It's time for the maidens of cricket to take their turn in the spotlight says Adam Collins, and who better to lead from the front than Ellyse Perry.
“Men who know too much about women’s cricket are either making a living from it, know one of the players personally, or have something wrong with them.”
This was the unflattering analysis I received from an authority on the topic before covering the Women’s Ashes in England last year.
And using myself as a case study, it didn’t seem far from the mark. Here I was, a member of the cricket media, yet my knowledge of women’s cricket was peripheral at best.
Perennially patchy coverage meant that Australia’s most successful sporting team had cleared every hurdle without capturing the public imagination.
But then, something remarkable happened. If they build it they will come, they say. And they did. And they watched. With the advent of the Women’s Big Bash League - a new, domestic Twenty20 tournament aligned to the already-booming fifth edition of the men’s competition - a stunning surge played out this summer.
The WBBL was embraced by not only men, but women, boys, girls. A concept that risked being a flop was anything but, the best measure that TV audiences were up to 20 times what was projected by administrators.
More than half a million sets of eyeballs tuned in to games at their peak, as the number of matches covered on TV were first expanded and then moved to Network Ten’s main channel. Weekend on weekend, records tumbled.
The changing world pleasantly surprised many, including Ellyse Perry. For too long she was the only member of the national team with widespread name recognition, driven in no small part due to her status as a dual-international; when not opening the bowling playing in defence for the Matildas - even scoring in a World Cup.
She spoke to me about the rapidly changing climate on the cusp of the Southern Stars attempt their fourth consecutive Twenty20 World Cup title.
“We all knew there was potential there,” Perry says of the WBBL, “but it was a bit of an unknown.”
She doesn’t see the tournament as having succeeded in a vacuum, crediting the “big shift in momentum” as having begun during their successful winter Ashes triumph, where incidentally she was player of the series.
“The way (the Ashes) was supported and followed, and also covered by the media, that momentum really carried on when we came back home and the WBBL started this summer,” she says.
“There were a lot of people tuning in, there was a lot of coverage, and then I think the interest in the cricket community was huge as well.”
Perry is articulate and humble. In 2013 she was instrumental in taking three top order wickets in the World Cup Final; and get this: she did it on a broken ankle. Yet, when asked if this is a career highlight, quickly deflects to talk about team achievements as what she values most.
The chance to win four consecutive titles in the shortest form of the game is real and craved by Perry, the Australians boasting a side with ample experience under pressure. But favouritism is less clear cut. She says it is “hard to wear that tag” in foreign conditions, the narrowing gap between Australia, England and the rest illustrated by the fact that the tournament hosts India knocked off Australia in their own backyard for the first time in January.
“I think history would say that England are always going to be right up there, we’ve played them a lot in the last couple of years in finals and they are a very competitive team, but think New Zealand and India are going to be right up there as well,” Perry says.
Many of the players running around in the World Cup for England, New Zealand and South Africa will be familiar to those who watched the WBBL, that competition evolving into a showcase for the best players going around. The same will be true of England’s Women’s Super League starting over the winter in England, where Perry will suit up as a foreign import.
The ability to earn money playing abroad is another step on the road to full professionalism, Australia’s best players still identifying as semi-pro.
As Perry notes, at the moment it means women can achieve a “great balance” in their lives outside of sport, not least with study, but the march to full-time salaries to mirror what has occurred in England may be closer than ever imagined.
“There’s huge potential that in my playing career all the members of the squad will be full time professional,” Perry says.
“In terms of improving as cricketers and really developing the game, it would be a huge shift I think and it would be really noticeable.
“I don’t know when that will happen, but I
know it is very much on the cards.
“I think in terms of the sport moving forward that would be quite unbelievable,” she says.
It really would.
Hit for six
Ellyse Perry is a leading voice for women’s cricket off the field in addition to her achievements on it.
Towards the end of the season a story was published citing unnamed Cricket Australia employees pushing for the longer forms of the women’s to be abolished in favour of 20-over cricket alone.
When asked by for her response to this proposition, Perry didn’t miss a beat.
“I probably think that’s probably a tunnel vision view on things,” she said.
“For the entire development of the game you probably want to be playing all three formats of the game and I think they all complement each other. People need to be playing as much cricket as possible across different formats to really learn and develop as players and learn the vital skills.
“I think we’ve seen in terms of the Ashes last year how successful that was across three formats of the game for the women and just looking at that holistically to narrow that down, I think one format would be really quite restrictive on female players.”
Thankfully, James Sutherland the CEO of CricketAustralia, has already thrown cold water on the ill-considered notion.
Adam Collins is a cricket writer and commentator for the ABC.