From ‘women’s cricket’ to ‘cricket’

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Australia haven’t tasted Ashes success in England since 2001, a series remembered for Steve Waugh’s century on one leg, Adam Gilchrist’s terrifying hitting, Mark Butcher’s 173* to win the unwinnable for England, and the forging of the Hayden-Langer opening partnership that would dominate Test cricket for the next 5 years.

Throw in some bizarre English selections and the infamously apocryphal sledge directed at Mark Waugh (“At least I’m the best cricketer in my family”), and most Australians look back on the series fondly, the continuation of a years-old golden age that had previously stalled in India.

But that wasn’t the only 2001 Ashes success by Australia.

They won the women’s series too. The first Test was by an innings and 140, based on a debut double century (the first amongst women, and only the fifth overall) from the near-anonymous Michelle Goszko, while the more-well-known Cathryn Fitzpatrick demolished the English batting order on the opening day. The second game was (slightly) closer, with Fitzpatrick once again taking 5-fer in the opening innings, while this time it was Karen Rolton’s turn to score a double century. For England, Claire Taylor’s second-innings 137 forced Australia to bat again, but the target of 7 was knocked off in spite of Clare Taylor’s early wicket.

Fast forward 14 years, and we’re all familiar with the most recent series result. The Australian men go down 3-2 in the Tests, a scoreline which flattered the performance differential between two teams best described as ‘flawed’. The women, however, wrap up the new multi-format Ashes series with a game to spare, including a Test match win in Kent. The heroes this time are more recognisable; Ellyse Perry and Meg Lanning gain media attention.

David Warner says they’ve “set the benchmark,” one the men need to improve to match.

*          *          *

In a lot of circles, there’s discussion of a renaissance in women’s sport. In recent months, we’ve had the narrative of the USA in the Football World Cup, and Australia’s Diamonds winning the Netball World Cup. There’s been increasing realisation that Serena Williams is pushing for the title of greatest tennis player of all time, irrespective of gender. Women’s AFL has been broadcast on free-to-air TV for the first time, while Simona de Silvestro and Renee Gracie will pair up to take on Mount Panorama. Ronda Rousey’s dominance of the UFC has turned her her into a pop-culture icon, and even professional wrestling is trying to get in on the act, attempting (but, depending on who you ask, failing) to take female competitors more seriously.

The only problem? That this is still news.

There’s far greater women’s participation in sport. There’s greater coverage, attendance and inclusivity. Both the Australian and English women’s teams are now, at the very least, semi-professional. However, women’s sport is still perceived, in some ways, as a novelty. As Izzy Westbury points out on Twitter, there’s little meaningful criticism of female sport; they aren’t held to the same standards as men even as, in the Australian team’s case, they’ve surpassed them:

A journalist doubling as Middlesex’s captain, Westbury has no trouble calling out what she perceives as institutional weakness in the English domestic cricket set-up. Rather than being caught up in the narrative of celebration that women are playing sport in the first place, she’s focused on on ensuring that women play sport well.

Coverage in Australia focuses on golden-girl Lanning and multi-talented Perry, yet their interview with Channel 9’s The Cricket Show still descended into the male banter for which Brad McNamara’s tenure as show producer has been widely-condemned. As Geoff Lemon noted in The Guardian, at best, it was disrespectful. At worst, plainly sexist. And, to the surprise of precisely no one, the same descriptors are applicable to Australian captain Lanning’s disastrous spell in the commentary box (contrast her treatment to that of Michael Clarke, when he did a stint alongside Brayshaw et al.).

There was no discussion of the Southern Stars, no engagement with the actual cricket these women were playing. The players are neither praised for their success nor held to account for their failure. The marketable get marketed and held up as examples. The others are widely ignored. Jess Jonassen’s development as a batsman proved crucial to Australia’s Test win, while Megan Schutt’s inswingers was similarly crucial. Neither achieved fanfare. Meanwhile underperformance is not critiqued, techniques go unscrutinised, and talent isn’t identified.

Often, ‘suggestions’ for change come off as downright patronising. In her column for the BBC, England vice captain Heather Knight was remarkably calm in her response to some bizarre ideas:

“During the Test, a few things were mooted in the media about whether the women’s game can be improved and made faster by, for example, playing off 20 yards (rather than 22) or using a smaller, lighter ball (the ball we use is 5oz as opposed to a men’s 5.5oz). Personally I’m not a massive fan of those suggestions.”

Westbury, on the other hand, preferred sarcasm:

The point is clear. There’s nothing fundamentally broken with women’s cricket. While there ought to be suggestions for rule changes, alterations in playing conditions and improvements — as there is in the men’s game — institutionalising inferiority by altering the fundamentals of the game is an incredibly knee-jerk and poor response. Especially considering that, in some cases, the skills displayed by female cricketers are far superior to most of those on offer in the male game (see, for instance, Sarah Taylor’s wicketkeeping; she’s head-and-shoulders above the vast majority of current international ‘keepers, male or female).

While we’re in an era of increased equality in the sporting realm, especially compared to historical perceptions of women’s sport, the playing field is by no means level. Recognition that female sport is of a high standard, that it is worth attending and watching is hugely important, and a massive leap forward.

Andy Zaltzman summarised it well in his recent piece for Cricinfo, writing:

“Canterbury showed that the women’s Test game has flaws and vast scope for improvement. The age of professionalism brings closer scrutiny and harsher judgements. That scrutiny should be accurately targeted. Those judgements should be fair, balanced, and properly contextualised.”

Until we overcome the celebratory narrative of participation, however, and construct a celebratory narrative of excellence and constructive frame of reference for serious criticism, the recent gains in women’s cricket will not fully be realised. And having ignored women’s cricket for so long, we certainly owe it to the participants to recognise that the “women’s” modifier is increasingly superfluous. This Australian team play good cricket, no other description is necessary.

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