'More and more girls are hitting the ball hard from ball one'
Professionalisation through central contracts and a greater focus on T20s have allowed women's cricket to take a big leap in the last decade or so. With the 11th Women's World Cup around the corner, our correspondents Annesha Ghosh, Firdose Moonda, Melinda Farrell, Shashank Kishore and Vishal Dikshit asked some of the leading female cricketers and a coach about the developments they have seen
How has power-hitting evolved in the women's game, which was traditionally more reliant on touch play?
Alex Blackwell, Australia batsman: Because of the influence of T20s, I've needed to work on my power-hitting. Over the last 12 months, coach Mark McInnes [New South Wales and Sydney Thunder] has helped look at my hand speed, the trajectory that I'm trying to hit the ball, what sort of angle works best to clear the fence.
Professionalism has had an impact. I'm able to train for hours during the day, which wasn't possible earlier because of daytime jobs. Now, there's time for rest and recovery.
Mithali Raj, India batsman and ODI captain: Developing core strength has been key to the adjustments I have made. Those have helped me loft easily. As a teenager, I used to struggle to do that. I think Stafanie Taylor, Deandra Dottin and Ellyse Perry have taken power-hitting to a new level in the women's game.
Harmanpreet Kaur, India allrounder: Gym sessions have become very important. It's not just your arms or core that you need to generate power with. You also need to have a strong lower body to complete quick singles and convert ones into twos and not fizzle out during a long innings.
Heather Knight, England batsman and captain: I think the biggest change in power-hitting is a bit more about mentality. Batters are more willing to take risks. Obviously when you play T20 World Cups in India and the boundary is 80 metres, it's quite difficult, particularly on slow pitches, to showcase that power-hitting. On slightly faster pitches and more suitable boundary sizes, players are better able to showcase those skills. Strength is part of that, but I don't think it's the full story. General skill levels have increased massively and you're seeing a lot more of the so-called difficult shots, like hitting over extra cover.
Sophie Devine, New Zealand allrounder: Having central contracts around the world has given the girls a lot of time to put the extra effort into their strength and conditioning. In the last couple of years, we've seen players hit the fence relatively easily. Alongside that, it's the bat and equipment we use. But at the end of the day, it does come a lot down to the ability to train and gym.
Bismah Maroof, Pakistan allrounder: When I came into international cricket at the age of 15, I had very little understanding of the relationship between body mechanics and athletic performance. But over time I realised power-hitting is one aspect we, the Pakistan players, and the Asian teams in general, are conspicuously weaker in than any of the top nations. In recent years, West Indies have upped the standard of their game by injecting greater power into their strokeplay. They have improved their fitness immensely, especially over the past three years or so, and it shows in the results they have achieved.
As someone who focuses on timing the ball well, my emphasis has largely been on assessing the needs of the team in the context of a particular phase of play. And, perhaps, that has also been the overall approach of the Pakistan team as a batting unit, even though we have a bunch of players who have the ability to hit fours and sixes.
Tammy Beaumont, England batsman: I've seen a South African player, Lizelle Lee, hit one of our bowlers out of the ground over extra cover. All of us just stood there in shock because we didn't really know what to make of it. You're seeing girls hit it all around the ground. But they have still got that deft touch of scooping it over their head, sweeping, all those kind of shots. It's just making batters so much more dangerous.
Natalie Sciver, England allrounder: Coming up against the likes of Deandra Dottin and people who can hit it miles, it adds that pressure that you don't get otherwise.
Asmavia Iqbal, Pakistan fast bowler: The incredible batting standards set by the men's game has been key to women players aspiring to send more balls soaring into the stands. I think my natural build as a fast bowler has helped me enjoy my occasional stints as a pinch-hitter, and following the fair bit of success I enjoyed on those occasions, I have tried to work on my physique in order to add more power to my shots.
What role have strength and conditioning coaches played in taking the game forward?
Knight: Probably the biggest change is that the younger players are a lot more prepared now. We probably spend six days a week doing some sort of physical session, and now that we are professionally contracted, a lot of players see strength and conditioning work as the mainstay of the day.
Sciver: When I started, we'd do lunges, but these days it's more power exercises for the whole body, not just one movement. It's not just about your arms or your legs but how much power you can put through the ball using your whole body.
Maroof: It's been a little over two years since the Pakistan team consciously started investing more time and thought into acquiring greater physical strength. We started spending more time at the gym, doing a lot of weight training, plyometric exercises, and speed and agility training, and that reflects in the improved fitness levels of the players from what it used to be five years ago.
Beaumont: Even if we get a week off from cricket and training at Loughborough to catch up with friends or family, our strength and conditioning stuff doesn't stop. It just might change in that we don't all have to have sessions together.
Suzie Bates, New Zealand allrounder and captain: Since I've played international cricket, there has always been the odd player in each team that had that power. But recently, more and more girls are hitting the ball hard from ball one. It comes down to probably the fact that the girls are now training a lot more. I think coaches have coached girls to be more aggressive, and we are able to spend more time on our strength and conditioning because teams are becoming professional and semi-professional.
Sana Mir, Pakistan offspinner and ODI captain: Considering the sporting culture at the grass-roots level in Pakistan is somewhat non-existent, a lot of girls taking up cricket, or wanting to do so at a young age, find themselves without access to gyms and fitness centres. For players in the national side, therefore, strength and conditioning coaches become almost indispensable.
Mark Robinson, England coach: I think sometimes they [women's teams] had part-time [strength and conditioning coaches], so sometimes they did weights for the sake of weights and probably the wrong type of weights. The beauty of us having full-time strength and conditioning coaches is that they are tailoring their programmes to the individual.
Since the last World Cup, we have seen more and more female batsmen hit lofted shots on the off side, while earlier most would try to clear the leg-side boundaries. What has changed?
Sciver: That comes down to the technique and the timing. Harmanpreet Kaur is not a very big girl, is she? She can hit it miles, so it's not necessarily how many weights you lift. It's actually calculated. People are playing to their strengths. It's not just swinging and hoping for the best
Bates: [Earlier] there was the odd player that was strong, hitting it through over cover, but now girls have 360 games. I don't think that's so much down to improved strength and power. It's just the more cricket they play, the more they train, the more you grow in the game, you are able to practise shots that perhaps weren't your strengths.
Devine: I think it's a natural evolution of the game, isn't it? Players want to get better and use different parts of the ground. In the Women's Big Bash, Harmanpreet Kaur hit a beautiful six over cover, which was the shot of the tournament for me. I think we'll see that a lot more in the next couple of years - the power to go over the off side.
Ellyse Perry, Australia allrounder: A few girls in world cricket have hit really well over cover. That's a lot to do with their natural set-up and the way they hit the ball. I think now girls are developing that too as an extra shot. With four [fielders] out in one-day cricket, there's always a fielder up, so one way you can get a lot of runs is over the covers.
Mir: Earlier the fielding side knew the batsman would invariably target the leg side, so the first instinct was to bowl outside the off stump. Since then, the batsmen and the analysts have worked on addressing the issue and they have developed their games to loft those balls over the off side for fours. Just like it so often happens with the men's sides, when a team develops a certain playing pattern, others analyse it and try and adopt it.
Do you think bringing the boundaries in - as we have seen being done recently, especially in England - is good for the women's game?
Raj: It shouldn't be too near that you have mishits carry, but not so big that the scores are less than what you'd generally want to have in ODIs or T20s. You want games to be competitive and one way is to ensure there is encouragement for batters to attempt big shots. If the boundaries are going to be 75 metres, that isn't going to happen.
Maroof: During our tour of England last year, the 50-metre boundaries didn't suit us at all. The English players have greater strength than us, which is why it became easier for them to hit even the good balls for sixes, and we ended up having to chase scores over 350 in two of the three ODIs.
Sciver: We played Pakistan in England and set the boundaries where we wanted them to be. It was going to be in our favour. But it was to show our team that it is possible to hit it over the rope and hit it a long way. We had a really short boundary at Worcester, and Tammy and Lauren [Winfield] were hitting it over the rope - not just a little bit. In contrast, we went to the West Indies and played on really slow pitches, really slow outfields and massive boundaries. The games were exciting, of course, but they were low-scoring, so it's up to the people that watch as to whether or not that's exciting.
Beaumont: It's actually nothing to do with the boundary size, it's more the pitch we play on. If you play on a good pitch, you can trust to hit through the line of the ball to 70-75 metres. We play on pitches that are used and a bit two-paced or slow or spinning a lot - that's where you can't trust that you can hit it 75 metres. In the World T20 in India, I think New Zealand men only got 120-130, which is kind of unheard of, and they won. Their game was very exciting, but if that had been a women's game it would have been ridiculed because it's low-scoring, it's boring.
Knight: What short boundaries do - and good pitches do, which I think is even more important - is that your bowlers' skill levels have to increase massively. You have to have a yorker and a good slower ball. I don't think we should set it the same size as men's boundaries. It should be a little bit smaller and in proportion to how the women can hit. I think it's about finding that balance where it's exciting to watch but also not forced.
Perry: If you're going to bring the boundary in, you need to play on smaller-sized grounds, so the spectators are still close to the action.
Bates: When the boundaries are long, you see more catches, but in domestic games, where the boundaries are too small, bad cricket shots are rewarded and it takes out the ability to run twos in small grounds. I think around 60 metres is a good boundary size. But if the wicket is slow and everyone bowls the spinners, you need to have power to really muscle the ball. Making sure we play on faster wickets with a bit of grass in them helps.
Blackwell: My game has been a safe game. I used to hit hard and flat and get one-bounce boundaries. At one time I didn't even consider trying to hit sixes because the reward for risk wasn't there. As the boundaries have come in, especially for T20s, I'm able to clear them, even by five to ten metres. My tactical approach has changed. I don't think it's out of balance. It's been good to encourage more big-hitting from the women.
Iqbal: As a bowler, I can say the shorter boundaries do little to help us. Considering how the players have gone about this WBBL, I'm sure some of them can easily clear 70-75m at will. Most of the present-day batsmen can hit the ball at least over 60m, so why should we pull the ropes in?
Alyssa Healy, Australia wicketkeeper-batsman: Having smaller boundaries suits us. It also brings into play some of the smaller teams and makes the game exciting, which you eventually need for the fans to come.
Mir: I'm in favour of keeping the boundary at 60m or above. It's not only the lofted shots that go for boundaries. Good rolling shots, played with skill and hit through the gaps, can also go for fours. The rule of having five fielders inside the circle has already taken away flight from the spinners. Perhaps I can speak for most spinners around the world: there would be very little left for spin bowlers to play for if the ropes are pulled in even further.
Robinson: When we played in India [the WWT20] with big boundaries on slow wickets, the games were poor spectacles. I actually think it did a disservice to the gifts and the skills of the players. A variety of boundary sizes is great. If the boundaries are in sufficiently, batters don't feel they need to over-hit, and they actually clear the boundaries by a long way, which breeds confidence that they can do it. When the boundaries are too big, people don't go for it and it becomes a game of twos and ones, and it can stagnate, especially at the back end.
How have T20 leagues - the Women's Big Bash League in Australia and the Kia Super League in England - influenced the game?
Blackwell: In some ways, the WBBL is developing players from around the world, isn't it? The KIA League is doing the same. When young players in the team are exposed to what Harmanpreet or Stafanie Taylor can do, it lifts them.
Raj: Players are more confident of taking the game right till the end, and don't bogged down by loss of wickets.
Perry: If there was to be a women's IPL, it would take the cake from the Kia Super League and the WBBL, because the IPL for men is on such a huge scale. And I have no doubt that a female version would be similarly successful. I know all the players in the world would be eager to participate.
Bates: These leagues have given players the opportunity to play professional cricket for even longer rather than perhaps just with New Zealand Cricket, which was mostly seen as part-time. Other girls, who haven't been able to play in the Big Bash or the Super League, are working a lot harder, not only for the White Ferns but to be noticed by teams around the world.
Harmanpreet: In T20s, you have to maintain a strike rate in excess of 100 from the beginning, and strike rotation is a must. You cannot afford to play out one full over all by yourself, blocking deliveries. The defensive mode of play that one associated with women is becoming redundant.
Maroof: I've followed the WBBL stints of some of the cricketers, and even played against them in the World Cup Qualifiers. The change in their approach is evident. When required to accelerate the scoring in the death overs, or faced with a daunting asking rate, very little seems to be out of reach for them. They are now better disposed to reading match situations, especially as captains. Bowlers are conceding fewer extras.
Sciver: T20 really helps the bowling mindset, especially when you come into 50-over cricket. You have to nail your variations, you have to bowl yorkers, because you're otherwise going to pay the price. It puts more pressure on you because you know people are going to try and hit you out of the game.
Iqbal: Of the WBBL games I watched, I remember at least two instances when the match turned on its head solely because of a brilliant catch or a couple of diving stops near the boundary.
Are spinners playing a bigger role in the game today?
Perry: Batters are becoming more adventurous with their shots and are wanting to clear boundaries. It's brought spin into the game and we see a lot of catches in the deep. The quality of spin is really high as well at the moment. Kristen Beams [Australian legspinner] is world-class. Pace bowling probably lagged in its development as opposed to batting and spin bowling in women's cricket.
Sciver: Previously spin wasn't really a wicket-taking option. You'd get through 20 overs in the middle of a 50-over game and try to go for as few runs as possible. If you bowled it slowly, they wouldn't be able to hit you. But nowadays, if you're facing spin, I find it even more of an opportunity to score really because you can use sweeps and reverse sweeps and things like that. We've got some really good spinners in the England squad - Heather Knight, Laura Marsh and Alex Hartley coming through - and they're certainly not just lobbing it up. They've got the variations seamers need, and I think spin could play a really important part in our World Cup.
Maroof: Conditions in England inherently favour fast bowlers and the trend is unlikely to change in the World Cup. However, considering how well spinners have fared through the [ICC] Women's Championship, even on pitches that are not regarded as spin-friendly, captains are perhaps becoming more accommodating to the idea of introducing spinners inside the first five-six overs with a view to enticing the batsman to go for big strokes.
Raj: Our attack has been spin-heavy because we've got bowlers who aren't afraid to give it good, slow flight, and the dip means batsmen have to reach out to force the pace. Hitting, especially against the turn, can be hard. In places where there is stiff breeze, it becomes tougher to negotiate spinners.
Harmanpreet: Spinners have been able to dominate because not all batsmen in the women's game have enough strength in their lower body to stay in the crease and clear the infield or the boundary. For them, using the feet and stepping out becomes mandatory. When medium-pacers operate, they go for more runs because it's mostly a matter of timing for the batsman. If you look at top-level women's internationals or league matches, where the wicket may not take much turn, you'll find it's the discipline of the spinners that helps them dictate terms to batsmen.
Knight: You see spin take a bigger role in the women's game and there are generally two or three spinners, sometimes more, in each attack. The level of spin has probably improved in the last four or five years, and probably also the players of spin, certainly when you look at some of the England girls.
Meg Lanning, Australia batsman and captain: I think early on in T20, spinners were targeted as the ones to go after. The spinners that I've played against have adjusted to that and seen what works. Some batsmen clear the ropes, but not all. Having to make your own pace is probably a bit more of a challenge than using the pace of the pace bowlers. I think that's why spin plays a pretty big role in women's cricket.
Dane van Niekerk, South Africa legspinner and captain: I believe spinners can be more attacking than in men's cricket. There's some express pace in female cricket, but I always back a spinner. I believe they are an attacking option.
Blackwell: With spinners, because the batter has to generate pace and power, maybe there's a tendency of losing shape when they hit. That's a development area for batters, to counter the effect of spinners, bring about better decision-making while trying to hit.
Bates: I'd like to say that players have got better at playing slower bowling, whether it's spin or medium pace. Probably coaches involved in the women's game have realised that teams were taking the pace off the ball. I know England, for example, are sweeping and reverse-sweeping a lot more than they have in the past.
Suné Luus, South Africa legspinner: Spin bowling in general in cricket has stayed the same. Spinners are more attacking generally, but I think it's the same as the men.
Devine: A good spinner in any team, whether T20s or 50 overs, is always going to be a really good attacking option. They are smart, they are used to being prepared for batters to come after them. They've done really well, trying to stay ahead of the ball, with their field placements, change of variations.
What have been the improvements in fielding and how much of an impact have they made?
Harmanpreet: At our training sessions, we are assigned fielding roles similar to what we are expected to perform during an international match. The fielders at the 30-yard circle are the most agile ones and those at the boundary have strong shoulders. We simulate match-like situations during practice so you don't find it difficult to put in dives or react to sharp edges in the slip cordon. There is also a conscious effort on the part of players to develop their lower-body strength. With stronger legs it gets easier to cut off powerfully hit shots on the boundary, maintain balance while diving, and to get back on your feet quicker.
Knight: I think fitness probably has had the most impact on fielding.
Raj: When I started off, you could get away with being a safe fielder. You didn't need to be athletic. Today, you have to know how to dive and slide naturally. That's why I've often underlined the importance of having a specialist fielding coach. With so much focus on strength training, throwing techniques are extremely important. A wrong method and you could tear a muscle or have a sprain.
Perry: Given that the top ten teams in the world are really close to one another in terms of their batting and bowling, fielding starts to separate sides. It is about using their body to full capacity and being able to move laterally and take catches on the run, in the air. I think there can be a more integrated approach between the skills coaches and the strength and conditioning coaches. A lot of those movements can be broken down and combined with the players going to gym, running and sprinting.
Beaumont: I think we're having more games on TV, so you've got third-umpire decisions coming into it. That makes a big difference, when you know you can go for that 50-50 run-out and you've got a chance to look back at it and get that decision.
Blackwell: We have tried to incorporate methods from baseball into our fielding drills. The focus has been on our throwing technique - the ability to keep the ball moving in transit. In the past, we used to hold it back. There are a lot more run-outs in women's cricket than there are in men's cricket - on average one run-out per innings. Whether that's more direct hits or poor running, I'm not really sure.
I think we've got two of the best gloves in the world in Sarah Taylor and Amy Jones. I think keeping is an area where it's easier to be on parity [with male players] because it's not reliant on strength. I'll never forget Sarah Taylor's catch at Hove [to dismiss Jodie Fields] against Australia - it was remarkable whether you're male or female.
Devine: Here in New Zealand we always have a massive focus on our fielding. That is such a huge part of the game, especially now some of the grounds we are playing in are so quick that if you don't keep down on the ground and you don't put in the effort, the ball is just going to race to the boundary. You've got to be prepared to loosen your skin and keep down and stop the flow of boundaries and take those half opportunities, because in T20 cricket you've got to create something special every now and then to stop a player.
Maroof: Asian sides continue to have one persistent problem: there are phases when one misfield triggers a reversal of a situation in the field, and that has an effect and subsequently everybody begins to drop regulation catches and make unexpected misfields. Over the past two years, we've been working particularly on high catches, timing our dives, stopping firmly hit balls, especially inside the circle, and direct hits.
Lanning: You see female cricketers now being able to throw on the full from the boundary with good power. It comes back to the strength and conditioning.
Mir: The kind of ground fielding and diving catches we saw in the second edition of the WBBL and at the World T20 was astounding. In the World T20, even Pakistan did reasonably well as a fielding unit, restricting West Indies to 103 and India to 96. But we have not been as consistent as we would have liked to.
As part of our preparation for the World Cup, we invested a lot of time in our fielding sessions at our preparatory camp, working on putting in more strength in our throws and chalking out plans on specific positions for specialist fielders.
Van Niekerk: I have seen some spectacular catches in the last few years - Mignon du Preez took a stunner for us in Australia last year. The girls are becoming proper athletes and that's why the game is taking off really well.
Luus: The catches we take, the ground balls we stop, the dives we put in, are the same as the men.
Robinson: I don't know if this has ever been assessed or not, but the women hit the stump more than the men. I'd love to see the stats. Maybe they give just a bit more attention to detail, taking that extra split-second to set and hit, whereas sometimes the blokes rush it. We had Charlotte Edwards who, at the end, because of her knees, wasn't mobile, but she hit the stumps. She used to have a great run-out ratio because people would try and take her on and she'd hit.