The start of 2023 has given cricket fans much to look forward to, including the first ever Under-19 Women’s T20 World Cup, which is taking place in South Africa with 16 teams from around the world taking part.
South Africa’s Madison Landsman made history by becoming the first ever cricketer to take a hat-trick at the U19 Women’s World Cup and this was soon followed by Rwanda’s Henriette Ishimwe taking four wickets in four balls against Zimbabwe.
The first ever men’s U19 World Cup took place in 1988. So it would be fair to question why exactly it took nearly 40 years for the ICC to consider that a women’s version should take place too. It may also be reasonable to speculate as to why the coverage for such a ground-breaking event doesn’t extent beyond Sky Sports showing a mere three matches - the semi-finals and final.
Interestingly, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland are notably in the minority in terms of coverage - they are one of just five out of 16 regions only showing three matches. The other 11 areas are covering all matches.
However, these opening criticisms aside, let us celebrate the fact an U19 Women’s World Cup has happened at all and enjoy the reality that there has been enough interest for 16 countries to supply teams to compete. In particular, countries who are not stereotypically synonymous with cricket, such as the United States of America. Their U19 Women’s squad has now done what their senior men’s team failed to do last winter: compete in a World Cup - but it’s probably best not to go down that road of pitting the sexes against each other.
The arrival of this World Cup, taking place in the same year as the Women’s T20 World Cup in the same venue, really is opening up and embracing the necessary acceptance around the world that there is a genuine enthusiasm for women’s cricket.
The development of grassroots cricket, women’s in particular, has seen a rapid increase over the past number of years and Pakistan is one such country where women’s cricket is beginning to evolve from a place of shame and forbidden passion to a world of dusk-till-dawn competition.
Founder of Khelo Kricket, Hadeel Obaid, has been fundamental to the continuing expansion of women’s cricket in her country after her company started a night-time tournament in 2015. The initial competition was to promote men’s grassroots cricket in Pakistan with Obaid noting she wasn’t even sure a women’s version would be allowed.
Speaking in an interview with the BBC, the Khelo Kricket founder said: “We were not sure if women would be allowed to play cricket at night. The idea that girls are playing cricket from dusk till dawn is not something that you think of when you think of Pakistani women. Or any women playing cricket anywhere in the world.”
However, much to Obaid’s surprise, the following year she put out an advertisement for a women’s tournament and within 24 hours she’d received 250 registrations.
As Obaid points out, Pakistan is not a country which is usually synonymous with the idea of growth in women’s sport, with many of its countries leading female cricketers having grown up hiding their interest from those closest to them so as not to bring conflict to their family.
Yet, one noticeable difference between the men and women’s teams in Pakistan is the sociological background of their players. While the men’s side typically come from more socially and economically conservative backgrounds, the women’s team are, by and large, from wealthier Pakistani families who are arguably more likely to be liberal enough to support their daughters playing sport. It goes without saying, that this is of course a generalisation and is not the definitive case for each cricketer.
Much to the delight of the world of cricket, this mentality, as Khelo Kricket’s Ramadan tournament shows, is shifting and Obaid has said “seeing girls’ fathers, brothers and mums who had driven their daughters to the ground and were emotional. Mothers were literally crying to me and saying ‘thank you for giving our girls the opportunity.’
“They’ve always had the talent, we’ve always wanted to do it but we’ve never been able to give girls a shot.”
Well the chance to take the shot has never been better than it is today. This tournament has already acted as a successful pathway as the 21-year-old fast bowler Fatima Sana won player of the tournament in the very first year it was held. In 2019, Sana debuted for her country and in 2022, she was named the ICC Women’s Emerging Cricket of the Year.
The question now is, just how much further can we push these grassroot programmes and how many more stars can we expect to emerge from these tournaments?
The answers, hopefully, are somewhere in the region of ‘how long is a piece of string’ with the aspiration being that competitions such as Obaid’s Khelo Kricket are merely the beginning of the development of grassroots women’s cricket.
Of course, it shouldn’t have taken well over a quarter of a century to realise there was a significant appeal for young girls to play cricket and that a U19 World Cup would be a good idea. However, now that it’s finally here, the time has never been so important as it is now to build on the progress the tournament can make, and to appreciate just how consequential the influence of greater visibility and representation has on the next generation.
The men’s U19 World Cup all-time leading scorer is Eoin Morgan, who would go on to win England their first ever ODI World Cup, while the leading wicket-taker is the rising Zimbabwean superstar of Wesly Madhevere. So if a tournament can produce icons such as these, the future of stars in women’s cricket are set to be equally extraordinary.