Women's cricket is looking stronger and faster than ever before
It is late afternoon at Adelaide Oval. The dry heat - penal in early February - creates a shimmering, glassy light across the field once graced by Bradman, the Chappells, David Hookes and Darren Lehmann. The vast stands, newly built to house 52,000 AFL fans in the winter months and the throng of Big Bash devotees who have seen Strikers captain Travis Head win a thriller on New Year's Eve with an innings of preposterous power and brilliance, tower over an old ground, much loved and now much changed.
On the field, cricketers sprint and stop and turn and throw and sprint again. The coaches bark their instructions, applauding and occasionally admonishing, while seagulls circle like vultures waiting for a carcass from which to feed. But none appears, not close. The commitment of the modern professional athlete is clear and present. Australia played three T20 internationals against New Zealand, followed by a one-day series, all in preparation for the 50-over World Cup in England that began last week. By Australia, we do not mean Steven Smith and David Warner; we mean Meg Lanning and Ellyse Perry.
Lanning, who is both technically sound and physically strong, can really play. Perry is the world's most celebrated allrounder, who bowls at a lively pace and bats with an instinctive timing that complements her appreciation of the angles that so often make the difference between finishing an innings effectively or otherwise.
Australia are the holders of the World Cup and favourites to retain it, even in England. But back in February, New Zealand beat them in the shortest form of the game in Geelong and again in Adelaide to take the three-match series. Suzie Bates is a smart leader and the White Ferns did what New Zealand cricketers do best, upset the odds.
Australia had their vengeance in a thrilling one-day series for the coveted Rose Bowl in New Zealand a week or so later, but it was tight, and illustrated the closing gap in international women's cricket.
Thirty-five years ago, in a garden in West Sussex, three families gathered in the sunshine after lunch to play cricket. Our host, Elizabeth Lagden, batted first and I was detailed to bowl. Off a couple of patronising paces, I rolled out an offbreak, which she smashed through cover. Blimey. I moved back a yard or two and delivered something too short at medium pace, which she upper-cut into a hedge. I was with Hampshire at the time, batting at three and bowling outswingers: Elizabeth, or "Ibby" as we knew her, was Mum's best friend and about as fabulous a godmother as could be imagined. But that had nothing on her batting. Okay, so it was a tennis ball that she whacked halfway to Pulborough and back, but the point was made. The game is every bit as playable by women as men.
Thus, it is a surprise that we have taken so long to get to where we are today. Every match of this World Cup will be broadcast live, 14 on television and the rest on radio. There is US$2 million worth of prize money and the winners take home $660,000 of it. In 2013, the total pot was $200,000. It is a seismic shift.
In just four memorable years, the women's game has moved in from the cold. The ICC's long-term ambition is to pay them as much as the men, but pay should remain commensurate to commercial appeal. In fairness, television does not best exhibit the modern female player's gifts, but the cricket they play has become more attractive of late. For certain, it is faster and stronger than ever before. The desire to win and the intensity with which the women go about their business is something to behold. It is a game soaring to new levels.
Let's examine some case studies in England. Recently the ECB doubled its investment in Chance to Shine, helping to introduce the sport to hundreds of thousands more primary school girls, and this summer it has started a new participation programme in which All Stars Cricket puts bat and ball in the hands of kids as young as five in a fun and welcoming environment. Of course, that is only a start, but since its launch in 2005, the Chance to Shine initiative has achieved great things in making cricket for girls acceptable, accessible and tempting. An astonishing 46% of the 3.5 million children who have played cricket in schools under the Chance to Shine banner are girls. The game has been normalised and now inspires young women, who have unprecedented opportunities to climb the ladder. Both club and county cricket are stronger than ever before; the pathway to the top is well managed; and the Kia Super League, alongside central contracts for England players, means that cricket is a viable career choice for the next generation of female players.
The various governing bodies give the women's game close to as much attention as that given to the men. They realise the impact this can have on a family's appreciation of cricket, and in particular, how much a female cricketer can benefit from these equal opportunities.
At professional level, the pay is pretty good and the increasing level of exposure even better. The administrators are inclusive in a way that the women who played in the first World Cup in 1973 - two years before the first men's event, incidentally - would never have believed possible.
There is a picture of Rachael Heyhoe-Flint leading out England that summer: the players are in white skirts, socks and shirts - tennis gear of the time too. England beat Australia in the final at Edgbaston and have gone on to win the trophy three times - which include both the tournaments held at home - to Australia's seven. There was talent about in 1973 but nothing like today.
The thing that struck me most with Ibby Lagden all those years ago was the ease with which she played her strokes. When I first covered a women's international match for television, I picked up on that memory and was able to see the game through the prism of touch, timing and subtlety rather than be too judgemental about the speed and power that just isn't there. The argument that cricket is less of a spectacle without speed and power is relevant to the breadth of its aesthetic appeal but not to participation. In fact, cricket suits women well because the game's long-established inherent skills are not power-dependent. Batters drive, cut and glance the ball neatly, while bowlers swing, seam and spin it.
Young girls are amazed by how quickly they catch on. Nervous of not understanding the "rules" and fearful that their peers will scorn them, many were previously put off. That is changing so fast that cricket will soon be able to take over from rounders as the No. 1 summer sport.
Rosie and Lily Grant are two of the brightest prospects in the Durham Academy. They discovered the game through Chance to Shine and their local club, Shotley Bridge, and now rejoice in playing alongside the boys at every level and competing for places in the Durham age-group teams. Mimi Ormondroyd first played at St Peter's school in Hampshire aged ten, quickly joined Cove Cricket Club, where she attracted attention for the county's age-group selectors, and was whacking a hard ball around soon after her 11th birthday. The coaches use her "incredible enthusiasm" as an example to others, an example that is working wonders. All around the land, girls are engaged by cricket.
Rosie, Lily, Mimi and thousands upon thousands of others will be watching the World Cup with a tremendous sense of excitement. The England team works closely with Chance to Shine and does a marvellous job giving assemblies in schools and coaching and playing with the next generation. They have become heroes to these kids and will be acutely aware of letting them down.
Losing to India on Saturday was a bad blow. England have been through a period of change that began with the enforced retirement of Charlotte Edwards and has seen new structures, competitions and leaders. Of these, the appointment of Mark Robinson as coach has ruffled most feathers, for it was he who removed Edwards from the captaincy and began the new era. Heather Knight took over as captain and the young team, driven by Robinson's belief in the need for greater fitness and athleticism, appears to have responded well. England won their four warm-up matches comfortably, on the surface oozing confidence and direction, but they haven't won anything for a while, which preys on their minds. Coming second is no longer an option.
India, meanwhile, need watching. The captain, Mithali Raj, made a record seventh consecutive one-day half-century, against England, after the openers had put on a relatively untroubled 144. Harmanpreet Kaur, one of the growing band of women able to hit 70 metres and more, suggested threatening form during a cameo that carried India to an impressive 281 in their 50 overs. After a disastrous 2013 World Cup, the Indians have hit form at exactly the right time and, should they be faced with moments of crisis, have experience to fall back on.
West Indies memorably beat Australia in the final of last year's World T20 and are feared for their unpredictability. Deandra Dottin is a brilliant allrounder with a 38-ball T20 international hundred to her name and the coolest head under pressure with the ball. They are an awkward side to play against.
New Zealand have the quickest bowler in Lea Tahuhu, a fine all-round cricketer in Amy Satterthwaite, and a mighty ball-striker in Sophie Devine. Tahuhu is quite something, bustling in as she did in Australia earlier this year to help derail the world's No. 1-ranked team for 66 in Adelaide and 61 in Geelong. The White Ferns should never be discarded, as much for resolve as anything.
As ever in a major completion, Australia will take some beating. Alongside Lanning and Perry are a group of cricketers with pedigree and quality - Alyssa Healy, Jess Jonassen and Beth Mooney among them. But are they unsettled by the contract dispute that rages on at home? Will they be luckier with the weather than their male counterparts in the Champions Trophy? Is the batting more vulnerable than the team sheet suggests? Who will bowl under pressure at the death? These questions and more need answering because everything must come together at once if a World Cup is to be won. Their cruising start against West Indies needs perspective; Lanning is long enough in the tooth, and certainly tough enough, to know the reality of the task ahead of her.
To the people of England, however, on home turf, all that matters is that the India defeat is a minor diversion. The eight-team round robin, en route to establishing four semi-finalists, is the best global tournament format out there. It sorts wheat from chaff and gives time to regroup, should nerves grip early performances and misdirect them. The format happily suits England, whose growing band of supporters hopes that the names of Tammy Beaumont, Katherine Brunt, Laura Marsh, Anya Shrubsole, Danni Hazell*, Nat Sciver, and who knows, maybe Sarah Taylor too, are etched into history come Sunday, July 23, when the final is played at Lord's. Taylor had a rough year, dealing with illness and a loss of "self". It would bring great joy if she were alongside Knight when the cup is lifted. For that to happen, they must all clear their heads and react to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If nothing else, there are children to engage and inspire.
By the look of the total made against Pakistan, Knight's team have put out a marker and not a moment too late. You can stutter in these events but you cannot stagnate. After a nervy start, the shackles were thrown off: 377 is the second highest total ever in a World Cup match and both the captain and Nat Sciver made blistering hundreds. Game on.
*June 28, 4:23 GMT: The spellings of Brunt and Hazell have been fixed
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK