Friday, February 1, 2013

England v Sri Lanka: the biggest upset in the history of women's cricket?

1st February 2013: Sri Lanka Women 244 for 9 (Atapattu 62, Kaushalya 56) beat England Women 238 for 8 (Gunn 52, Jones 41) by one wicket.

On Test Match Special this morning, Alison Mitchell described the above England-Sri Lanka result as “the biggest upset in the history of the women's World Cup”. Other commentators are apparently now describing it as the biggest upset ever in women's cricket.

This is quite some claim. Are they right?

To answer that question, you need to delve a little deeper into the history of the women's game. To my mind, there are three phases to that history.

The first phase began with the first international women's cricket tour, England in Australia and New Zealand in 1934/5. Until 1973, these three countries, aside from a few matches with South Africa, were the only teams playing official international cricket, mainly because very little women's cricket existed anywhere else. Their domination (in particular after the ban on sporting contact with South Africa) was such that a book on women's Test cricket was published in 1987 entitled The Golden Triangle.

The second phase was ushered in with the first women's World Cup in 1973 - the first ever ODIs played by women. By this stage other countries were beginning to form women's associations – in particular India and the West Indies in 1973. Women's cricket quickly became extremely popular amongst Indian women – it was on this basis that India was chosen to host the 1977 World Cup – and the standards rapidly improved. However, the sport remained underdeveloped in the West Indies, Netherlands, Denmark, and Ireland, who nonetheless participated in international tournaments alongside the other teams.

Thirdly, in the period following the 1993 World Cup, South Africa were welcomed back into the international fold post-apartheid, and women's teams were formed in Pakistan (in 1996) and Sri Lanka (in 1997), and began to compete on the international stage. But, as women's cricket developed in the countries where it received most government support, becoming more and more professional, these newer teams continued to struggle to match up to the standard of the rest.

So, since 1934 there has been an unofficial two-tier system in place, summarised as follows:

Phase One, 1934-73
Top tier – England, Australia, New Zealand (generally in that order)
Bottom tier – South Africa

Phase Two, 1973-93
Top tier – England, Australia, New Zealand, India
Bottom tier – West Indies, Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland

Phase Three, 1993-present
Top tier – England, Australia, New Zealand, India
Bottom tier – South Africa, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, West Indies, Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland (and more recently, Bangladesh, Japan, Scotland, USA, Zimbabwe, etc.)

This two-tier system is, of course, now recognised by the ICC: the top-tier countries participate in Quadrangular ODI Series' (and in 2002/03 a 'World Series' of women's cricket – trust me, it was awesome), and automatically qualify for the World Cup.

An “upset” would (fairly obviously) be defined as any team in the bottom tier defeating a team in the top tier. This is what happened today in the England-Sri Lanka match. The question is, has this ever happened before?

(Caveat: I'm not including T20Is here, but with very few exceptions, they follow the same pattern as described below.)

Well firstly, in Test matches, no. There has never been a female equivalent of, say, Pakistan men defeating England at the Oval in 1954. Why? Partly because there hasn't been that much women's Test cricket, and barely any at all since the newer teams were formed.

However, in ODIs, there have been three key examples of “upsets”.

The first and most recent upset has been more of an ongoing trend than a one-off. This is the West Indies' recent form in one-day cricket. Since 2009, they have won ODI series' against England (2-1, in the November 2009 series in the West Indies) and India (2-1, in the 2012 series in India), as well as winning 2 ODIs against India, in India, in January 2011, but losing the series. None of this is a surprise, however, because it has coincided with the career of Stafanie Taylor, one of the most talented female cricketers I have ever seen. In almost every one of these upsets, she played a pivotal role, with the ball, the bat, or both. She's been well supported by Dottin, Aguilleira, and Anisa Mohammed, all quality cricketers.

Actually, the West Indies are starting to undermine the whole concept of a two-tier system. But, anyway, the point is that while the above results were “upsets” in the strictest definition of the term, they weren't really shocking, as such.

Onto the second example. This one is very relevant: it is the only time in history before today that a second tier team have beaten a top tier team in a World Cup match. I'm referring to South Africa's 5-wicket victory over England in New Zealand during the 2000 tournament, in which England were bowled out in 47.3 overs for 143, one of their lowest ever totals in a World Cup. South Africa made the required runs with 19 balls to spare, and went on to reach the semi-final, where they lost to Australia. England, for the first time ever, failed to make the final stages of the tournament. An upset? Yes, certainly.

But was it a shock? Not if you'd been present at their win against England, at Taunton in 1997. Their first international cricket tour since 1972, and they win a match against the current world champions. That was the real shocker. How did they do it? A lot to do with Daleen Terblanche, their keeper, who stumped Edwards when she had got to 102, ran out Metcalfe on 44, then hit 27 runs. She was also instrumental in their success in the 2000 World Cup. Quite a player, and South Africa's second-highest ODI run-scorer ever, on 1256.

South Africa went on to create further international upsets, beating England on 4 further occasions, ending with the 2003/04 series in South Africa. But Terblanche retired in 2008, and South Africa went back to being nothing too special. (They lost to Australia today, by 150 runs.)

There's one more example of an “upset”, and I think this is the main contender to rival today's result. In 1979 the West Indies toured England for the first time. They did not win a Test, and lost the first ODI. Then out of nowhere, playing at an obscure ground in Shireoaks, they somehow restricted England to 167-6 in 50 overs, and struggled their way to 169-8, hitting the winning runs with 2 balls remaining. Patricia Whittaker was instrumental in the victory, taking 3-36, including the wicket of Rachael Heyhoe-Flint, the leading batsman in the world at the time, and scoring 40 not out.

How do I explain this one away? I can't. There isn't really any explanation, other than the sheer grit and determination of the incredibly inexperienced West Indians, who happened to be facing one of the best female cricketers ever, and still triumphed. If the match had gained any media exposure, and if twitter had been invented back in 1979, you might well have seen a similar reaction to the one that hit the airwaves at about 10.30 this morning. But it didn't, and it wasn't, and it remains largely forgotten as a match – the West Indies Women's first triumph against England.

On reflection, though, I do think this morning's result is the biggest ever upset in the history of women's cricket. Mainly because it was just so absolutely impossible to predict. In 1979, and in 2000, England weren't the reigning world champions, and they weren't the fittest, most professional and quite possibly the best international women's cricket team there has ever been. They are now. And they were facing a team of almost total unknowns, whose top batsman, before this morning, averaged less than 30.

No wonder it's hard to believe.

As an England fan, I'm disappointed, naturally. (And exhausted.) But this can only be a good thing for the women's game. For one, it has excited cricket-lovers the world over. And secondly, it's a testament to the massive improvements that can be made when women's cricket is professionalised. In the 2009 World Cup, Sri Lanka lost every single match they played, and didn't look like doing otherwise. Since that time, the set-up has changed completely. The players are now given jobs within the armed forces, and can dedicate far more of their lives to playing cricket. They no longer worry about money.

Take note, countries who refuse to fully support your female cricketers: financial investment, a proper coaching set-up, more time devoted to cricket – all these breed success. It's not rocket science.

As for future “upsets”? I like to think that eventually (assuming the fundamental tenet of gender equality continues to make progress in all societies where women's cricket is played, which won't happen if the BCCI has anything to do with it), the standard of women's cricket will improve so much that the two tier system will be effectively phased out. And, as in the men's game, teams will move up and down the rankings in accordance with the quality of the players available to them at the time. (If the players aren't being rotated, that is ;) ) There'll still be upsets; they just might not be as upsetting as this one.

England fans, like me, who woke up at 3.30am, might be permitted to wish this was all just a bad dream. It wasn't. What everyone is saying is true – this really was the biggest upset in women's cricket history. It also bodes extremely well for the future of women's cricket.

And now for some sleep.


  1. I was disappointed, but I can't say I was terribly surprised.

    Our opening bowlers looked toothless in sub-continental conditions... again! (Same thing was evident in the T20WC last year.)

    And our batting is horribly dependent on Edwards not getting out and being the backbone. (Even with SJT playing we'd have struggled once Edwards was out, I think; but without her...)

    I am also starting to wonder if Edwards is turning into end-of-career Strauss in more than her interview technique. ("Well... look..."!) She is obviously class and there is the occasional glimpse of the player she was, which keeps the wolves from the door, so to speak; and (looking at statsguru) her numbers haven't dropped-off THAT much, but they HAVE dropped-off and... well... you have to wonder if her time is coming. And yes, I know she was 'unlucky' yesterday; but at the end of the day, if she'd either got a bat on it, or just not played it at all...

    One other thing - people are saying it is just one game... there are lots of games to come... just the wake-up call the team need... blar, blar, blar. But given the format, doesn't this result make it very, very difficult to get to the final? They certainly can't afford to lose another one in either the group or the sixes; although I guess it could still be okay if the other big teams 'shared' enough points.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I think today's match v India partly proves your point about Edwards. As a general rule of thumb, when she bats well, the team does well. I'm a big fan of her captaincy, though, and I'm not sure it is her time just yet. That partly depends on how the rest of the tournament goes, of course.

      Re getting to the final, given that WI beat SL today, I think it's looking okay for us. The main thing is the psychological blow really. It must've hit the team pretty hard.

  2. yes this was THE biggest upset in women s cricket without doubt... Im a srilankan and believe me till this day no one gave a crap about women s cricket here..till now.As a teenager apart from playing for junior league mens teams i couldn't find a women's team to play for since i started to play at 12.
    I've always been a die hard fan of the England team and to see them being beaten by my own country was indeed a shock. I really didn't know whether to cry or jump around in joy.It's not easy to see your favorite team being beaten by you'r own..Well now i guess i have two teams to support.

  3. Stumbled upon this article via Alison Mitchell's Twitter, I'm an avid cricket, and England, fan and have always attempted to reasonably follow the women. It hasn't always been an easy task but, with the much improved coverage in this World Cup I've been able to really get into it, including forcing myself up at 3.30am! Anyway, I think this is an excellent article, so well-written and clearly by someone who is passionate and very knowledgeable about the great game's history, something which perhaps isn't appreciated in the modern day as much as it once was. I'm going to make the effort to read back through your blog over the next few days as I believe it will be well worth it.
    As for the game in question, it was clearly a massive upset, but a great spectacle and good for the tournament and the game as a whole, just a pity England were on the wrong end of it. Along with the Australia match, it's starting to become reminiscent of the England men's World Cup campaign in 2011, where basically every match was a rollercoaster ride. Ironically, they were knocked out comprehensively by Sri Lanka in the quarters. Hopefully the women can go better, but I feel Sarah Taylor needs to fire big style if we're to get a high enough NRR. Also, the prospect of watching her sumptuous cover drives is very appealing.