’s game is better-equipped than the men’s to balance domestic and international cricket. The paucity of Test matches in the women’s game means that the calendar is less saturated; the Women’s Future Tours Programme for the next two years includes windows for the WPL, the Hundred and the Women’s Big Bash League. “There is definitely an opportunity for the franchise and international games to coexist in women’s cricket,” Pradhan says.

Yet such optimism cannot conceal the profound challenges that women’s international cricket faces. As investment in the women’s game has increased, so have the economic divides within the sport. With the WPL, Hundred and Big Bash now established as the three best-paying leagues in the world, the ‘big three’ now mirrors that in the men’s game. And, just like in the men’s game, there are already worrying signs that the franchise circuit could hollow out talent from less wealthy nations: South Africa’s Lizelle Lee and West Indies’s Deandra Dottin have both retired from international cricket while in their prime.

“The calendar is going to get pretty hectic quite quickly,” says Knight, who recently completed a Masters dissertation thesis on the future of women’s cricket at the Institute of Sports Humanities. “If you just let market forces go, domestic leagues are going to win.”

The obvious question, perhaps, is whether this would be such a bad thing. Victory for domestic leagues would, essentially, involve the structure of women’s cricket coming to look like that in football, with World Cups thriving but the club game otherwise dominating.

“I’ve been brought up in a system where international cricket is the peak – and, for me, I guess that that will always be the case,” Knight reflects. “Whether that will be the case for younger players, I don’t know.”

But while domestic leagues grow in prominence a vibrant international game remains essential to the wider vitality of women’s cricket. International boards, rather than franchises, develop the game at grass roots. As well as historic rivalries, international cricket also provides scope for emerging nations to rise: consider Thailand qualifying for the 2020 Women’s T20 World Cup or Brazil creating national central contracts before doing so for the men’s game.

For the international and domestic game to be in concert, rather than in competition, the game must “ensure that the path of women’s cricket is plotted rather than just let it bumble along,” Knight says. Her vision includes implementing a global calendar with clear windows for the international game, which are maintained even as the franchise calendar becomes more saturated.

Men’s game offers a warning of what administrative apathy can lead to

How much funding a country’s women’s cricket gets from the ICC is largely determined by how much revenue the men’s team gets. Knight asserts that “women’s funding needs to be ring-fenced” – with a completely different pot of money available for countries based on criteria for women’s cricket. This would encourage more emerging nations to follow the lead of Brazil and would ideally be accompanied by the ICC establishing minimum payment levels in international cricket. Such steps would, as Knight notes, also mean that nations that do not pay heed to the women’s game – most notably, Afghanistan – suffer financially.

Bundling the global broadcasting rights for ODI and T20 World Cup qualifiers together could generate more narrative and cash from bilateral international matches too. When England toured West Indies before Christmas, “it just felt third tier really – no crowds and media,” Knight recalls. She advocates “making sure investment for different countries is funded a bit more centrally, and money’s a bit more spread out, so that countries can actually invest”.

For the women’s game, the battle in the years ahead will increasingly be one for control between the international and domestic spheres. The men’s game offers a warning of where administrative apathy and short-termism can lead to: a fragmented and disjointed schedule, with club and country competing against each other. But it also, perhaps, provides valuable lessons for how to avoid making the same mistakes.