CA has stolen a march on the ECB by live-streaming women's cricket
On Boxing Day this year, I did something I wouldn't normally do: I set my alarm for 5am. The reason? Hobart Hurricanes were playing Adelaide Strikers in the Women's Big Bash League, and I wanted to watch.
What transpired was an innings of 103 not out off 48 balls, including eight sixes, by Sophie Devine - a record innings in every way. Strikers chased down 144 and won by seven wickets. Worth getting up for.
Sleep, in fact, has been a precious commodity these past few weeks, and I lay the blame for that entirely at the doorstep of Cricket Australia. It was CA, you see, who made the decision to live-stream every single match of this year's WBBL (bar those being shown on television) via cricket.com.au. It is CA's doing that, several times a week for the last month, high-quality women's cricket has been available in my living room, 10,000 miles away from its source.
Sleep deprivation aside, there is no doubt that this has been a revolutionary and important move for the women's game. Already more than 700,000 fans have tuned in to the WBBL live stream; combined with those who have viewed on-demand highlights, more than 4.6 million people have followed the competition online. These are pretty incredible figures, and further proof that, far from being a disappointing sequel, WBBL 2 is continuing to cement franchise cricket within the women's game.
That Boxing Day performance wasn't the first brilliant one I saw from Devine in 2016, though. Of all the innings in the inaugural Kia Super League in England last summer, her 52 off 38 balls for Loughborough Lightning at Headingley - made on the first day of the tournament, just days after she had stepped off a flight from New Zealand - was one of the most exciting. She was, after all, the first six-hitter in the entire competition.
The sad thing is that only a few hundred people had the opportunity to watch that innings; only, in fact, those who were able to be at Headingley in person. Even fewer saw Stafanie Taylor smash the ball over the ropes at Bristol to take Western Storm to an extraordinary victory in the final over of the game; fewer still saw Katherine Brunt's hat-trick against Lancashire Thunder. Because none of the KSL was on TV. And none of it was live-streamed.
Rumour has it that Sky was interested in showing at least some of the games, but the ECB shut them down, amidst fears that the quality of the competition would not be high enough to impress a potential new audience. And there you have it, the difference between the two boards' attitude to the women's game summed up in a nutshell: one believes in their product enough to allow all games in the tournament to be broadcast; the other worries about even letting finals day make it onto television. Talk about a missed opportunity.
There has long been an unspoken competition between CA and the ECB over their commitment to women's cricket. These are the two leading nations in the global women's game: between them they have won 87% of world trophies since the first ever World Cup, in 1973. They remain the only countries where it is possible for a sizeable number of women to make a living just from playing cricket. They are the two horses at the head of the pack; first one then the other inches ahead.
Once upon a time, England were the pioneers. In 1998 they merged their men's and women's associations together; Australia followed suit five years later. In 2008, the ECB (in conjunction with Chance to Shine) introduced the first ever contracts for women. Finally, in May 2014, England's women became the first to receive fully professional contracts. CA has responded every step of the way, gradually increasing its player retainers until their top players can now earn in excess of AUS $100,000, making Southern Stars the best-paid female cricketers anywhere in the world. Most recently, however, the introduction of two-year contracts, announced in December, puts the ECB's nose in front as far as job security is concerned.
Visual exposure, though, is a different beast altogether. To continue the horse-racing metaphor, CA is currently at the final fence, while the ECB is still stuck at the starting gate. CA is making women's cricket more visible all the time. The ECB, despite repeated calls during and after the KSL from those crying out to be able to watch the competition from their living rooms, seems to be showing little impetus to meet those demands.
Live-streaming is, as the situation stands, problematic. Sadly, the current terms of the ECB's contract with Sky do not allow them to live-stream any cricket without the explicit permission of the broadcaster. When the contract was renegotiated, back in 2012, it was made so wholly comprehensive that it scarcely allows a cricketer to breathe unless they are behind a paywall. In hindsight, of all forms of elite English cricket, it is the one that has the least established fan base - women's cricket - that suffers the most from these conditions.
There is no opportunity to live-stream any domestic women's cricket, as CA has done for the last few years, with not just the WBBL but also the 50-over Women's National Cricket League final being shown online. There is no opportunity to live-stream games when Sky refuses to televise them - as occurred last summer with the first ODI against Pakistan at Leicester, when the match was delayed by a day due to rain and Sky upped and moved their cameras away to the first day of the men's Trent Bridge Test. And of course, the old chestnut: there is no opportunity for any women's cricket to make it onto free-to-air TV. Meanwhile CA is bringing in new viewers to the women's game left, right and centre.
Finals day of KSL 2 will be shown live on Sky, that much we know - a welcome step forward. But we need more.
Perhaps "more" will have to wait until the next renegotiation of the ECB's TV contract. Perhaps the ECB might be able to arrange some sort of exception to Sky's stranglehold before then, to allow for live-streaming. Either way, it needs to be recognised as a priority. Where are the future fans of women's cricket going to come from otherwise?
Forget the Ashes. If I take off my "England fan" cap for a while, I can see that this - the race to normalise women's cricket, to increase its audience and visibility - is a far more important battle, and one that Australia are currently winning hands down. The ECB needs to wake up, smell the coffee, and follow suit.
Raf Nicholson is an England supporter, a feminist, and has recently completed a doctoral thesis on the history of women's cricket. @RafNicholson