Authors: Rio Sports
Double centuries creep up on you. The first hundred, and you think the player is done. They often feel the same, hence Mark Waugh’s career. From 70 to 100 is a gulf, 100 to 130 is an addendum. The 150 milestone feels kind of token. OK, I’ll clap. Then in the upper 170s, you abruptly realise – wait. This is on.
So it was with Ellyse Perry last weekend at North Sydney Oval. It had been all patience, no alarms. Then wickets began to fall, the ninth with her on 192. Tension ratcheted up. Megan Schutt hung in. On 194, everyone visited the fence bar midwicket. Perry went over her, celebrating as the crowd called six. The umpires called four. Groans. Nerves. Try again. A drive dead straight down the ground. Four.
The internet blew up. Perry trended worldwide. The crowd of nearly 4,000 – unprecedented for a women’s Test – roared its approval on every replay. Recurring were various questions, rhetorical and otherwise: how good is this? Why don’t we see it more often? Why isn’t it on TV? Backlit starkly by this glow was one uncomfortable fact: Australia’s next Test will likely be in August 2019.
If you enjoyed the innings, you can thank Clare Connor. On partisan lines, England’s former captain and current director of women’s cricket would have preferred to see Perry dismissed. But without Connor, no one would be playing women’s Test cricket at all.
“If we’re looking at the facts of the matter, it doesn’t really exist,” she said flatly in our October interview. “I played in a three-match Test series in 1998 in England which was an amazing experience.” But three games became two, then one. “It had become tokenistic and… it didn’t have enough meaning, almost, for us to defend its position. With the multi-format Ashes, we’ve created something the players love and which you can build a narrative around.”
The multi-format series was Connor’s idea, and apparently a hard sell. A two-Test version was discarded, with Cricket Australia eventually agreeing to the current model for 2013-14. “So we’re in survival mode, aren’t we, with England-Australia, and we’ve found something that just about keeps it in some form for now. But I could imagine that’s going to be constantly challenged.”
Perry’s moment brought a rush of enthusiasm. But that’s risky thinking. If you valorise a format based on a good day, you condemn it for a bad one. England blocking out a draw on a pitch as ferocious as a sea-monkey invasion was no advertisement. But the why for women’s Test cricket doesn’t rely on every game being a classic. It’s simple. Women are now professional cricketers, and Tests are still acknowledged as the prime format for proving skill.
Those against the format have a simple argument too. Test matches cost money. Running four or five days at a ground is more expensive than one. Women’s cricket has the potential to become profitable, but the shorter formats are easier to market to fans and sell for broadcast. Multi-day cricket is viewed as a costly interruption.
But this isn’t a women’s sport issue. Men’s Tests are also subsidised. Australia banks losses unless hosting England or India, because broadcast rights don’t cover costs. Boards are happy to squeeze tours down to two-Test afterthoughts, avoid smaller nations for years on end, and campaign to cut the fifth day. Resistance comes because Tests are broadly respected. There’s an understanding that they matter. If that’s the case, blocking one gender from participating is ethically unjustifiable.
In any case, financial arguments are short-sighted. Yes, we live in an era with independent T20 stars, but they remain the exception. Most of the big names in coloured clothes are those who’ve already proved themselves in whites. The longest format costs money, but invests credibility. It was a Test double-hundred that got Ben Stokes a record IPL contract; and Perry’s equivalent has boosted a celebrated player yet another level.
As far as women’s Tests being unsaleable, what we saw at North Sydney Oval turned that on its head: 12,600 came through the gate; ABC Grandstand broadcasted on its analogue network; the ’s over-by-over liveblogs for the Test attracted more than 200,000 page views. Presented right, the appetite was there. Surely that offers the potential for income.
The key is a quality product. This is where the future will be made or broken. Point one: flat old pitches don’t allow strokeplay or threaten wickets. Point two: no one can improve if they don’t play. With one Test every two years for the lucky teams, and none for the rest, players are set up to fail. They are scrutinised for performance and saddled with career stats in a format they learn on the job. More Tests are a start – surely every tour should at use the multi-format model. But there also needs to be practice, at state level and below.
Do that, and we’ll stop seeing nervous players blocking out their first 50 balls for fear of wasting a biennial opportunity. Or, to move past the focus on scoring rates, we’ll develop the vastly different bowling required. Sixty dot balls in an ODI makes you a genius; in a Test it makes you tired. It takes years to hone a method of long-form attack. Most tellingly, you’ll see investment on the field. Every player who spoke to the media around the Ashes Test said they want to play more. They value it, relish it, look forward to it. Given the chance, they’ll deliver.
I watch cricket to see the best players tested in the most rigorous environment. A T20 innings is a dancefloor banger, not a magnum opus. It’s an excerpt of Tchaikovsky with the cannons isolated in the mix. The rest of the orchestra remains unheard.
In Test cricket, other parts come to the fore. The relationship of lead violin to second, the duelling timpani, percussionists barely noticed in support, glockenspiel punctuating the whole with bright shafts of sound. Having found the best female players in the world, we stop them from contributing to the symphony. With each passing month of the professional era, this makes less sense. There must be a future for women’s Test cricket. We want to see what they can do.
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