Women's cricket is fighting its corner. In this country the game is growing, and quickly, the fastest-expanding female team sport so it is said.
The Chance to Shine campaign, utilising the profiles of the England stars, is doing immense work in attracting youngsters to the game in the first place and is now engaged in the battle to hang on to their attention. There are now approaching 600 clubs with female sections whereas only a few years ago there were fewer than 100. In Australia, too, stung perhaps by the dominance of the England team in all three formats they play, there has been better investment and improvement as a result. Cricket is on the rise among Caribbean women, and in Pakistan. There are plenty of grounds for optimism that a form of the game so often ignorantly derided as unworthy of attention is starting to be recognised for its true value as an offshoot of, rather than competitor to, men's cricket.
So there is an irony in India hosting the Women's World Cup, the 50-over-a-side competition that begins in Mumbai on Thursday. A country whose cricket board waves its wad of money beneath the noses of the rest of the world is, in terms of financing and general recognition, as dismissive of the development of women's cricket in its own territory as it is aggressive in its promotion of aspects of the men's game. This week, in an interview for Cricinfo, Diana Edulji, the former captain of the Indian women's team and an iconic figure, made a withering attack on the BCCI and its lack of commitment to the female game, in which she calls the governing body "discriminatory" and interested only in paying "lip service". BCCI runs women's cricket because it has to, rather than because it wants to, is the general message which, if true, is a sad indictment of a system that has produced such outstanding cricketers and role models as Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami.
Even before the tournament has begun there has been controversy. It was to take place exclusively in Mumbai. Then came reported threats of disruption from the Mumbai-based, right-wing Shiv Sena political party should the Pakistan women play there. Evidence of BCCI priorities then emerged when all Women's World Cup matches, which were scheduled three years ago, were moved from the Wankhede Stadium, at the request of the Maharashtra Cricket Association, in order to accommodate a Ranji Trophy final involving Sachin Tendulkar's team, Mumbai, and now that they have won (inside three days) a further game between Mumbai and the Rest of India. When a global tournament can be rescheduled to accommodate a domestic one (and this is supposed to be an ICC rather than BCCI event), it tells much of priorities and lofty disdain. Five venues will now be utilised, two of them in Cuttack, on the other side of the country near the east coast, and three in Mumbai, including the lovely old Brabourne Stadium in which the final will be staged on 17 February.
Against this background, Charlotte Edwards and her England team will be attempting to hold on to the trophy they won with a four-wicket win over New Zealand in Australia four years ago. It will not be an easy task, as they discovered when they failed to defend their Twenty20 title in Sri Lanka last year: worryingly, when it mattered, a side that had raised the bar for the women's game blew their chance.
They have all the ingredients for a successful defence, including six of the side that won the last final, in a format that they believe to be their strongest suit. Competition for places means they have a strong squad within which are contained the unique talents of Sarah Taylor, maturing rapidly as a cricketer, the experience of Edwards, the incredible fielding skills of Lydia Greenway, the pace bowling of Katherine Brunt and a whole raft of spinners led by Holly Colvin and Laura Marsh, with Danielle Hazell, taking five wickets in their second warm-up game against New Zealand. That they lost that match is a warning, though. Getting to the top is one thing but staying there quite another: others are catching up and it is Australia who appear to have hit the ground running hardest and look like the team to beat.
Group A: England (A1), India (A2), West Indies (A3) and Sri Lanka (A4)
Group B: Australia (B1), New Zealand (B2), Pakistan (B3) and South Africa (B4)
Top three teams in each group take their points forward to the Super Six stage
Each team in the Super Six meets the three other sides they are yet to play, with the top two moving on to the final
India v West Indies (d/n), Mumbai (Brabourne Stadium) (9am GMT)
England v Sri Lanka, Mumbai (Brabourne Stadium) (3.30am GMT)
New Zealand v South Africa, Cuttack (DCG) (3.30am GMT)
Australia v Pakistan, Cuttack (Barabati Stadium) (3.30am GMT)
India v England, Mumbai (Brabourne Stadium) (3.30am GMT)
Sri Lanka v West Indies, Mumbai (MIG) (3.30am GMT)
New Zealand v Pakistan, Cuttack (Barabati Stadium) (3.30am GMT)
Australia v South Africa, Cuttack (DCG) (3.30am GMT)
India v Sri Lanka (d/n), Mumbai (Brabourne Stadium) (9am GMT)
England v West Indies, Mumbai (BKC) (3.30am GMT)
Pakistan v South Africa, Cuttack (Barabati Stadium) (3.30am GMT)
Australia v New Zealand, Cuttack (DCG) (3.30am GMT)
Super Six fixtures
Teams retain their ranking from the group stage no matter where they qualify – for example, England will be A1 whether they finish first, second or third. If A4 (Sri Lanka) or B4 (South Africa) qualify, they will adopt the ranking of the team they replace
7th/8th place play-off, Cuttack (DCG - or Barabati Stadum if Pakistan feature) (3.30am GMT)
A1 v B1, Mumbai (Brabourne Stadium) (3.30am GMT)
A2 v B2, Mumbai (BKC) (3.30am GMT)
A3 v B3, Cuttack (Barabati Stadium) (3.30am GMT)
A2 v B1, Mumbai (Brabourne Stadium) (3.30am GMT)
A1 v B3, Cuttack (Barabati Stadium) (3.30am GMT)
A3 v B2, Mumbai (Brabourne Stadium) (3.30am GMT)
A1 v B2 (d/n), Mumbai (Brabourne Stadium) (9am GMT)
A3 v B1, Mumbai (MIG) (3.30am GMT)
A2 v B3, Cuttack (Barabati Stadium) (3.30am GMT)
5th/6th place play-off, Cuttack (Barabati Stadium) (3.30am GMT)
3rd/4th place play-off, Mumbai (Brabourne Stadium) (3.30am GMT)
d/n), Mumbai (Brabourne Stadium) (9am GMT)
How to follow the matches
Sky Sports will offer live coverage of matches at the ICC Women's World Cup while BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra will have ball-by-ball commentary on all England's games and the final.
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