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The Ashes: Can women save test cricket?

The Australian Cricket Team is comprised of world-class athletes, topping international rankings with formidable run rates and intimidating bowling averages. We are the reigning world champions in both the 20 and 50 over formats, with the 2014 win in Bangladesh making us the three-peat world champions of the T20 format.

Over the next 2 months, we have our opportunity to regain the ashes from archrivals, England, and make the Australian Southern Stars the holders of every major cricket title. Whilst the Southern Stars are dominating the game, articles such as the ABC’s ‘6 things you probably didn’t know about cricket’ listing the fact that women play an Ashes series at number 3 is a classic demonstration of how far we have to go in the eyes of the average Australian cricket fan.

In an age where the pure form of the game is under threat of total extinction, it is increasingly important that the history and traditions of our game are known and cherished.

Many cricket fans don’t know the history of the Ashes, women’s or men’s. This article is my attempt to promote the history of our game, and highlight why women’s cricket has the unique opportunity to evolve into the modern age and save test cricket.

After all, we invented overarm bowling, we were the first to hold a 50 over world cup, and it was a woman that created the legend that is ‘the Urn’; it seems only fitting that we now have the opportunity to save true cricket.

All cricket fans have heard of ‘the Ashes’, and most are aware that the concept of the Ashes was born in 1882 when the London Sporting Times printed an obituary following Australia’s first victory on English soil.

The obituary famously stated that English cricket had died, and that “the body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia”. The obituary and the idea that English cricket was dead gained traction among the fans, so much so that the English Captain, the Hon Ivo Bligh, publicly vowed that he would win back the Ashes on their next tour to Australia; England won that next series in Australia 2-1.

There are several theories of the origin of the urn, and it’s contents, including that the ashes are those of bails, a match ball, a bat, even that they are the ashes of a woman’s veil.

The most popular version states that following the series win in Australia, a woman named Florence Morphy and a group of her friends took the bails following a social match in Sunbury, Victoria.

The women burned the bails and placed the ashes into one of Morphy’s perfume bottles that resembled an urn. Morphy presented the urn to Bligh and stated that he could now return the ashes to England as he had promised.

In 1884, Bligh and Morphy were married and the urn resided on the mantle piece at their home in Kent. Following Bligh’s death, Morphy bequeathed the urn to the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) for it to be kept safe and on display at Lords, where it has resided ever since.

This is the reason why the urn does not return to Australia following a series win. The urn was a personal gift and it has since become a symbol of the contest, but it is not a trophy to be won.

Having been to Lords and stood in front of the urn, I can say that it is an extraordinary experience for a traditionalist to see the object of such sporting history so close up.

The urn itself is only 11cm tall and made of terracotta; it is now old and quite fragile, making tours of the urn to Australia a very rare and special event. The urn has toured Australia only twice, in 1988 and 2006/7. The timber base was secured under the urn by the MCC to provide additional stability.

The Urn.

The Urn.

Since the first ‘Ashes Tour’ of 1882, the tournament has seen various changes. Firstly, it was originally played over 3 matches, now it is a 5 match series; the introduction of ‘the snicko’ and the third umpire are marks of the impact modern technology has had on the game.

However, in essence, the game has not changed and although test cricket is still played outside of the ashes series, it is dying; the Ashes series remains that last true bastion of the game of cricket.

The introduction of 50 over cricket in the 1960’s and it’s explosion into world cricket driven by Kerry Packer in the 1970s and 1980s dragged cricket into the modern age of short attention spans and colourful television spectacles.

This was taken even further by the introduction of 20 over cricket in the early 2000’s and now the Indian Premier League (IPL), and the Big Bash League (BBL) have taken it to yet another level. In 2015, test cricket has become as fragile as the urn itself.

So, with the state of our great game reduced to ramp shots and switch hits, how can women save true cricket? Unlike every other aspect of the game, it is unlikely that the men’s Ashes series will ever change drastically, whilst purists like me appreciate this, unfortunately it may see the interest in true cricket die with this generation.

However, perhaps due to the fact that women don’t have the same level of history rooted into ‘the Ashes’, we can use it to evolve test cricket in a way that the men can’t and capture the attention of the next generation. To do this, some issues need to be addressed and the history of our game needs to be understood.

England and Australia have seen a women’s first class series since 1931, but it was not until 1998 that the term ‘The Ashes’ was adopted.

The women’s trophy varies from the men’s, although holds a similar concept of a chalice containing ashes. At a ceremony at Lords in 1998, a copy of the Women’s Cricket Association (WCA) constitution, a rulebook, and a miniature bat signed by the English and Australian teams were burned. The ashes were then entombed into a wooden cricket ball made from a 300 year-old yew tree.

The Women’s Ashes trophy.

The Women’s Ashes trophy.

Until 2013 the Women’s Ashes were played similar to the men’s and consisted solely of test matches, or of a single test match rather than a series; however the lack of strong historical significance to the Ashes and the urn has enabled the women’s game to evolve.

In 2013, the women’s Ashes series was modified to include all 3 formats of the game. The Women’s Ashes is now decided by a combination of one Test match, three ODI’s, and three T20’s.

The point’s structure originally allocated 6 points for the Test match, and 2 points for each of the short form games; however, the 2015 series will see the test match worth 4 points to facilitate a more exciting tournament.

In addition, the limited over games will also count toward the World Cup qualifiers. This new format and points system enables cricket fans to consider a Test match as part of a more modern and exciting tournament.

The brand name of ‘the Ashes’ facilitates support and interest from purists, like me, whilst still providing the ‘quick hit’ excitement for the younger generation and hopefully drawing their interest to the test component.

Some have claimed that women’s tests are not as interesting to watch as the skill level produces poor test performances. Whilst there may be truth in this statement in the current set up, this is not due to women being somehow less capable than men.

The elements of truth here are not due not to gender, but to several factors that can be addressed if the format were supported.

Firstly, the amount of Test cricket played by women is almost negligible. Australia has played 12 Test matches this century. That is in comparison to 159 ODIs and 76 T20s. Domestically, women don’t play Test cricket in Australia at all.

Australian domestic cricket consists solely of a WT20 tournament, which will be replaced this year with the Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL), and the 50 over tournament in the Women’s National Cricket League (WNCL).

With 12 test matches in 15 years, it’s hardly surprising that the standard of the game may be a touch wanting. Ask any fan of Test cricket what is so great about the game and the answer will likely be the mental determination and stamina of the players, and the strategies of the captains to mentally dominate and wear down their opposition.

To me, Test cricket in many ways is more aligned to chess, whilst T20 cricket could be more closely aligned to baseball. No team can be expected to play at the most one game a year under drastically different conditions to what they usually train and prepare for, and perform at the same level.

Secondly, we could consider pitch preparation in order to spice up the women’s game. Former Australian captain Lisa Sthalekar has argued that should a women’s day 1 Test wicket be prepared more similarly to a day 3 wicket, then the women’s game would generate higher scores and create more opportunities for the spin bowlers; thereby creating a more marketable brand of Test cricket.

The governing bodies of both Australian and English cricket must support women’s exposure to the test environment and listen to legends of the game, such as Sthalekar, and adapt their preparation accordingly.

Thirdly, we could look at the ball used. The laws of cricket dictate that women use a smaller and lighter ball than men. The smaller circumference accounts for female bowlers generally having smaller hands.

However, the ball must also be approximately 10 grams lighter for women’s matches. This may not sound like a big difference, but the laws of cricket aside, the laws of physics suggest that this lighter ball has a direct effect on pace, swing, spin, and power off the bat.

Perhaps in the past women were aided by a lighter ball, however in today’s game where women are bowling in excess of 120kph the question should be asked; with the powerful athletes in our game today, why are we still restricted to a lighter and loftier ball?

In addition to weight, perhaps the white ball would also have an effect on test cricket. Traditionally, the classic cherry red Kookaburra is the standard in test cricket. The white ball was introduced with the advent of limited over matches to enable the ball to be seen more clearly under lights by players and television viewers.

Although the manufacturers state that the balls are manufactured using the exact same process, many reputable players have argued that the white ball swings more, and stings more.

Amateur testing using a specialised bowling machine has supported this observation. This may be due to the coating placed on the white ball to keep the leather from scuffing and dulling its bright colour throughout the match.

The women’s game certainly has the opportunity to revive true cricket. If the combination of 10 additional grams and a white coating on the ball results in greater spin, swing, and pace, then use of the white ball for test matches would increase the standard of bowling; and once the batters adapt, the greater pace on the ball will also translate to greater power off the bat.

Should women be given more opportunity to play in Test conditions, and appropriate pitch preparation is undertaken, in time the standard of these matches will naturally rival the men.

The blending of all three formats into a single tournament, with the prestige brand of ‘the Ashes’, has the potential to re-invigorate interest in Test cricket.

The recent adjustment of the points system to make the overall tournament more exciting and less of a ‘foregone conclusion’ following the results of the only Test will also increase spectator interest.

Whilst television coverage, promotion, sponsorship, and international and domestic player payments form a significant part of this conversation, there is simply not enough space in one article to cover these issues.

So, stay tuned for my next article where I will give these issues the attention they deserve. If Cricket Australia and the English Cricket Board truly supported the Women’s Ashes by promoting and marketing it with the same enthusiasm they do the men’s series, the Women’s Ashes will provide an exciting tournament for my parents generation as much as it will for the juniors of today; and by doing so, save test cricket.

The Southern Stars kick off their campaign to reclaim the Ashes with an ODI at Taunton on July 21st.

This time, our trophy will come home with us.

The Women’s Ashes Series 2015 can be live streamed via cricket.com.au

History of the Women’s Ashes

Women’s first class series – Pre Ashes

Season Host Tests

Played (sched)

Aust Eng Draw Series Result Holder at

Series End

1934-35 Australia 3 0 2 1 England England
1937 England 3 1 1 1 Drawn England
1949-50 Australia 3 1 0 2 Australia Australia
1951 England 3 1 1 1 Drawn Australia
1957-58 Australia 3 (4) 0 0 3 Drawn Australia
1963 England 3 0 1 2 England England
1968-69 Australia 3 0 0 3 Drawn England
1976 England 3 0 0 3 Drawn England
1984-85 Australia 5 2 1 2 Australia Australia
1987 England 3 1 0 2 Australia Australia
1991-92 Australia 1 1 0 0 Australia Australia

Women’s Ashes

1998 England 3 0 0 3 Drawn Australia
2001 England 2 2 0 0 Australia Australia
2002-2003 Australia 2 1 0 1 Australia Australia
2005 England 2 0 1 1 England England
2007-2008 Australia 1 0 1 0 England England
2009 England 1 0 0 1 Drawn England
2010-11 Australia 1 1 0 0 Australia Australia

Women’s Ashes – Tri-Format series

Season Host Single Test ODIs T20s Points Series Result Holder at

Series End

2013 England Draw Eng 2-1 Aus Eng 3-0 Aus Aus 4-12 Eng England England
2013-14 Australia England Aus 2-1 Eng Aus 2-1 Eng Aus 8-10Eng England England
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Sally Thompson played AFL and cricket from a young age, has tried her hand at basketball and softball, and now plays ice hockey. Sally is keen to promote all women's sports and is currently compiling material to write a book about her primary passions, cricket and AFL.

2 Comments

  1. iron gloves

    I have followed cricket all my life and played (until about forty years of age). I believe what was the greatest game in the world has been reduced to a joke by the introduction of T20 cricket. I think Womens test cricket should stay just that Test cricket. Play three tests and limit each innings to thirty overs (or some suitable number) forget T20 andODI’s

    1. Sally

      Personally, I agree. I would much rather see a 5 test series. Full tests though, not reduced overs. And played across the country so everyone has the opportunity to go to the games. But unfortunately there aren’t many of us purists left. I think the inclusion of T20 & ODIs is a smart move to get the cricket fans of today involved in the test component.

      Also, ‘Iron Gloves’ could be the greatest user name I’ve ever seen!

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