We’re back in New Zealand for a women’s Cricket World Cup, 22 years after the last tournament was held on these shores. The sport has changed almost immeasurably in two decades, but the hosts will be hoping for the same outcome - they beat Australia by four runs in a thrilling final that saw them win the trophy for the first time.
They will be contenders again, as will six-time winners Australia, who come into this tournament off the back of an Ashes success against the old enemy England. That included three ODI wins as Meg Lanning’s side cruised to victory, which has left England in need of some TLC ahead of this tournament.
They may be holders of the crown having won on home soil in 2017, but Heather Knight’s side have relinquished the favourites tag to the Aussies after that Ashes performance. “Those final two games were a bit of mental and physical fatigue from the side, and not a true representation of where we’re at and who we are,” the captain said in the build-up to this tournament, as the side were given a week in Queenstown following their quarantine period.
It may be an easy excuse for Knight to lean on but the proof will be in the pudding as they take on Australia in the early hours of Saturday morning in their opening game. Whether this England side can actually go from miserable to magic in the space of a month is questionable, and leaves them in the strange purgatory as they hold the dual title of reigning champions and relative outsiders in a four horse race.
Those four horses include the three aforementioned sides and India, who are eyeing up their maiden title. Mithali Raj is leading the team in what is going to be her last major tournament on the world stage, and a semi-final spot will be a minimum aspiration for a nation of cricket lovers.
Given the way the format works - an eight-team round-robin group stage followed by the semi-finals - once you make it into the final four, anything can happen. But, barring any disasters, those four countries should be in the semis.
This tournament is being played amidst some disgruntlement in the country, as New Zealand is struggling to cope with the Omicron variant of Covid-19, and cases have soared up to a record high. The ICC’s decision to stick with a six-city World Cup across the country, which will surely impact the players’ availability for the tournament - not to mention the environmental cost - seems rather naive given the circumstances.
22 years ago, when this tournament last came to New Zealand, it was almost the complete opposite. The eight teams involved were given student accommodation in Christchurch, lived together, ate together and trained together. The ICC could have learnt something from this, and placed the teams in a bubble to reduce Covid-19 cases - rather than their mind-bending solution.
Their amended rules for this tournament now state: “In the event of a Covid eruption, teams will be permitted to field nine players, plus two ‘substitutes’ from within their management team.”
For all the progress women’s cricket has made over the past two decades, this World Cup was meant to be a true marker of how far the sport has come, yet this rule gives the whole thing a rather amateurish feel and certainly affects the integrity of the competition.
It all starts in the wee hours of the night as New Zealand host West Indies, with England kicking off their campaign on Saturday. The winners though - are likely to be the team they face first, the old enemy - Australia.