Australian women's cricket draws closer to golden age

For years the Australian women's cricket team has led the way in women's sport both domestically and internationally, and after another hugely successful summer they've earned the right to stand on their own two feet.

One of the most successful national teams, for both men and women, the Australian team has built a small but dedicated following over decades, but it's been in the past four or five years that the side has truly worked its way into Australia's sporting consciousness.

Four time T20 World champion and six time ODI World Cup winner, Australia has regularly been the best side in the world in both formats. Following the 2018/19 season they maintained the No.1 ODI spot, while a stylish and emphatic T20 World Cup victory in the Caribbean, saw Australia cement their standing at the top of T20 rankings. Combined with the growth of the domestic T20 competition, the WBBL, it is success that's seen women's cricket in Australia edge closer to a golden era.

Four years after the launch of the WBBL, Cricket Australia has seen the continued growth of crowd numbers and broadcast viewers, and capped off the latest season with a sold out final and the most watched WBBL game ever with a peak audience of 812,000. Off the back of this year's boom, Cricket Australia will now take the huge step in moving the competition standalone for 2019/20.

"We've always had really strong viewership numbers," head of BBL and WBBL Kim McConnie told ESPN. "Which is fantastic, but for people to actually say 'I'm going to go spend the day at the cricket' just shows the care factor is beginning to increase as well.

"We're now at that tipping point. It feels like this season was the season that many Australians woke up and thought 'wow, this is great cricket'."

For McConnie, going standalone is of huge importance to the growth of the women's game. While the competition gained its legs off the back of BBL double-headers that opened fans' eyes to the entertainment and talent within the WBBL, going alone gives the competition the opportunity to move out from behind the shadow of the men's tournament and truly shine.

"It's earned the right to stand on its own two feet, because it is such great cricket. To me it was really reinforced during the final. We had an amazing grand final, 26th of January, Australia Day, fantastic game that went down to the last ball. We got some great [media] coverage that night and the next morning, and then it was gone. The press and the journalists had moved on, as they had to, to the international (game) and (mens) BBL.

"But it just really reinforced to me that you could have just had the most amazing game, but while you're still in the shadow of international cricket and BBL, it's really hard to get the time to shine, which is what stand alone will give us."

Australian captain Meg Lanning echoed McConnie's sentiments. After her team the Perth Scorchers missed the final series, Lanning was forced to watch from the sidelines as two of the best domestic women's games played out.

In front of exuberant crowds, the semifinals produced some of the most memorable cricket of the summer. Both games went down to the wire, with the Sydney Sixers forcing the game into a super over through one of the most incredible run-outs you'll see on a cricket pitch, while the Heat pulled off the great escape with a catch on the boundary on the final ball to claim their finals spot. It was the conversation starter and the type of performances the competition needed to continue challenging public perception.

"I think the timing is right for that [standalone WBBL]," Lanning told ESPN. "We saw with the standalone semifinals this year that they were really successful and the crowds got behind it. Hopefully with their own window there at the start of the summer they can build a bit more attention and exposure for the WBBL.

"The cricket's really exciting, we attract the stars of the game which shows how highly the tournament is held. I think the timing of it is really good and hopefully everyone gets behind it."

The performances from the Australian women and the WBBL came at the exact right time for Cricket Australia who had suffered a huge blow in the public's trust for the sporting code.

After the infamous ball tampering scandal in South Africa in March, 2018 turned into a tumultuous year for cricket in Australia. The Longstaff review into the sporting body brought several cultural issues to light within Cricket Australia and the men's side, while the men's national team struggled to perform on the pitch. In the same investigation, they found "women's cricket remains unaffected" by the same cultural problems and in the 12 months since the incident women's cricket has continued to soar and embed itself in the Australian sporting psyche.

It's a team culture Lanning is proud of developing. With it, the side has seen continued success on the international stage as well as turn the likes of Lanning, Ellyse Perry, Alyssa Healy and fellow teammates into household names. But it didn't come quickly and required everyone to buy into it.

"Firstly we want to enjoy what we do," Lanning told ESPN. "That's been a really big focus for us over the last 18-months, it's actually just realising what a privileged position we're in and how lucky we are to be playing cricket as our job essentially.

"We've said we want to play with smiles on our faces through the good and the bad, because that's the nature of cricket and I think some of that filters through the rest of our culture. It's just about being respectful, with everyone you come in contact with, within the team or outside.

"If you play your role for the team that's going to help us win. Perhaps a couple of years ago that probably wasn't as strong as it could have been. Now we've got everyone on board with contributing to the team and we're all moving in one direction, and I think that's probably been the biggest shift."

But it's not just the national side that continues to lead the way, with Cricket Australia making strides off the pitch in both the boardroom and grassroots level.

Releasing their second Press for Progress report on Monday, CA laid out their detailed approach into improving grassroots numbers, developing more leadership positions and creating a clearer elite pathway. With this release they've made it clear they understand how important women are to the growth and development of the sport; not just on the field, but in the crowd and in positions of leadership.

Key aspirations for CA include doubling female representation on the Board of Cricket Australia by 2022, grow female participation to at least 660,000 in the same timeframe, with a projected 504,000 for the 2018/19 season, and grow female attendance at international cricketing events to at least 40 per cent. They're big numbers, and will be challenging to reach, and according to Lanning will require the Australian team to play a big part.

"I think Cricket in Australia has been leading the way for women's sport and have been doing that for a number of years," Lanning told ESPN. "In terms of opportunities, but also resources, supporting us on and off the field; it's great that it's one of their most important factors moving forward.

"We've got a role to play in regards to being really good role models and making sure we're playing good cricket, enjoying ourselves and making young girls out there want to come play cricket. I think it's [women's cricket] is in a great spot and we're really excited to be a part of it."

However, public perception still needs to change according to CA. As playing numbers grow alongside crowd and broadcast numbers, cricket still isn't viewed as a gender-balanced sport and for many still isn't considered a sport for women.

Surprisingly, McConnie says it is cricket's most rusted on supporters who have turned in to women's cricket's biggest advocates and who acknowledge the strong talent in the WBBL and international competitions. It's the general public the sport is still working on.

"The general person on the street still has the perception of 'is women's sport as good?'" McConnie told ESPN. "Our strongest supporters and our most passionate supporters are cricket passionates, because they love the fact that this is great cricket. But when you step outside that the general perception of the average Australian is they still don't believe women's sport is as good.

"Great cricket helps smash those perceptions and even now people are talking about the [WBBL] finals. Not only were there great games, they sparked conversations. That's what we need to do, we need to spark the conversation, get people to look up and go 'oh hold on a sec, I've got to check this out'."

On Friday, International Women's Day, the year-long countdown to the Women's T20 World Cup final in Melbourne will officially begin. Alongside it, Cricket Australia's campaign to break the world record for attendance to a women's sporting event - 90,185 set 20 years ago at the FIFA Womens World Cup.

The challenge has been put to the people. The Australian side has been one of the best in the world for decades, it's time the public change their perception and realise we're now entering the golden era of women's cricket.