Stellenbosch, South Africa – A line of argument has become increasingly prominent among followers of international cricket in recent years: When there’s a women’s cricket World Cup, Australia’s first and only appearance should be in the final.
Albeit birthed in jest, the proposition has resurfaced before the 10-team Women’s T20 Cup in South Africa, which begins on Friday, with the hosts taking on Sri Lanka at Newlands.
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Defending champions, overwhelming favourites, reigning Commonwealth Games gold medallists, and the team with five trophies from the seven editions of the 20-over World Cup to date – Australia, the top-ranked limited-overs side in the women’s game, head into their title defence with an aura of invincibility. Within the touring party, though, the focus is on keeping things in perspective.
“We sort of don’t internally speak about those sorts of tags,” Australia head coach Shelley Nietschke told Al Jazeera. “We take every tournament for what it is: we don’t see ourselves as defending champs; we see ourselves as trying to be the winners of the 2023 World Cup because we’re not the defending champs of the 2023 World Cup.
“This is the first one in South Africa, so that’s the way we kind of like to view things and make sure that we’re doing everything to win that tournament. I think it’s about playing what’s in front of us and not listening to too much noise outside.”
Australia’s batting depth is unrivalled in women’s cricket, thanks to the likes of Alyssa Healy, Grace Harris, Beth Mooney, and captain Meg Lanning who can turbo-boost an innings at will. Add to that a steady supply of battle-hardened youngsters coming through the domestic Women’s Big Bash League competition, and Australia’s dominance becomes almost self-explanatory.
The variety offered by Alana King and Georgia Wareham’s legspin, Megan Schutt’s swing, and left-arm spinner Jess Jonassen make their bowling attack more well-rounded than most other teams. The inclusion of Ashleigh Gardner, the top-billed allrounder on the ICC Rankings, Tahlia McGrath, the number-one-ranked T20I batter, and all-time great Ellyse Perry, lend the squad balance and flexibility other countries can only envy.
With such a deep, talented squad and a formidable recent record – they have only lost one competitive match since the start of 2022 – Australia appeared well-placed to complete a hat-trick of T20 World Cup victories in three consecutive editions. It is a feat they achieved across the 2010, 2012, and 2014 iterations of the tournament and will hope to repeat in the final on February 26.
There is, however, some hope for the other teams taking part. Australia lost a warm-up match against Ireland in Stellenbosch on Wednesday and they botched a Super-Over face-off last December during a tour of India. However rare the instance, Australia can be challenged and overcome. Some opponents have successfully exploited weaknesses. In particular, Australia’s bowling can unravel when coming up against a feisty batting attack.
The teams best positioned to challenge Australia’s expected supremacy at the T20 World Cup are England, South Africa, India, and New Zealand.
Among them, only England, the winners of the inaugural edition of the tournament, have ever laid their hands on the coveted silverware in the 20-over format. The runners-up at the 2022 ODI World Cup will be boosted by the return of their designated captain Heather Knight, who has recovered from the hip injury which kept her out of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, where England failed to finish on the podium.
Veteran fast-bowling allrounder Katherine Scriver-Brunt and precocious allrounder Alice Capsey, who has made a timely recovery from a broken collarbone, should boost England’s chances in what’s likely to be Sciver-Brunt’s World Cup swansong.
England, alongside Ireland, Pakistan and West Indies, are in Group B with India, whose near-perfect campaign in the 2020 iteration culminated in a drubbing at the hands of Australia in the final before a record 86,174-strong crowd at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. With captain Harmanpreet Kaur injuring her shoulder during the final of the tri-series last week, where India finished second to eventual winners and hosts South Africa, the build-up to their campaign has been far from ideal.
Worse, the injured Smriti Mandhana, India’s vice-captain and experienced opener, looks unlikely to start at their tournament opener on February 12, against Pakistan. Though her injury has been not officially announced yet by the BCCI, Al Jazeera was present at India’s warm-up match against Bangladesh on Wednesday and spotted Mandhana sporting a heavily strapped middle finger on her left hand. It is understood she injured her finger while fielding in the previous warm-up match against Australia.
While uncertainty about their two big match-winners looms, India will take heart from their youth team’s title-winning performance at the inaugural Under-19 Women’s T20 World Cup last month. Teenage phenoms Richa Ghosh and Shafali Verma, who were both part of that squad, are sure starters for the senior World Cup, too.
A title triumph, however unlikely given the concerns about the availability of their captain and her deputy, would be the perfect segue for the Indians into the inaugural Women’s Premier League (WPL). A five-team IPL-style women’s T20 league that is pencilled in for a March 4 launch, the WPL caught global attention through the sale of its broadcast and franchise rights for close to $680m combined last month.
And there is also the player auction, scheduled for February 13 in Mumbai, the fourth day of the T20 World Cup. The buzz around the WPL auction means all 10 participating teams could face some potential “distraction”, as New Zealand captain Sophie Devine put it during the T20 World Cup captains’ news conference last week, while acknowledging the WPL would be an “enormous step for women’s cricket”.
“We’ve spoken as a team about letting people deal with it how they feel is best because, as Sophie said, it’s a little bit awkward and it’s just trying to embrace that and understand that it’s actually a really exciting time and you don’t have a lot of control over it,” Australia captain Meg Lanning said about the auction. “We’ve just got to wait and see.”
While the World Cup will bring its share of pressure for all teams, the hosts have had a particularly unsteady lead-up. Cricket South Africa’s non-selection of the team’s premier allrounder and designated captain, Dane van Niekerk, in the World Cup squad on grounds of failing a fitness test, has drawn heavy criticism.
Members of its World Cup squad have not been immune to feeling its ripples, either.
“It’s just about having a conversation as a team that we have to do a job now at the World Cup, and there are no time for any distractions,” Laura Wolvaardt, the South Africa opener, told Al Jazeera about the team’s approach amid the controversy.
“We had a good chat as a team that we now move forward and look at the games ahead. Obviously, a home World Cup is extremely important, so the more focused we can be on the games, the better it is for us.”
“It’s a mix of both excitement and pressure,“ she added. “There is a bit more pressure on us being the home side. They expect you to do well in the tournament but, at the same time, I’m going to have all of my friends and family at the stadium, so I think that’ll help ease the nerves a little bit.”