ive years ago in an Australian boardroom, Kevin Roberts, the current chief executive of Cricket Australia, scratched his chin and suggested it might be time to run men’s and women’s Twenty20 World Cups as separate entities. From that kernel came the idea that Australia should try to fill the Sydney Cricket Ground for the Women’s T20 World Cup final in 2020. A couple of years later, the aspiration grew again, the SCG became the MCG and the hashtag #FilltheMCG was born. It seemed a huge undertaking, some would say downright potty: Lord’s was sold out for the 2017 50-over Women’s World Cup final, but it has a capacity of just 30,000. The MCG is the largest, most cavernous cricket ground in the world, so the risks were huge – nothing says damp squib like lonely tiers of empty seating.
The weather also threatened to ruin the party, rain washing out the first semi-final (and England’s chances). Australia would have been knocked out had their semi-final been abandoned, after Cricket Australia’s last-ditch appeal to the International Cricket Council for a reserve day was turned down, but the clouds parted at the last minute and after much scurrying about by groundstaff, Australia won a thriller against South Africa.
And so on 8 March 2020, International Women’s Day, 86,174 spectators – not quite the largest crowd ever for a women’s sporting contest (90,185 at the 1999 football World Cup final) but no one cared – queued and frolicked in what now seems shockingly carefree abandon outside the MCG. Katy Perry, resplendent in shocking pink, bashed out her hits before Megan Schutt and Harmanpreet Kaur led their players on to the pitch. It was a cakewalk, Australia winning by a whopping 85 runs with the player of the series, Beth Mooney, six-swatting 78 before India were bowled out for a paltry 99.
It was the best attended men’s or women’s T20 game ever, the most people to watch a women’s cricket match in history, the highest attended women’s sporting fixture in Australia, pick your statistic of choice. Fifty-three million watched on television and 1bn on the ICC’s digital channels. On the back of it Sunil Gavaskar again called on the BCCI to start a women’s Indian Premier League. It seemed the touchpaper had been lit on women’s cricket. But something was brewing that would change much more than the course of a sport.
Four days afterwards, the MCG announced that a member of the crowd who attended the final had been diagnosed with Covid-19. Twelve days later Australia closed its borders, stranding the newlyweds Lauren Winfield and Courtney Hill, and Winfield’s England teammate Amy Jones. On 23 March, the British government sent out its Stay at Home order. The England captain, Heather Knight, signed up for the NHS volunteer service.
Sport closed down, cricket closed down, and what emerged from lockdown is a hierarchical beast. The game is skint. Clare Connor, the managing director of women’s cricket, who is announced as the next MCC president in June, admits that men’s cricket may be prioritised in order to fill the coffers. The South African and Indian women’s tours are called off. The Hundred is cancelled, and Alex Hartley tells the media that she may be “stacking loo rolls in Tesco” by the end of the summer. In June 25 female players sign regional retainer contracts to help with financing, and in July club cricket restarts with fears about the cricket ball as a vector of disease at last dismissed. The rejigged domestic competition, the Rachael Heyhoe Flint trophy, bursts into life at the end of August, with each home team live-streaming the matches.
The ICC announces that it has postponed the women’s World Cup, due to be held in New Zealand in the spring of 2021, for a year. Knight, the politest of England captains, shares her disappointment on Twitter: “Pretty gutted to be honest. I know tough decisions have to be made right now & it would have taken a lot of work (and $$), but it was feasible in NZ. Hopefully it’s not an excuse for boards to put women’s cricket on the back burner for the next 12 months with no WC to prepare for.”
Netflix, which has sustained many during lockdown, releases Beyond the Boundary, an ICC-sanctioned, glossy, all-action, documentary on the Women’s T20 World Cup.
West Indies women sportingly agree to tour pandemic-hit England in late summer, and live in a bio-bubble. The five-match series is one-sided but in a post-Covid sporting world where female sports from girls’ football academies to internationals have been hit worse, it is a timely fillip. The young leg-spinner Sarah Glenn is player of the series with seven wickets at 12 and West Indies’ Deandra Dottin is the leading run-scorer on either side.
Elsewhere, only New Zealand’s and Australia’s women play internationals. South Africa’s and Pakistan’s women will return in January when they play three one-day internationals and three T20s under the African sun. India’s women, meanwhile, play just four matches in the BCCI’s T20 Challenge tournament since the start of the pandemic – while India’s men have feasted on a 60-match IPL and full tour of Australia, including three ODIs, three T20s and four Tests.
Finally, as December rolls over the hill, the ECB announces that 41 women players are being awarded professional contracts, postponed from pre-season. And the Women’s Big Bash finishes the year as the fourth most watched league in Australia and the only major league that grew its viewer hours in 2020.
As ever with Covid, the less established, poorer teams have come off worse. But for women’s cricket, that has come so far in the past 10 years, survival only of the fittest is just not good enough.
• This is an extract taken from The Spin, the Guardian’s weekly cricket email. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.