Australia virtually out of the T20 World Cup after only four days? Inconceivable. Australia losing to Sri Lanka for the first time in history? Inconceivable. And yet, for a few nerve-jangling hours in Perth, it was anything but inconceivable that after a two-year build-up and a wave of jingoism Australia might have to rely on other results and net run rates to keep the dream of playing in a sold out final at the MCG on International Women’s Day alive.
In the wake of Australia’s loss to India in the tournament opener there was bound to be a rise in tension: no more slip-ups were permissible. And yet the public face remained pragmatic and positive; it’s good for the tournament to be competitive, few teams go through a World Cup without a loss. Those statements may be true but, still… this is meant to be Australia’s all-conquering party.
The precarious nature of Australia’s position was heightened by the forecast in Perth on Monday. As the weather radar – and images of rain and hail – was shared on social media, the thought that Australia might have to share points with Sri Lanka because of a washout was, well, inconceivable.
While the elements could not be controlled, Australia’s performance was in their own hands and when they lost their third wicket with just 10 runs on the scoreboard the trickles of sweat could not be attributed to the heat and humidity. Let’s not forget Sri Lanka, perhaps overly excited at the sniff of an upset, dropped three catches and burned a review, leaving them no recourse to DRS when, as television replays revealed, Meg Lanning edged a delivery that should have cost her her wicket.
The ICC should be commended for their faith in the public’s growing interest in women’s cricket, largely off the back of the WBBL’s success. The organisers could easily have announced the final would be held at Australia’s largest cricket venue and felt confident any crowd in the tens of thousands would be heralded as a success. After all, the opening attendance at Sydney Showgrounds, at a shade over 13,000, smashed the record for the highest attendance at a standalone women’s game.
There is also a responsibility, and rightly so, not to give even the faintest appearance of favouritism towards any team. Throughout the history of World Cups in any code there has been pressure on the home team and the acceptance that its success will boost television numbers and ticket sales. But it’s hard to think of obvious examples where such a high bar has been set for a sport that has burgeoned so recently. Just a few years ago, attendances for internationals were in the tens, a far cry from hundreds or thousands, and to sell out the MCG the ICC must attract nearly 13 times the record-smashing opening night figures.
Nick Hockley, the CEO of both the men’s and women’s T20 World Cups, has espoused the reasoning of “if not now, when?”, regardless of which teams reach the final.
“It might be another 10 or 15 years before Australia has another major women’s event,” said Hockley after Australia’s victory in Perth. “So really, since the beginning of the planning, the overriding philosophy is that we’ve got this opportunity, we’ve got this moment in time and we’re absolutely going to make the most of it and that means not waking up in 2021 and thinking, ‘if only we’d played in a bigger stadium’.”
After Australia scraped home by five wickets with just three balls to spare, player of the match Rachael Haynes was questioned on Australia’s shaky start to the tournament and if the pressure of expectation was showing. She paused noticeably before offering a cautious answer.
“I think today showed a bit of our character, to be honest,” said Haynes. “World Cup tournaments aren’t easy and, playing at home, we’re actually really enjoying the opportunity to do it. But you can’t escape from the fact that it’s different from a normal series where perhaps you can drop a game here or there but you know you can get back in the contest. Whereas World Cup cricket you have to keep winning, that’s the nature of the beast. So yeah, I’m sure that there were a couple of nerves today but I hope today showed a lot of character that’s within the group and to get over the line right at the end there I think it’s hopefully going to create some form of momentum heading into the rest of the tournament.”
It was a careful forward defence of an answer, perhaps more circumspect than some shots played during Australia’s sometimes jittery chase. Australia may well have more nervous moments to come in this tournament. Their narrow victory over Sri Lanka has not given them a comfortable net run rate advantage over India or New Zealand, their main rivals for one of two semi-final berths.
On the other hand, it may increase anticipation in ways that thumping victories and a straightforward procession to the final would never have done. The consternation that Australia were so far ahead of the rest of the world and the competition would therefore be muted has been well and truly discarded. They are in a fight and must scrap in every remaining match but they are back on track and, at least for now, the inconceivable has been averted.