It was mid-afternoon on a muggy July Sunday when Anya Shrubsole put the finishing touches to the gold standard of World Cups. For one day shy of a month, English cricket put on a show like no other. It would be a spectacle with a fitting conclusion, with Shrubsole’s yorker dismantling the stumps of the forlorn Rajeshwari Gayakwad to close the curtains on a thrilling tournament. It was, unequivocally, a game-changer for the sport.
If last-gasp victory in the most drama-laden of finals was the icing on the cake, it was an appropriate finale to a watershed summer as Heather Knight’s side looked to inspire a new generation.
The Lord’s final was a sell-out, the 26,500-strong crowd shattering the previous record for a Women’s World Cup match. The game itself was the most watched cricket match of 2017 – a year that saw England’s men reach the Champions Trophy semi-final, and both the men and women travel to Australia for respective Ashes series.
More than 180 million people tuned in at some stage of the tournament – a 300% increase on the preceding edition, hosted haphazardly by India.
On the field too, England broke record after record. Shrubsole’s six-wicket spell was the best in World Cup Final history, while Tammy Beaumont and Sarah Taylor set a new competition record with a partnership of 275 against South Africa.
For Fran Wilson, however, a key member of the World Cup-winning side, it has been the response of aspiring youngsters that has proven most satisfying.
“The amount of times I hear girls say: ‘I want to play cricket for England, I want that as my job’ is amazing,” she tells me as we discuss Women’s History Month.
As Wilson explains, the rapid progress of the game’s status – the side were named BBC Sports Personality Team of the Year on the back of their success – makes it easy to overlook just how quickly the sport has moved forward.
“It’s really strange. I don’t think I’d even thought about women’s cricket going professional five years ago,” she says. “I was at university and was just playing county cricket, so it really came massively out of the blue.
“I think since that initial moment of going professional, it’s all just snowballed. It’s really good that we have Australia to compete with because it forces the ECB to keep pushing and to keep moving forward.
“That competition with Australia has really helped the progression a lot quicker. To be honest, I can see it continuing to progress at that rate for the next ten years probably.”
It is an opinion that is shared by Sanjay Patel, head coach of Middlesex Women, where Wilson plies her trade.
“I think women cricketers have become real role models,” he explains. “For me, it was similar to England winning the Ashes in 2005.
“At grassroots level, there’s interest now. Girls want to play cricket because they’ve seen England win a World Cup. Success breeds popularity. People want a piece of it.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if we saw a women’s version of the IPL in a few years, with India bankrolling it.”
However, unlike the men’s game where India have been at the forefront of the sport’s T20 revolution, it is the ECB who Wilsons credit with the dramatic advancement of women’s cricket. The Kia Super League was formed in 2016, providing a world-class stage for a mixture of English and overseas talent to show off their skills.
“They’ve done brilliantly,” Wilson says of the governing body. “The crowds and the atmosphere at the grounds is great, and that’s testament to the ECB’s hard work.
“There’s always more that could be done, but I think that women’s cricket in England has some really good people behind it, who are very passionate about it and hopefully they can get through to the powers that be who make all the decisions.
“I definitely think it’s a really marketable sport and an entertaining sport in its own right. I don’t think people should be comparing it to the men’s game. I think it’s dramatic and entertaining in its own way, regardless of strength and power.”
Yet, despite the marketability of a sport that captured the imagination of the public last year, both Wilson and Patel are well-aware of the challenges that the sport faces going forward.
Liz Dimmock, founder of Women Ahead, told me: “Research shows that 61% of sports fans want to see more women’s sport on TV – and yet women’s sport accounts for just 0.04% of the commercial investment going into all sport.”
Meanwhile, the most recent data provided by Women in Sport revealed a participation gap of more than one and a half million between men and women involved in regular sporting activity.
The hope from those at the ECB is that the success of the World Cup will alter these statistics – at least in cricket. 270 soft-ball festivals were introduced last year, with 60% of the 9,500 participants never having played the game before.
Patel, who is also in charge of cricket at Mill Hill School, explains that at Belmont – a prep school linked to Mill Hill, cricket is now the main summer sport for all girls.
“We’ve pretty much scrapped rounders and now cricket is basically the main summer sport for girls. A lot of schools are doing that now. My big vision is in about three years to have an all-girls team with a full fixture list.
“The big frustration for me and for the top girls though is that unless you’re in a pathway or at one of the top clubs, the quality of cricket you’re playing isn’t great. That will improve with the younger girls coming through, but that may still take five or six years.”
However, for women’s cricket to continue to grow and become sustainable, the current domestic system must be improved. While the Kia Super League has been a resounding success, the bread-and-butter of the county format is at something of a crossroads. For Wilson, who is on an ECB central contract, securing similar deals for non-international players is vital if the strength of women’s cricket is to be maintained.
“I’d love to see cricket being the number one sport for girls in this country,” she says. “It’s probably still quite a way off that at the moment but career-wise, it’s probably up there with football, to be honest.
“But domestic women’s county cricket in England needs to be sorted out. It needs a lot of money pumped into it. If we’re going to create good England teams in the future, it’s essential that we have a sustainable system beneath the international level.
“I personally think that means professional county cricket. I don’t know if there are the finances and resources for that, but I think the ECB need to do that in the next five or six years. Australia have got that already and I think if we’re to keep up, then that’s something that’s going to have to happen.”
Currently, county players are paid based on off-field appearances at events, and for coaching at local clubs. Only the centrally contracted players and overseas signings receive money for playing.
From Wilson’s perspective, it is this fact – coupled with the recent professionalisation of England’s international side – that has allowed the stars of the women’s game to remain so involved in raising the game’s profile at grassroots level.
“Because a lot of the girls that play for England now grew up as non-professionals, we’ve always been very close to the grassroots just because we were grassroots cricketers ourselves. Five years ago, I wasn’t getting paid so it’s a lot easier for us to do that than a lot of the men’s players.
“A lot of the men will have grown up and then gone professional straight out of school, so I can imagine that it is quite easy to lose touch in that environment. I guess as women cricketers, we need to do everything we can to maintain that connection with the grassroots level.
“I think it’s quite important as well for spectators to watch a team and to feel connected to that team, and I feel like that’s why we had such great support at the World Cup because young girls and everyone could relate to us. We’re not really that different.”
Patel concurs, with his role at Middlesex his first in the women’s game. “They love what they do and they’re very proud but they do it all without an ego,” he says. “They’ll be very good at being ambassadors for their sport. They’re very humble and approachable. I don’t think there’ll be a problem with promoting the sport to that next generation. They’ll really lift women’s cricket. They’re just good human beings.”
And for Wilson, the hope is that all this pays dividends in the long-run. The ideal scenario, she says, is that young girls are able to understand the sheer breadth of opportunities available to them within women’s sport – both on and off the field.
“There’s been no better time to get involved in women’s sport really – especially for young girls, and not necessarily just on the playing side of things. Obviously, it’s amazing to play for England but there are also loads of careers that go hand-in-hand with professional women’s sport.
Research by Sports Coach UK exposed the fact that just 12% of Level 3 coaches across the sporting landscape were female. It is a figure that Wilson hopes will change as the sport grows.
“Making sure that we keep developing female coaches, female leaders in sport is crucial. With all the new opportunities we get as players, new opportunities will crop up for support staff, physios and loads of other jobs.
“I would like to coach in the future, but I hope that over the next five or ten years, females come through the professional game and they’ve got the skillset to become some of the best coaches in the world. I think that’s just as important as the playing side of things.”
Featured photograph: Wikimedia Commons