Alison Mitchell reflects on a stunningly successful WWC17 as the International Women’s Championship prepares to take centre stage on the road to 2021.
As the stars of the ICC Women’s World Cup 2017 get back to international action this month in the ICC Women’s ODI Championship, World Cup commentator Alison Mitchell looks back on #WWC17, an event that broke all records for the numbers that watched and followed.
It is more than two months now since England lifted the ICC Women’s World Cup trophy at Lord’s, after a final that drew the biggest audience the women’s game has ever seen. Over 100 million are believed to have watched on TV, and Lord’s was sold out - a crowd of over 26,500 being far and away the largest attendance at a women’s game in the UK and indeed around the world in terms of genuine ticket-buying spectators. There was once a crowd of 80,000 for the 1997 Women’s World Cup Final in Calcutta, but that was due to the then Sports Minister bussing most of the spectators in for free in a specially commissioned fleet of over a thousand coaches. All the World Cup matches I’d covered in the past were attended predominantly by family and friends of players, plus a handful of official invited guests. So it’s easy to understand why the Final felt like a seminal moment for the women’s game - and this was long before the match twisted, turned, then lurched inexorably towards England thanks to Anya Shrubsole’s dramatic haul of 6-46.
Anyone who was lucky enough to have been at Lord’s that day felt a very different atmosphere to the usual crowd for a men’s international. Yes there were more females, but overall it felt younger, less corporate and more vibrant, as if some were experiencing Lord’s for the first time, others were bringing their children to cricket for the first time, and many long-time followers of the women’s game were blinking their eyes, simply revelling in the most spine-tingling of spectacles. I could only compare the sense of anticipation and enthrallment to what I have experienced at a People’s Sunday at Wimbledon. Ticket prices were significantly cheaper than any men’s international, thus making this auspicious occasion accessible to so many. Importantly though, everyone was there because they had got caught up in the excitement of the World Cup, in the feats of the cricketers who had won dramatic matches, stroked more hundreds than at any other World Cup (14), hit more towering sixes than at any other edition (111), and earned key wickets with skilful bowling. The crowd were all fans of cricket – and some were likely new ones. Marketing teams who had been passionately promoting the Final defied all those who told them they would never sell out Lord’s for a women’s match. How wrong those doubters were.
The ICC’s decision to live stream and televise all matches of the Women’s World Cup was, I believe, the most significant decision made in the lead up to the tournament. Once the players started doing their stuff, the coverage was the biggest driver of the swell of support that the tournament gathered. For the first time in the 44-year history of the tournament, every ball could be watched live and not one moment would be missed. Initially only 10 matches were being televised; it was a late decision to get cameras at all games, but what a momentous decision it was. Imagine if the only people who had seen Sri Lanka’s Chamari Atapattu take the Australian attack apart with her audacious 178 not out were the several hundred in attendance at Bristol. Imagine if they were the only people to see Meg Lanning trump that 178 with a bloody-minded unbeaten 152 to win the match? Imagine if the few thousand at Derby were the only people to witness Nat Sciver clip a leg stump yorker between her legs? The phrase “Natmeg” may not have even come into existence because the shot might not have been spotted with the naked eye. It certainly wouldn’t have been replayed again and again on television, online and social media if the cameras hadn’t been there to capture it. Imagine if Smriti Mandhana’s classical cover driving and her maiden World Cup hundred had never been recorded on film to be shown in news bulletins across her cricket crazy country? Similarly, Mithali Raj’s reading list might never have become such a source of delightful fascination.
The semi-finals were always due to be televised, but it is doubtful that the audience would have been so vast for India’s semi-final were it not for the storylines that preceded it. Away from India’s narrative, the raw emotion and tears streaking down the faces of the South Africans when England’s Shrubsole flayed Shabnim Ismail to the cover boundary to win the semi-final with just 2 balls spare was as deeply-felt a sporting moment as any I can remember. For England and their fans it was an explosion of sheer delight, relief and exhilaration all rolled into one. The gripping climax demanded attention. Two days later, Harmanpreet Kaur was dismantling the six-time World Champions Australia in a way never seen before on the stage of the World Cup semi-final. And what a stage it was. Aside from the television audience, by the day of the Final the video highlights of Harmanpreet’s blistering 171 alone had been viewed more than 3 million times on the ICC’s Facebook page. The cricket page of the BBC website reached out to an estimated 4 million unique users during the tournament, with video clips attracting 2.4 million stream starts. Who knows how many more watched clips shared through Twitter and other social media channels.
The video coverage doesn’t only take cricket to more spectators; it takes cricket to more of the mainstream media. Think of all the match reports and columns written around the world by journalists who weren’t sent to cover the tournament in England, but who started to recognise the value of writing and talking about this extraordinary event because they were able to see it from the screen at their desk. Expect accreditation for the next event to be much more heavily subscribed, if the visibility is maintained.
It is of vital importance now to keep women’s cricket in the spotlight. The next ICC event isn’t until the World T20 in the West Indies in November 2018 but the ICC International Women’s Championship begins again this month, when all countries will start playing each other in short series of three One Day Internationals. These matches double as the qualifiers for their next 50 over World Cup in four years’ time. Whether or not there are TV deals in place, I would like to see Boards invest in the live-streaming of these games in future – with financial assistance from the ICC if necessary - to ensure all women’s international cricket can continue to be watched and followed. The narrative needs to be extended.
As well as the game staying the spotlight, it needs to continue to develop. At the highest level, all teams need to play more 50 over international cricket. The gap beneath the top five or six international sides needs to narrow. The formation of an ICC ‘A’ Championship, or an Under 19 Women’s World Cup might encourage countries to broaden their talent base and make additional investment below full international level. Give the advancement in batting prowess evident at this World Cup, it would also be exciting to see every country trying to unearth and develop a new, genuinely quick bowler to catch up with the improved power of the best batters.
Beneath that, it is imperative that countries develop robust, competitive domestic structures. Australia is way above the rest with the professionalisation of their domestic game. Where resources are thin for such a development to take shape in the immediate future, Boards should take positive steps to enable their players to join domestic or club competitions abroad.
So as we look back on the greatest and most watched Women’s World Cup of all time, we can reflect that this needs to be a springboard for the future of the game. Great drama knows no gender. As one of my UK newspapers colleagues wrote in the aftermath of the Final, great sport knows no gender. This World Cup had everything, and it was seen. It needs to keep being seen, but the game also needs to keep evolving in order to grow.