Jhe World Cup which begins on Friday will be New Zealand’s first chance to host the women’s tournament in 22 years. The 2000 edition, held in the pre-professional era when the game was still governed by the volunteer-run and perpetually cash-strapped International Women’s Cricket Council, looked quite different from everything that today’s players will be used to. For four weeks in November and December 2000, the eight teams were set up in student accommodation at Lincoln University in Christchurch, lived together, trained together and ate meals together.
It would be fair to say that women’s football has come a long way since then: the International Cricket Council took over in 2005 and professionalization has seeped in since 2014. While the 2022 tournament format is the same as from 2000 – an eight-team round robin ending in semi-finals and a final – the logistics are very different.
This time, the eight teams (Australia, England, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan, West Indies and Bangladesh) will embark on an odyssey around New Zealand. The tournament will be held at six venues in six different cities across the North and South Islands, countless charter flights and the use of five-star hotels to accommodate teams and support staff. The idea that Heather Knight and Meg Lanning might casually meet over breakfast before battling each other later that day — like Clare Connor and Belinda Clark did in 2000 — seems for least unlikely.
To view this as mere ‘progress’ would be to ignore the environmental impact of all this internal displacement (something we ignore at our peril, given the impact the climate crisis is already having on cricket). The idea of persisting with a six-city World Cup in the midst of a global pandemic – Omicron is spreading like wildfire among the New Zealand population as we speak – also seems, frankly, irresponsible.
Wanting to share hosting rights across the country when the tournament was conceived in 2019 is one thing, but the ICC has now had two years to rethink the schedule. Why couldn’t it have followed the model of the 2000 World Cup? Placing all teams in a single bubble (as was done for the 2020-21 Women’s Big Bash League) would have minimized the danger of a Covid outbreak, although it might have risked Knight and Lanning looking at each other with daggers over the coffee maker.
Instead, the ICC’s “contingency plan” involves the extraordinary introduction – announced last week – of a new rule: in the event of a Covid outbreak, teams will be allowed to field nine players, plus two “substitutes” within their management team. Players stopped being publicly critical – in a classic example of doublespeak, Lanning called the rule “interesting” – but if Australia didn’t win the final in Christchurch on April 3 because only nine of their players can hit, it just might revert to a shorter four-letter word. And she would be right. This is the first tournament for women’s soccer, not a Jumpers For Goalposts hit-out at the local park. What does the ICC think?
All told, the tournament’s warm-up period hasn’t exactly inspired confidence in cricket’s world governing body. The official photo of the captains, released last week, smacks of work: the stand on which the World Cup trophy rested sat on a brick, while the framing made Lanning look like she should enter a competition for the woman the largest in the world. Over the weekend, the ICC then caused confusion by publishing a scoreboard suggesting that South Africa had beaten India by four wickets in an official warm-up match, before another scoreboard doing the rounds on Twitter showing (correctly) a two-point win for India; the ICC reports had to be hastily corrected. We may be living in a new professional era for women’s cricket, but the ICC can still, it seems, spoil it with the best of them.
England fans will hope none of this circus will distract the defending champions from their goal of becoming back-to-back world champions. Even if they stay fit and healthy – and Heather Knight admitted at Friday’s press conference that a Covid-free World Cup was “probably unlikely” – it’s going to take time.
Lord’s glories of July 2017 felt a long way off in the one-day international leg of the recent Women’s Ashes series, when England were knocked out for 178, 129 and 163. The official word from the English camp is that a seven-day mandatory quarantine and a week in Queenstown allowed them to “park” their loss to Ashes. “These last two games have been a bit of mental and physical fatigue aside, and not a true representation of where we are and who we are,” Knight said last Friday. The coming weeks will show just how much bravado this is.
Who could steal the World Cup crown from England? It has to be said that for all the possibility of Covid uncertainty – as well as nine-man matches, there is also the prospect of rearranged matches (the ICC has said matches will be rescheduled if necessary) – there is a familiar feeling of inevitability surrounding the tournament: once again Lanning’s Australians are the heavy favorites.
Then again, they were also favorites 22 years ago; and things didn’t quite go as planned. Australia made the final but the 2000 World Cup ended with New Zealand crowned champions, after a stinging victory in four points. It’s the only time they’ve lifted a world trophy. Their current captain, Sophie Devine, who remembers watching the game on television when she was 11, seems to have been motivated by her ancestors. In a shock result on Tuesday, the warm-up match between the two teams saw Australia beaten by nine wickets, with New Zealand easily chasing their 322 run target. As for Guess? She hit a single 161 not out. History may be about to repeat itself.