Looking back over all the sporting spectacles of 2016, I still pinch myself at the things I was fortunate to witness in person.
I watched from the finish line as a breathless hush fell over the Olympic stadium before Usain Bolt tore up the 100m. I was also a humble (and occasionally speechless) commentator as Virat Kohli went about smashing four T20 centuries in the space of 10 days at the Indian Premier League. But of all these occasions, it was a more unassuming triumph that left the deepest impression. And it was not taken in from a lofty vantage point in some grandiose stadium, but sitting in front of a TV screen on my own in Rio’s Copa broadcasting centre, watching the Great Britain women’s hockey team win Olympic gold for the first time.
My colleague Alexis Nunes had kindly taken over my presenting shift early so I could jump in a taxi to watch the game live, but after failing to organise transport in time, I resigned myself to sitting in the green room watching the BBC feed. Looking back now, I actually think it was the perfect way to watch the event: I viewed the game just as one of the British public, emotionally connected to all those millions glued to their TVs on that unforgettable Friday night.
It was my favourite moment for two reasons. Having been a team player myself, I can well understand the journey an athlete takes with their sporting colleagues (or ‘family’ as they become) to achieve something so magnificent, together. As part of the England women’s cricket team, we had our own rickety period at the end of 2005 through to the beginning of 2007. Learning from our mistakes, by 2009 we were the best team in the world. Those same hockey players who were left to fight for a bronze in 2012 after a heart-breaking semi-finals loss to Argentina, had now triumphed in Rio – and it tasted all the sweeter for it.
But it felt, too, like we were witnessing a truly special moment for women’s sport. It took me back to my years of training at the English Institute of Sport (EIS) centre at Bisham Abbey – and being in awe of sporting heroines such as Katherine Grainger (GB rower) bench-pressing unthinkable weights in the corner; Alex Danson (England/GB hockey) doing endless pull-ups; the relentless discipline, power and agility of former England netball captain Karen Atkinson; and the sheer determination of Clare Griffiths (GB wheelchair basketball) to be as strong as she could be.
All were putting in the hard yards behind the scenes, among many more female athletes around the country, but mostly in the shadows away from the media spotlight. The magnitude of what women’s hockey achieved in Rio may have been was immense – but the fact that it was beamed into the hearts and minds of spectators across the country made its significance even greater for women’s sport. It is moments like these which captivate and inspire a nation.
The raw emotion that streamed out of the GB hockey girls on Friday, August 19 is the same feeling we experienced after winning the ICC Women’s World Cup in 2009 in Sydney, followed a few months later by Claire Taylor and Beth Morgan chasing down an inconceivable total against Australia in the ICC Women’s World Twenty20 (WT20) semi-final at the Oval. It was the same emotion that erupted when we backed it up, under the pressure of performing at home, to beat New Zealand in the ICC WT20 final at Lord’s Cricket Ground. That year, and those moments, will be treasured forever.
I found myself comparing the women’s hockey triumph to our own and the most notable difference was the coverage and legacy it created back home. Shortly after our World Cup glory we were informed that our lives would change. More support would pour in from sponsors and there would be plenty of coverage on the back pages and across television. Yes, the media coverage was amplified for a day or two, but it quickly dwindled. I remember getting on the team bus to Lord’s on the day of the ICC World T20 final, just two months after lifting the ICC World Cup trophy, when the men had already been knocked out and we were the only hope of lifting a trophy on home soil. Despite our recent success, it appeared that the general public were unaware our competition was even taking place. On the way to the match, I saw a pub promoting the men’s game between Pakistan and Sri Lanka. We hadn’t even managed to garner a mention, even as the host nation.
And yet it was the start of something. With backing from the ECB and the tireless work that Clare Connor (Director of English women’s cricket) and many others around the world were facilitating behind the scenes, people began to take note. These days women’s cricket is in the best place it has ever been.
Promotion for the ICC Women’s World Cup - which starts in the UK in 100 days - began two years ago. Huge adverts were placed on the London Underground from as far back as September last year. People who don’t watch women's cricket, or even cricket for that matter, are talking about the tournament and we are still four months out.
At the ICC Sponsors and Licensees meeting in November last year, I was blown away by each and every speaker devoting as much time to the ICC Champions Trophy as they did to the ICC Women’s World Cup. While in England, our era of professionalism has provoked more attention from newspapers and coverage of the game is continually improving.
In 2015, I was privileged to host the first ever televised Women’s Test Match during the 2015 Women’s Ashes on Sky Sports, which saw every game of the multi-format series was covered. This was in contrast to the last Women’s Ashes hosted by England, in 2013, whereby only the T20 internationals were televised live. And yet, after watching the Big Bash in Australia this winter, I believe women’s cricket has moved to another level. Channel Ten in Australia has done a brilliant job of attracting viewers to the men’s game and the same is now true for the women. What particularly struck me was that the women were not afraid to bring out their true personalities and were championed for it. Another opportunity now presents itself in England this summer as the ICC Women’s World Cup and Kia Super League in England is set to receive TV coverage through Sky Sports, in addition to the thorough and lasting support from BBC Radio.
Of course, timing is everything. If there used to be a reluctance to showcase the women’s game, it wasn’t just a question of standards. The game was trapped in a classic catch-22 situation. Broadcasters were hesitant that viewership would not be substantial enough to warrant attention, especially when small crowds were being generated, yet for people to turn up at games, it was essential to know when they were happening. It was only after 2009 that progress really kicked in and the cycle was broken, with the move to show the ICC World T20 semi-finals and finals on the same day as the men - a huge step towards drawing in viewership.
In 2014, the ECB delivered a bespoke marketing strategy to encourage people to come and watch England women in the home bilateral series matches. The knock-on effect was astounding, with regular sell-out crowds, which subsequently attracted a flagship stand-alone sponsor for the women’s team and greater support for the players off the field.
Professionalism is the key factor now driving our top-level cricket. Standards and skill levels are improving all the time, which undoubtedly makes the game more appealing to watch, and this competition also extends off the pitch: with improvements in the organisational structure of the women’s game, so the disparity between teams across the world is slowly diminishing. There are now eight national teams that award their players with contracts, and this naturally impacts on results: West Indies women winning the most recent ICC Women’s WT20 was a huge moment for the game. Working at the men’s Caribbean Premier League tournament, I am again inspired by the number of women and girls who watch and enjoy talking about the sport. Imagine how great it would be to have a women’s T20 carnival in the Caribbean. Similarly in India, where the IPL has become one of the biggest events in the sporting calendar, it is surely the most logical progression.
I’ve often thought of how nice it would be to see Indian women’s cricketers revered in the same way as the men and, today, the girls are given their rightful place, alongside the men, on billboards nationwide, in the same kit and under the banner, of Team India.
It is all part of a move in India to treat women’s sport more seriously. The Supreme Court recently appointed Diana Edulji on the panel of administrators for the BCCI and I look forward to seeing how she may assist Indian cricket. It’s no secret that women’s cricket needs India performing on the global stage, and any male support is welcome – with key voices like Sachin Tendulkar stating that women’s cricket is critical to the future of our game, hopefully people will listen.
With the influence from government to promote women’s sport and female athletes delivering on the back of it, UK women’s sport is thriving. Recently, ITV announced they will broadcast the Women’s Rugby World Cup and Sky Sports have shown a big commitment to England netball. This is supported by the long-standing efforts of the BBC and new players BT Sport. Jessica Ennis-Hill, Laura Kenny, Jade Jones, Maggie Alfonsi and Helen Glover amongst so many others are household names, who have inspired the next generation of youngsters – both male and female.
Now it’s cricket’s turn. The pinnacle for any female cricketer – the ICC Women’s World Cup – begins on June 24 in England. Many will be unaware that the first ever World Cup competition in cricket was played by women in 1973, two years before their male counterparts. Dame Rachael Heyhoe -Flint made this possible and then campaigned to have the first women’s match at Lord’s, eventually leading out an England side in 1976; later, she paved the way for the Women’s World Cup final to be hosted there in 1993.
It is because of pioneers like her battling behind the scenes for greater parity and awareness that the game has been able to flourish. The whole cricket community was saddened by Rachael’s passing in February. After all the progress that’s been made, I’d like to imagine Rachael smiling down on the hallowed turf at Lord’s as the crowds pile in for the ICC Women’s World Cup final on July 23.