Saturday, March 22, 2014
The Women's World Twenty20 officially kicks off today with the Australia-New Zealand game; for the first time, it will be contested by the top 10 teams, instead of the usual 8. Unlike in the men's tournament, there is no “pre-qualifying” round, which means, excitingly, that hosts Bangladesh (as well as the other “minnow”, Ireland) will each have the opportunity to play three of the world's top teams in the group stages. Whatever happens in the games, then, this is going to be a pretty historic tournament.
It's going to be historic for another reason, too. In 2009, in the inaugural WWT20 tournament, England played New Zealand in the final at Lord's, and strolled home to victory by six wickets. In the wake of their loss, New Zealand's then coach Gary Stead said: “today felt a little bit like the amateurs playing the professionals”. This is the first world tournament in which that will, in fact, be the case: over the last 12 months both Cricket Australia and the ECB have announced contracts for their female players which are lucrative enough to allow them to train and play cricket full-time. Suddenly, two of the competitors in this tournament are fielding groups of professionals – the first in women's cricket for over 100 years (and arguably ever).
Australia are the defending World Twenty20 champions, having beaten England by 4 runs in the 2012 final; and it is generally acknowledged that England and Australia are right at the front of the pack in terms of women's cricket rankings. The coming of professional contracts will, surely, only put them further ahead?
But there is one salient fact which glib, easy predictions of an England-Australia final tend to overlook: and that is that the top-ranked teams in women's cricket (England, Australia, and 3rd ranked team New Zealand) have no experience whatsoever of playing international cricket in Bangladesh. The conditions, and the pitches, will be completely alien to them.
Contrast that with the other teams in the tournament, and it's evident that in one respect at least, the lower-ranked teams are ahead of the game. The 2011 World Cup qualifiers (featuring West Indies, Pakistan, South Africa, Ireland and Sri Lanka) took place in Bangladesh; West Indies won all their matches. And Pakistan and India have both just finished T20 series' against Bangladesh, played at Cox's Bazar, with Bangladesh whitewashed on both occasions. Add that to the fact that Twenty20 is a notoriously unpredictable form of the game, and I genuinely believe that – as the 50-over World Cup did last year – this tournament could throw up some real upsets.
Australia may have come out on top in the T20 leg of the recent Ashes series (the scoreline was 2-1), but their recent problems with the bat cannot be ignored. Jess Cameron, their top-scorer in the 2012 tournament, averaged just 13 across the Ashes series and was dropped for the final T20 game; Ellyse Villani has suffered a similar lack of form at international level. And Meg Lanning, whose firepower will be crucial to Australia's chances, now has the added pressure of the captaincy to deal with, thanks to Jodie Fields' injury.
Australia may have the most talented all-rounder (Ellyse Perry) and spin bowler (Erin Osborne) in the competition, and a very experienced squad, but I don't think it's going to be as easy as all that for them. I'm left wondering whether their loss to West Indies in the warm-up match might be a sign of things to come.
New Zealand may have just beaten West Indies 4-0 in the T20 series, but that was in home conditions; I don't hold out huge amounts of hope for them in this tournament. Two of the world's top all-rounders, Sophie Devine and the incomparable Suzie Bates, may both be in form, and Morna Nielsen may have just taken 3-9 in the warm-up against India. But New Zealand demonstrated a shocking lack of batting depth during the October tri-series against West Indies and England, collapsing from 74-1 to 106 all out in one of their matches. They have followed this up in the warm-up matches by being bowled out for just 48 by England, which somewhat proves my point. If they reach the semi-finals, it'll be because this is the weaker group in the competition.
Pakistan have a top-quality spin attack which includes left-arm orthodox bowler Sadia Yousuf, who has 37 T20I wickets and took 4-9 against Ireland in the 2013 qualifying tournament. And having beaten England for the first time ever in a T20 at Loughborough last July (Nain Abidi made 45), and won the tri-series in Qatar in January against Ireland and South Africa, they looked to be on an upwards trajectory. But they have followed this up with a 2-0 loss to Bangladesh in an ODI series earlier this month. Frankly, with levels of consistency which mirror their male counterparts, it's difficult to predict how they might fare in this tournament.
The South African team is a bit of an enigma. Filled with experienced, quality batsmen like captain Mignon du Preez and keeper Trisha Chetty, as well as the talented Lizelle Lee, who made her debut against Bangladesh in September last year, they have recently enjoyed an ODI series win against Pakistan. But in the 2009 and 2010 tournaments they lost all their matches, and given that they've never beaten Australia or New Zealand in an international match, and they finished fifth in last year's World Cup, it would be difficult to predict a different result this time around.
Ireland are the real underdogs in this tournament, given that only three teams could progress from the qualifiers, and they came third. Their stand-out players are captain Isobel Joyce, whose 72* took them to victory against the Netherlands in the qualifiers and who top-scored for them in the recent Qatar tri-series; and Clare Shillington, so far the only Irish woman to score an international Twenty20 century. But they are a young, inexperienced squad (medium-pacer Lucy O'Reilly is just 14 years old; leggie Elena Tice is 16) and realistically are unlikely to win any of their games. Good to see them getting the opportunity to compete at the top-level, though.
England have the best captain, the best keeper and the best fielder in the women's game at their disposal: enough said, perhaps, especially given that Ashes-winning performance in the Hobart T20 from the aforementioned captain (92*). Australia may be defending champions, but England have just won the multi-format Ashes...twice.
And yet...they are coming into this tournament on the back of two pretty poor batting performances in those second two T20s (totals of 98 and 101), and in Bangladesh they will be batting on unfamiliar pitches. And given that spin is likely to be crucial in this tournament, the fact that England are still without both Holly Colvin and Laura Marsh has got to be a concern (the uncapped Jodie Dibble and Rebecca Grundy are in the squad as replacements). Edwards may be experimenting with herself as a third spin option (she bowled an over in the final T20 at Sydney), but relying on a bowler who prior to Sydney had not bowled in T20Is since October 2011 is not really ideal.
I hope I'm wrong, but as an England fan, I'm worried.
It's pretty obvious that West Indies have the most dangerous two players in this competition: Stafanie Taylor and Deandra Dottin (whose 38-ball century, the fastest in all international T20 cricket, men's and women's, came during the 2010 tournament). But, as well as this firepower, they also have two of the most dangerous bowlers: offspinner Anisa Mohammed, and left-arm medium-pacer Shanel Daley, who is the 2nd-ranked T20I bowler according to the ICC's criteria.
They have a good track record in the World Twenty20: they reached the semi-final in 2010 having knocked out the defending champions, England, in the group stages. And this series is coming on the back of their appearance in the 50-over World Cup final, and a victory in the tri-series against England and New Zealand. Their one issue may be a lack of batting depth in their squad, aside from Taylor and Dottin. But they've just beaten Australia by 16 runs in the warm-up fixture, and I'm going to go right ahead and call it: I reckon they might just make their second successive global tournament final.
India, one of the traditional powerhouses of women's cricket, appear to be a team on the decline. Beaten at home in January by Sri Lanka, who won the T20 series 2-1, they are also entering this tournament having failed to reach the Super Sixes stage of the 50-over World Cup which they hosted. And thanks to the BCCI, who don't appear to give a damn about women's cricket, they have played very little international cricket over the past couple of years.
They do have significant weapons in their armoury: their in-form, elegant batsman and captain Mithali Raj; Jhulan Goswami, possibly the fastest bowler in the women's game; and left-armer Sravanthi Naidu, whose figures of 4-9 against Bangladesh earlier this month helped take India to a 3-0 victory in that T20 series. Even so, it's hard to foresee them getting anywhere near to the semis.
One of those “minnows” who can't quite be considered a minnow any more, in the wake of their victories against England and India at last year's World Cup, and their more recent T20 series victory against India in January. Their key player will be Shashikala Siriwardene, the captain and a talented all-rounder who is the only Sri Lankan to currently feature in the ICC's T20 rankings. I'm also excited to see how Eshani Lokusuriyage (aka Kaushalya), who was the star of their World Cup campaign last year when she hit fifties against both England and India to bring home victories against the top sides, performs. Given their experience of these conditions, I can see Sri Lanka causing a few upsets over the next fortnight.
BangladeshThe hosts. Duh. Which presumably gives them some kind of home advantage, given how little international women's cricket has been played on Bangladeshi pitches. And in captain Salma Khatun, their leading wicket-taker and run-scorer in T20Is, they have a spinner who can exploit those conditions. Batsman Fargana Hoque, who has just hit 35 against Pakistan in the T20 series between the sides, also looks promising. And they did record their first ever ODI series victory earlier this month, beating Pakistan 2-0. Having said that, given the other teams in their group, I can't see them winning a match in this tournament.