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High-Quality Women's ODI World Cup Provides Massive Fillip to The Game

Smriti Mandhana is  the leading run-getter for India so far in the tournament. (AFP Image)

Smriti Mandhana is the leading run-getter for India so far in the tournament. (AFP Image)

The success of this World Cup comes from the highly competitive quality of cricket being played, which in turn has given the women’s game a fillip.

A packed, hugely successful home season for India, and Pakistan hosting Australia after 24 years has obviously caught the attention of cricket lovers all over the world in the past few weeks. The decibel value of the buzz around the IPL, which starts next week, has been rising by the day too. But despite the surfeit of high-profile action in the men’s section, women’s cricket hasn’t been left behind.

The ongoing Women’s Cricket World Cup in New Zealand is turning out to be an attention grabber of equal impact. The competition so far has been intense and riveting — easily the best in the history of the tournament – showcasing splendidly how the standard of women’s cricket has grown, and with it, spectator interest.

Several of the matches played so far have produced edge-of-seat excitement. Friday’s contest between West Indies and Bangladesh was one such. What seemed like a stroll in the park for the West Indies turned into a humdinger. After a strong bowling performance, Bangladesh had a modest target to chase, but lost narrowly by 4 runs in a tense finish.

West Indies were favoured to beat stragglers Bangladesh, so the result was not unexpected, but the closeness of the contest was. This apart, there have been some stunning results, what with both defending champions England and home team New Zealand facing upset defeat. This has imbued the World Cup with suspense and intrigue as to what could happen next.

Add to these outstanding individual performances too – from young and old players – that have given the tournament rich flavor and loads of class and character. All of this has caught the fancy of critics and fans alike, making the tournament unmissable.

Eight teams are in contention, and just past the halfway stage, only Australia and South Africa, with 8 points each, are near certainties to make it to the knock-out stage. It is improbable they will lose their remaining matches –and by wide margins — to be toppled. But which other two teams will make the cut is impossible to predict as I write this.

Four teams are vying for the two places. West Indies with 6 points, are strongly placed, but India, New Zealand and even England – with just one win so far — are all in contention. One strong — or poor – performance by any of these four teams could cause a major upheaval. Net Run Rate will be a crucial factor in case of teams finishing level on points.

Two matches over this weekend should clear the picture. India take on Australia, who have been in red hot form, on Saturday and New Zealand play England on Sunday, from which only one will survive for a place in the last four. Both these promise to provide engrossing fare, though both the winners in 2017 (England) and runners up (India) will be under serious pressure.

India’s progress in the tournament has moved inconsistently, oscillating between the brilliant and the mediocre. Starting with a great flourish against Pakistan, India came a cropper against New Zealand yet again this season. In the next match, the team rallied superbly from a batting crisis to post a 300-plus score thanks to scintillating centuries by Smriti Mandhana and Harmanpreet Kaur and walloped the West Indies.

However, against England, the batting flopped again to leave the team again vulnerably placed in the tournament. Against powerful Australia, easily the best side in the tournament so far, India will have to come up with a stellar show to not be swept aside. For that, the batting will have to play to potential. The bowlers have been splendid so far, but without enough runs to defend, their task becomes hopeless.

In batting, Team India has rich talent, but has lacked sustained run getting. Mandhana is easily among the best batters in the world today and unarguably the most stylish. Harmanpreet, who had been struggling for a big score since her dazzling century in the 2017 WC semi-final, answered critics tellingly with the hundred against West Indies.

But Mithali Raj has been struggling for big scores, and young, blazing opener Shefali Verma had to be dropped after a string of low scores. Perhaps it is time to bring Verma back. She is an impact player and has the power and strokes to push even the Aussies on the defensive.

The success of this World Cup comes from the highly competitive quality of cricket being played, which in turn has given the women’s game a fillip. In March 2020, just before the Covid pandemic hit the world, I watched the Women’s T20 WC final in Melbourne where 80000-plus spectators turned up to watch India play Australia.

New Zealand cannot boast of such attendances at the ground, but I understand that the knock-out matches of the ongoing ODI World Cup have already been sold out. I would in fact venture that this is being followed by even more fans than the T20 World Cup.

But for the women’s game to grow further and faster, more needs to be done. It needs to be propagated, promoted, financed with greater intent and imagination. Women cricketers still play only a fraction of the matches their male counterparts too, which is a stumbling block in the growth of the women’s chapter.

Equality of pay is an issue in itself, but at the moment, what is needed is parity with men in terms of playing opportunities. That cannot come with a platitudinal approach, as has been the case so far, especially in the sub-continent where societal restrictions often stymie the participation of girls in sport, and not just cricket.

This requires vision and unwavering commitment. Women’s cricket becoming part of the cricket establishment – unlike in the past when it was left to fend for itself – has been a major step forward in the past 20-odd years. But a couple of quantum leaps still need to be taken.

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