Danielle Wyatt lofts one on her way to a century

England's Danielle Wyatt is the only female batsman to score a T20I hundred (two, in fact) while chasing

© Getty Images

Analysis

The year batting in women's T20s went boom

Double-hundreds, innumerable sixes, power-hitting stars - some of it might be down to rule changes, and not a natural evolution of the game

Snehal Pradhan |

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the world's best swimmers stood on the starting blocks inside a shimmering metal and plastic rectangle called the Water Cube. When they dived, the records began to tumble. Not only because those athletes had spent four years honing their bodies to a fine edge, but because the playing field had changed, in more ways than one.

Yes, most of them wore controversial compression suits, but the arena itself aided their speed. The pool was about a metre deeper than most Olympic pools. The extra volume allowed the waves created by the swimmers to dissipate, which meant they had to fight less turbulence. In a sport where milliseconds decide medals, 23 world records were set. Athens, four years before, had not seen even ten.

For the last year, women's T20I seems to have been in its own Water Cube. Par scores have soared and batting records have been shot down. The new playing conditions that came into force last year seem to have a lot to do with it.

The ICC Women's Championship, which kicked off in 2013, chalked out a blueprint that men's cricket will soon follow; and multi-format series helped keep Test cricket alive, at least between England and Australia. Perhaps in the same spirit of progress, the ICC tinkered with the playing conditions in women's internationals from October 1, 2017, leading into the new World Cup cycle. Two new balls were introduced in ODIs, and the batting Powerplay was retained. Then came the big one: the number of fielders allowed outside the circle in non-Powerplay overs was reduced from five to four. This change was also applied to T20Is.

Among the first series held under the new rules was the Women's Ashes in October-November 2017, which gave us a prelude of the year to come. In the third and deciding T20I, Australia scored 178 for 2, with Beth Mooney getting her first T20 hundred, 117 off 70. Up until then, teams had always won when a batsman scored a hundred for them. Danielle Wyatt and England changed history, without changing that fact, when she made a century off 56 balls and England chased down the total with an over to spare.

The next few series showed similar patterns. India chased down their highest total (168), against South Africa in February 2018. A month later, they then set their highest total, 198, against England, only to see that chased down, courtesy another Wyatt century. In the same three-team tournament, Australia became the first top-ten side to cross the 200-mark since 2010. In their home summer, England brought that record down, and set up their own monolith: an even 250, on the back of a Tammy Beaumont century.

Before Harmanpreet Kaur's World Cup pyrotechnics, she produced impressive runs in the WBBL

Before Harmanpreet Kaur's World Cup pyrotechnics, she produced impressive runs in the WBBL © Getty Images

If that seems like a lot of centuries, it is. Before September 30, 2017, there were only three hundreds by women in T20I cricket. Since then, that number has swelled to nine. The Mooney-Wyatt game was the first time in the history of the sport that two hundreds came in the same game. Centuries were until recently so rare that ESPNcricinfo's records page didn't have a tab for the most T20I hundreds in a career. They still don't, but the way things are going, they will need to add one soon.

Average run rates have risen. Until September 2017, the average runs per over in women's T20Is was 5.84. Since October 2017, that figure has risen to 6.16, and for the top ten teams, it is 6.54.

The rising scores reflect the changed approach. For batsmen, there is now more opportunity to target boundaries since now there are only four, not five, fielders to stop them.

"In our preparation, we talk a lot about looking for the fifth gap," New Zealand coach Haidee Tiffen said to me earlier this year. Coaches too have had to abandon plans they used until recently. "We have a few KPIs [key performance indicators], and even ones that we wrote 12 months ago are null and void," said Matthew Mott, Australia coach. "I still remember the first Ashes I was involved with [2015] - the average winning score in T20 cricket was about 120. We were trying to score closer to 140, and even that was considered a bit over-the-top adventurous."

Mott's team is a prime example of how traditional coaching adages have come to be seen as obsolete in the new environment. Meg Lanning and Ellyse Perry, widely regarded as being the best two batsmen in the world, bat at No. 5 and No. 6 respectively in T20Is for Australia, giving them fewer overs to face. In the top four, Australia bat the more explosive Alyssa Healy, Mooney, Ashleigh Gardner and Elyse Villani (combined average strike rate of 121; Lanning and Perry combine for 111).

While the extra gap has encouraged batsmen to play more shots, they are also hitting the ball harder and longer. Powerful batsmen are now the norm for the top teams, and that trend is trickling down the ladder.

"Every team now has two or three hitters who can change the game," Harmanpreet Kaur, India's T20I captain, said to the ICC.

© ESPNcricinfo Ltd

They have also been given a head start by smaller boundaries. The ICC playing conditions specify that boundaries in women's internationals should be between 55 and 65 yards. When India women toured South Africa in February this year, 42 sixes were scored in the five-match series (and this was after one match was partially rained off). That tally was just one short of the 43 hit in the entire 2016 World T20, across 23 matches.

With my bowler's hat firmly on, I have been critical of such short boundaries, fearful women's cricket will come to closely resemble the men's game, where mishits routinely go for sixes. But Mark Robinson put forth a point of view worth considering when he spoke to me at the time of England's tour of India in March. "They [female cricketers] have played on boundaries that were not too big for them, but were quite intimidating, especially on slow wickets. So what we tried to do was experiment with smaller boundaries. Our challenge as coaches was to get them to express themselves, get rid of the fear. What they learned was, they don't have to overhit the ball. They learnt that they can trust their swing and hit sixes."

That much is true; in that tri-nation T20 series in India earlier this year (Australia were the third team), players regularly threatened the sightscreen, rendering the boundary size almost irrelevant.

On that tour, England had in their entourage Julian Wood, a coach who specialises in power-hitting. Wood has worked with the Australian team as well, an indication of how seriously teams are taking this aspect of the game. And the new playing conditions have given six-hitting a boost. From after the 2014 World T20 until September 30, 2017, the top ten teams hit 256 sixes in 110 matches, at an average of one every 97 balls. Since October 2017, 273 sixes have come in 83 matches, one every 60 balls - a massive rise. Overall, boundaries have become more frequent, from one every ten balls to one every 7.5.

© ESPNcricinfo Ltd

This also helps explain why the average first-innings score has risen from 121 to 139. However, that matters less than it used to. One of the biggest shifts in the game in the last year is how little runs on the board count. For the same period, 2014-2017, as above, chasing teams won 51% of the time, winning 56 and losing 52 games. Since October 2017, that number has risen to 63%, with chasing teams winning 46 and losing just 26 times. "Par scores are in excess of 160 on most grounds now, and teams are making 185 and not feeling safe," observed Mott.

An increase in the number of shots played should also mean more opportunities for the bowlers to take wickets. There have alreay been two T20I hat-tricks this year, which is one more than the last two calendar years put together. But on looking closer, the only thing that has changed for bowlers is their economy rates, fractionally. Wickets have fallen at an average of 18.96 in the 119 matches since October 2017. But in the same number of games before the rule change, wickets cost roughly the same, 18.45.

Batting-friendly pitches are a major contributor to the plight of bowlers. "It's not a pleasure bowling, as they literally take away everything," said South African quick Marizanne Kapp. She agreed that having only four fielders on the boundary after the Powerplay felt like the death overs lasted 14 instead of four overs. "It's not fair at all," she said. "I understand T20 cricket is about entertainment, but a good challenge between bat and ball is also exciting."

Both Robinson and Mott, though, think it's just a matter of time before the bowlers catch up.

"I think it will be pulled back slightly," Mott said. "There's a few ways it could go: extra pace could be a factor. But more realistically, and in the short term, it is variation and changes of pace." Cases in point: Megan Schutt's medium-pace inswing is now ranked the best in the world, and England's Jenny Gunn has developed a super-slow ball, which her team-mates have nicknamed "The Whiff", perhaps because it lingers in the air for so long. "We've already seen a real spike in the number of variations our bowlers are bowling," Mott said. "Most of our players probably had one slower ball before; now they have been working on two to three variations."

© ESPNcricinfo Ltd

There's more to it, though. Last August the Indian men's kabaddi team lost a game for the first time in their Asian Games history, falling 23-24 to South Korea. They were expected to come back strong and defend the gold medal that they have held since the introduction of kabaddi in the Games in 1990. Instead they were beaten in the semi-final by Iran, who went on to beat South Korea in the final.

The win hurt India for more than obvious reasons. Eighteen players from Iran and South Korea played in India's Pro Kabaddi League in the last two years. Ostensibly the foreign players seem to have gleaned enough about the Indians by playing in the league to help tip what was previoiusly an unbalanced scale.

It's a pain the Australian women's cricket team are familiar with. Twice in the last two ICC tournaments, they have been knocked out by the brilliance of players who have benefitted from playing in their Women's Big Bash League. The first time was the 2016 World T20 final against an unfancied West Indies team. There, Deandra Dottin conceded one run off the final over of Australia's innings to keep them to 148, still a formidable score. Then Hayley Matthews and Stafanie Taylor combined for a 120-run opening partnership that sealed the chase. All three had played in the WBBL since its inception. And in 2017, in the semi-final of the women's World Cup, Harmanpreet Kaur, who had made waves in her debut season for Sydney Thunder six months earlier, scored an unbeaten 171 to knock Australia out.

In his autobiography, Indian Olympic shooter Abhinav Bindra writes about the value of shooting abroad, and recounts the words of coach Laszlo Szucsak: "To polish diamonds, you need diamond dust."

The overseas players in the WBBL and in England's Super League are the cream of their country's talent. In those leagues, they get to play in domestic cricket of a considerably higher standard than their own. This naturally allows them to improve multiple aspects of their skill sets, not to mention get a look at opposition players, develop a feel for foreign conditions, and build confidence.

Some gains are more direct. During her Player of the Tournament-winning season with Western Storm, Smriti Mandhana spoke about how she was picking up the reverse sweep from England international Fran Wilson, and had asked Stafanie Taylor to tell her more about the pitches and the weather in the Caribbean. Along with central contracts, the WBBL and the Super League have done much to equalise international cricket.

Shorter boundaries and fewer fielders outside the circle have pushed run rates up in the women's game

Shorter boundaries and fewer fielders outside the circle have pushed run rates up in the women's game © Getty Images

And it's not only the top teams and players who are benefitting. In the third WBBL season, two Bangladeshi players spent time with franchises through an ICC programme for rookies. Legspinner Rumana Ahmed spent two weeks in the backroom of Brisbane Heat, even picking the brain of Stuart MacGill, while offspinner Khadija Tul-Kubra was embedded with Melbourne Renegades. Both took home lessons along with souvenirs.

"Before, we were doing very light gym and running sessions," said Rumana. "When I came back from the WBBL, I wanted to try to gain their physical fitness and hitting power. So I too began to train harder in the gym and work on my upper-body power." Both played pivotal roles in Bangladesh winning the recent Asia Cup; Rumana took three wickets and scored 42 not out when Bangladesh beat India in the group stage, and won the Player-of-the-Match award in the title match against the same team. Tul Kubra took two wickets in the final. "We are trying to make sure this WBBL experience was as much our team-mates' as it was our own." Ahmed said in an interview to ESPNcricinfo.

It may seem that overseas players have taken more out of these domestic T20 competitions than the competitions have out of them. But while the world remembers Harmanpreet's heroics, somewhere on a Cricket Australia hard drive are thousands of megabytes of footage of her facing all manner of bowlers in the WBBL, which will be dissected ahead of the World T20.

"I think it's an advantage and a disadvantage," said Harmanpreet. "Before, we played only for the country, and we hardly had a chance to meet foreign players. I think after WBBL and KSL, we see their culture, their game plans. So now we can think what their mindset is, we can imagine what the team will be thinking. These things will help." Interestingly, the success of the WBBL has coincided with a title drought for Australia; they won their last world title in 2014.

The cross-pollination of cricket knowledge that we are currently seeing is certainly good for the global game, a natural effect of stronger domestic systems. The changes arising from the playing conditions, though, are more a man-made phenomenon, and it might be too early to judge if those are for better or for worse. If pitches in the West Indies favour batsmen, the 2018 World T20 could prove to be the highest-scoring tournament in women's T20I history. If that happens, remember October 1, 2017, the day the world of women's cricket changed.

Snehal Pradhan is a former India and Maharashtra opening bowler, and now a freelance journalist. @SnehalPradhan

 

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