BOOK REVIEW: The Fire Burns Blue: A History of Women’s Cricket in India

The Fire Burns Blue: A History of Women’s Cricket in India by Sidhanta Patnaik & Karunya Keshav

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At the Women’s World Cup Final between England and India in July 2017, we were privileged to share the press box with three wonderful colleagues from India, two of whom have now collaborated on a new book recounting the history of women’s cricket in India, from the founding of the first modern teams in the early 70s, through to that dramatic day at Lord’s.

The story they tell begins, like the finest post-modern novel, near the end – with Harmanpreet’s remarkable 171 not out in the semi-final against Australia – before, with little pause for breath, we are whisked back nearly 50 years to the founding of the Women’s Cricket Association of India by a group of girls who, long before Cyndi Lauper, just wanted to have fun.

Sidhanta and Karunya proceed to take us on a 500-page journey – from the early days of travel by second-class train ticket, playing at third-class grounds in front of a handful of spectators; to flying business class to compete at global tournaments, cheered on by a TV audience of millions.

The tale is engagingly told through the eyes of the key protagonists – the players and administrators – many of whose stories are set down here on record for perhaps the first time. The borrowed bats and the dormitory pranks are one thing; but the authors don’t shy away from the more difficult issues, such as how one deals with one’s period in the middle of a vital match.

It is a book for the reader, rather than the statistician or the academic historian – matches are recounted more by a shot remembered here, or a ball recalled there, rather than with the clinical details of a traditional report. Sometimes reading a cricket book can feel like a drowning by numbers, but this book takes a more anecdotal – more human – approach; and is all the better for it.

Controversies, such as the 1986 tour to England, when a diplomatic incident was created as India slowed their rate to a 7-overs-an-hour crawl in pursuit of a draw in the first Test, are dealt with in a balanced manner – and notably more equitably than they have been in English print, where the Indians have been accused of “[playing] the diva card to new extremes” to quote just one example!

If there is one small criticism it might be that the writers are a little too ready to believe the propaganda of the other boards – particularly Cricket Australia and the ECB – that things are so much greener on the other side of the fence, compared to the privations endured over the years by the Indians – we have to tell you, they really aren’t!

English readers should also prepare themselves for a fair smattering of Hindi – it is (loosely) translated in-line, but it can be hard work nonetheless.

Overall though, The Fire Burns Blue remains a thoroughly affable read which deserves a place under your Christmas tree this season.

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PREVIEW: #WBBL…. Already?

Hang on… wait… it’s #WBBL already? I only just got used to typing #WT20! And now there’s another hashtag? It’s all too much!!

It’s all a bit too much for some of the players too – several of them, including England’s Heather Knight, who must feel like she has spent most of the last week on a plane, won’t be appearing this weekend. (The England players are required to take an 8-day post-tournament break, so we’ll see them next week hopefully!)

There are 23 televised matches, which you can watch in England via BT Sport, starting tonight at 2:45 am (i.e Saturday morning) with the Sixers v the Stars. All of the non-televised matches will be live-streamed at cricket.com.au, so it will once again be possible to watch every game your team play. (And I guess every game, as long as you have enough screens!)

Here at CRICKETher, Syd will be once again supporting the Hobart Hurricanes, due to a long-nurtured sense of fatalism and some vague Berkshire connections; while Raf will be rooting for the Adelaide Strikers, as long as they’ve still got Sophie Devine playing for them! [Yup – check – they have!]

Adelaide Strikers

After a disappointing past few months in international colours, the Dynamic Duo from New Zealand – Suzie Bates and Sophie Devine – will probably feel the pressure is off a bit as they pull on a different coloured jersey, and this could be bad news for everyone else. With Bates and Devine to open the batting the will be hoping to get off to some big starts, and their batting isn’t even their strong point! Their bowling includes current World No. 1 Megan Schutt, former World No. 1 Dani Hazell, Sarah Coyte, Amanda-Jade Wellington; and not forgetting that Devine herself was the second-leading wicket-taker in KSL this year! Having slightly disappointed last year, when they came 4th in the ladder, expect more this time around.

Prediction: Up There

Brisbane Heat

They’ve got Beth Mooney. And… er… hmmm… look… we love Laura Wolvaardt, we really, really do, but she just isn’t a Twenty20 player; and Sune Luus, their other big South African signing, still looks like a lost empire in search of a role – since her bowling went south, South Africa have tried to turn her into a batsman, which hasn’t been a total disaster, but hasn’t exactly been a roaring success either. Jess Jonassen is short of match fitness having spent #WT20 carrying drinks; while one-time Great White Hope Holly Ferling spent #WT20 back home watching on TV. They only just missed out on the playoffs last time – if they get even close this time, it will be a miracle.

Prediction: Wooden Spoon Challengers

Hobart Hurricanes

The WBBL’s perennial whipping-girls still don’t have any Aussie stars. What they do have is a new coach poached from Loughborough – Salliann Briggs – and the two leading run-scorers from KSL, Heather Knight and Smriti Mandhana. With Hayley Matthews, who seems to perhaps be at last starting to fulfil the promise she showed on her spectacular entry to the international stage when she powered the West Indies to victory in the final of the last #WT20 in India in 2016, things could be looking up in Hobart. A hurricane? Perhaps not! But at least a strong wind!

Prediction: In The Mix

Melbourne Renegades

Another team without any big Aussie stars, but they’ve got a few smaller ones, including Sophie Molineux and Georgia Wareham who are now officially World Cup Winners™, plus Tayla Vlaeminck who played in the group stages of #WT20 but not the final. Danni Wyatt always seems to turn up in Australia, and having Amy Satterthwaite on the bridge is always a bonus with bat and ball, especially as she comes with a free Lea Tahuhu boxed-in. They probably won’t make the playoffs, but it wouldn’t be a massive shock if they did.

Prediction: In The Mix

Melbourne Stars

To lose one Lanning (Meg, to the Scorchers last year) may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both (Anna, to the Renegades this year) looks like carelessness, and it is carelessness that the Stars look likely to pay for. At 34, Kristen Beams is a veteran who has seen it all before, but is also coming to the end of her career; and none of their other marquee players are quite superstars – Georgia Elwiss is very reliable, but isn’t going to set the world on fire; Lizelle Lee can set everything on fire, but seems to be out of matches more often than she’s not; while Mignon du Preez is one of the hardest working women in cricket, but as an accumulator she can’t do it alone in T20. They came second-to-last in the table last season – expect similar this time.

Prediction: Wooden Spoon Challengers

Perth Scorchers

The Scorchers’ key player last year was Katherine Brunt, but them playing her through a niggle which then flared-up into a full-blown long-term injury ultimately cost everyone big, as she missed the #WT20 for England and has obviously not returned to Perth either. Filling Brunt’s shoes are Kate Cross and Amy Jones, but they are big shoes to fill, and what the Scorchers could really have done with is another big batsman – someone like… oh, I don’t know… Meg Lanning! Lanning isn’t the most elegant player in the world (*hi Sarah Taylor*) or the most destructive (*waves at Harmanpreet Kaur*) but she has already broken many of the records in the book, and will surely break the rest before she is done. With her on board the Scorchers will surely be up there again this season.

Prediction: Up There

Sydney Sixers

They won it last year; they won it the year before – yer, let’s just say this: they’re gonna win it again! They don’t have Kim Garth this time  – the loophole that allowed her to play as a “rookie” has now been closed – but they still have Ashleigh Gardner, Alyssa Healy, and Ellyse Perry from the Aussie contingent; plus Marizanne Kapp, who might not be officially the world’s No. 1 bowler, but would be the second name on many “World XI” team-sheets nonetheless, and Dane van Niekerk just for the LOLs – and there will be a lot of LOLs for Sixers fans this season, that’s for sure.

Prediction: Winners

Sydney Thunder

The Thunder have the most stable team in WBBL – no big names, in or out. It will be interesting to see how Alex Blackwell performs, having largely retired from playing, and indeed being a coach in KSL. Their overseas – Harmanpreet Kaur, Rachel Priest and Stafanie Taylor – are all capable of hitting huge runs… but equally all capable of not. They will need Ms Ultra-Reliable – Rachael Haynes – to be… well… ultra-reliable; and hope that they have enough bowling to keep things in check in the field. They came a solid second in the ladder last year – they probably won’t do quite so well this.

Prediction: In The Mix

NEWS: Sky To Televise Full Summer International Schedule

Following the announcement of the 2019 international schedule, CRICKETher can confirm that Sky will be televising every match.

This will be probably the busiest summer of international cricket ever in England, with not only the Men’s and Women’s Ashes, but the Men’s World Cup taking place in England, and inevitably some of the men’s matches clash with women’s fixtures.

However, Sky have pulled out all the stops to ensure that all the women’s games will be broadcast, even when they clash with the men’s matches.

Great news for women’s cricket fans, and a signpost towards a future where the women’s game stands tall alongside the men’s!

#WT20 – Five Reasons To Be Proud Of England (And Scotland)

So #WT20 2018 is done and dusted and we’re getting ready to fly back home, away from mosquitos and back to winter coats. But, while England couldn’t quite snatch the trophy away from Australia, we’re still proud to support them. Here’s why:

1. They Reached The Final Against All Odds

England did most of their preparation for this tournament in a tent at Loughborough, had their warm-up fixture against Australia rained off, and then spent days cooped up in hotel rooms in St Lucia while the rain came down. The rain even cost them points when their fixture against Sri Lanka was abandoned without a ball being bowled. Despite that they reached their second global final in 15 months.

“We’ve shown some brilliant heart and brilliant fight in this tournament,” Heather Knight said. She was spot on.

2. They Successfully Blooded New Players

In a surprise move, Mark Robinson chose to throw all 3 of his debutants (Linsey Smith, Kirstie Gordon and Sophia Dunkley) in at the deep end in the same match. It was sink or swim: and they all swum.

Dunkley had to wait until her third match to get her first opportunity with the bat, but it was worth the wait as she top-scored against West Indies to take England to a competitive total in a match that they only just lost. Smith bowled well in the powerplay and picked up her first international wicket in only her third over of the tournament.

Meanwhile Kirstie Gordon topped off her meteoric rise into international cricket by finishing as England’s leading wicket-taker. Gordon remains a proud Scot (Scottish readers, please note the title of this piece!) but is equally proud to wear the England colours. It’s been great to see young cricketers making their mark on the side so quickly.

3. They Overcame The Loss Of Sarah Taylor And Katherine Brunt

Taylor’s and Brunt’s were big shoes to fill, two senior players with over 400 caps between them. Cue Amy Jones and Nat Sciver stepping into the breach.

Not having a settled role in the side has made life difficult for Jones in the past but in this tournament she showed a new confidence and maturity with the bat, her innings in the semi-final in tricky conditions a case in point.

Her partner in that run chase, Nat Sciver, has been seen largely as a batsman in recent years, but having remodelled her action just prior to this tournament she showed off just what she can do with the ball, opening the bowling in all but one of England’s matches and taking 3-4 against South Africa.

4. They Showed They Are A Better, Fitter Side Than They Were In 2016

In 2016, in the wake of England’s loss to Australia in the World Twenty20 semi-final, Mark Robinson identified one key issue: fitness. During this tournament England showed that they have taken that critique to heart, working hard over the past 2 years to reach peak physical condition. Their running between the wickets has been lightning quick, creating singles that just wouldn’t have been there in 2016. On pitches where boundaries were hard to find, that was crucial.

5. They Have The Best Fans In The World

Of all the teams bar West Indies, who had the obvious advantage of a home crowd, England were far and away the best supported side in the tournament. Fans came from far and wide, some to their first ever international tournament, having watched the World Cup last year and become smitten with a brilliant team. We know how they feel: we’ve loved every minute of watching this team too.

NEWS: 2019 Women’s County Championship Fixtures Announced

Alongside the international fixtures, the ECB have announced the windows for the 2019 Women’s County Championship, County T20 Cup and Kia Super League.

The County Championship will run in a block from the Mayday Bank Holiday weekend (May 5th/ 6th), through the “other” May Bank Holiday (26th/ 27th) and finishing on June 2nd. This means that the England players should be available for most, if not all, of the County Champs, with the international window not beginning until June 6th.

The County T20 Cup will run through June – starting on the 9th and finishing on the 30th – i.e. during the international window, giving opportunities to the younger players coming through the county ranks.

(Full county fixtures are here – use Quick Search to select “2019 Season”!)

The international window finishes on July 31st, so the KSL will then run through August, with Finals Day at Hove on Sunday September 1st.

NEWS: Summer 2019 Fixtures Announced – Taunton To Host Women’s Ashes Test

The ECB have confirmed fixtures against the West Indies and Australia for summer 2019, including the Women’s Ashes Test at Taunton.

The West Indies ODIs will count towards the ICC Championship, helping to determine qualification for the 2021 World Cup in New Zealand.

The last KSL Finals Day is also confirmed for Hove on September 1st.

WEST INDIES

Thursday June 6

  • First ODI @ Leicester

Sunday June 9

  • Second ODI @ Worcester

Thursday June 13

  • Third ODI v @ Chelmsford

Tuesday June 18

  • First IT20 @ Northampton

Friday June 21

  • Second IT20 @ Northampton

Tuesday June 25

  • Third IT20 @ Derby

WOMEN’S ASHES v AUSTRALIA

Tuesday July 2

  • First ODI @ Leicester

Thursday July 4

  • Second ODI @ Leicester

Sunday July 7

  • Third ODI @ Canterbury

Thursday July 18 – Sunday July 21

  • Test @ Taunton

Friday July 26

  • First IT20 @ Chelmsford

Sunday July 28

  • Second IT20 @ Hove

Wednesday July 31

  • Third IT20 @ Bristol

KIA SUPER LEAGUE

Sunday September 1

  • Finals Day @ Hove

#WT20 – Australia Clinical v West Indies

In the end, it was all a bit like that scene in Indiana Jones – the West Indies sword had glistened in this tournament, as they spun it from hand to hand in a display of swaggering bravado… so Australia got out their gun and just shot them!

Make no mistake – the West Indies were up for this! On taking the early wicket of Beth Mooney, they were dancing just like they had in St Lucia as they bettered their key rivals in Group A – first South Africa and then England.

But Australia didn’t come to dance, they came to win!

It was quickly clear that the this was a pitch on which the big shots were going to play hard-to-get, so Healy and Lanning didn’t go for them – largely picking off the easier runs into the gaps and spaces to build the foundations of the innings.

When the time came to take some risks and accelerate, Healy selflessly took on a few more shots and payed the price, falling short of her 50, but Gardner and Haynes showed the value of having kept wickets in hand, pushing the rate on in the last few overs.

Was it a glamorous total? No!

Was it enough? Yes – obviously!

But it is also fair to say that it might not have been against a different team – a team that were prepared to play the same “percentage cricket” that the Aussies were.

But the Windies were not that team – go big or go home seems to be their motto; and the scorecard tells the story as the Aussies worked their way through the middle order – caught, caught, caught, caught, caught, caught.

Going big just wasn’t an option… so now they are going home.

NEWS: England Announce Academy Squad And Restructure

The ECB have today confirmed the list of Academy players for 2018/19, as well as announcing another revamp of the pathway system, with the Junior and Senior Academy squads now once again merged into one.

The big news is that Lancashire Thunder wicketkeeper Ellie Threlkeld has been dropped from the squad, leaving England with no Academy keeper – Mark Robinson apparently confident that Sarah Taylor and Amy Jones will do the job for a number of years to come.

Several other players who were in the Academy last year have also been “promoted”, with Freya Davies, Alice Davidson-Richards and Linsey Smith all now on “Rookie” contracts.

A question mark remains over Bryony Smith, who is no longer in the Academy squad but who played for the full side earlier in the year in the India tri-series. We understand that she has been training with the full squad for several months, and the likelihood is that she is also now a contracted “Rookie”, though the ECB will not be announcing the full list of contracted players until after the World Twenty20.

An additional 13 players have also been named in a new “Winter Training Squad”, which looks like it will de facto replace the old Junior Academy, with the aim to offer support for players who are currently seen as having the potential to be part of the EWA in the future.

The full squads are below:

England Women’s Academy

  • Lauren Bell (Berkshire)
  • Hollie Armitage (Yorkshire)
  • Georgia Boyce (Nottinghamshire)
  • Emma Lamb (Lancashire)
  • Charlie Dean (Hampshire)
  • Sophia Dunkley (Middlesex)
  • Danielle Gibson (Gloucestershire)
  • Mady Villiers (Essex)
  • Kirstie Gordon (Nottinghamshire)
  • Ellie Mitchell (Cornwall)
  • Amy Gordon (Surrey)
  • Ella McCaughan (Sussex)

Training Squad

  • Eva Gray (Surrey)
  • Maia Bouchier (Middlesex)
  • Bess Heath (Derbyshire)
  • Sarah Glenn (Derbyshire)
  • Rhianna Southby (Surrey)
  • Issy Wong (Warwickshire)
  • Nat Wraith (Gloucestershire)
  • Leah Dobson (Yorkshire)
  • Ria Fackrell (Warwickshire)
  • Georgia Draper (Yorkshire)
  • Lucia Kendall (Hampshire)
  • Alice Capsey (Surrey)
  • Helen Fenby (Durham)

#WT20 – England v West Indies

This was the tournament thriller we’d all been waiting for – West Indies eventually winning with a mere 3 balls to spare. From England’s perspective, though, it should never have got that close.

Was this England’s worst batting performance of the Mark Robinson era? Of England’s top 6, only Tammy Beaumont made it into double figures, and it could have been even worse than that: Beaumont herself was dropped on 12, to a skier that the Windies keeper couldn’t quite cling onto.

At one stage it even looked like England could be dismissed for their record lowest score in T20Is – 87 v Australia at Hove in 2015 (a performance which this was reminiscent of at times).

Enter Sophia Dunkley for her first forage into international batting. She wouldn’t have been human if she hadn’t been nervous – and there were certainly some anxious swipes early on – but this is a player who, as I’ve written before, isn’t cowed easily. To finish as England’s top-scorer on debut, to stand firm as all around you lose their heads (Ed: do you mean wickets?), and to hit England’s first six of the tournament in the process – that takes a certain kind of temperament.

Captain Heather Knight summed it up afterwards:

“She has had to wait 3 games to get out there and get the bat in hand, and she has been itching at the bit to do that. The way she played, under that amount of pressure in front of 10,000 people – I’m really pleased for her.”

Dunkley was of course ably backed up by Anya Shrubsole, who after batting for 8 overs then came straight out to open the bowling. Her inswingers delivered two quick wickets in her first over, leaving West Indies 3-2 and England suddenly in with an unexpected shot at winning this match.

Had she taken a third, all might well have been different. Deandra Dottin could easily have been dismissed when still on 0* – Shrubsole inducing a miscue that fell only just safe of Sophie Ecclestone at mid-off. As it was, her 46 off 52 balls was crucial as West Indies wended their way towards the target.

“We held our nerve,” Dottin said afterwards, when asked about the difference between the two sides today. “We had a never die attitude.”

England, meanwhile, appeared to completely lose their heads in the field. It was as if, after Dottin began doing her thing, panic set in: there were all manner of fumbles, poor throws which could otherwise have been real run out opportunities, and just plain dropped catches. It was odd, too, that Knight chose to persist with Dani Hazell – who had gone at 9 an over in her first outing – when she could have turned to the leg-spin of Dunkley, or even bowled herself.

“It was very difficult conditions – the ball went very high, and fielding under the lights with the dark skies is something we haven’t done in this competition yet,” Knight said afterwards. “A little bit more skill and composure would have got us over the line.”

Skill and composure will be exactly what is required on Thursday, where they are now destined to meet India (not Australia as many expected) in their semi-final.

#WT20 – England v South Africa

I’ll admit to experiencing a fair few nerves ahead of today’s match. As a must-win game for England, I was worried.

That seems a long time ago now.

England absolutely trampled all over South Africa with the ball. Linsey Smith carried on from where she left off the other day, introduced in only the third over of the powerplay and claiming the wicket of Laura Wolvaardt with her fourth delivery. England did get somewhat overexcited early on – chucking away their DRS review on an Anya Shrubsole ball that was missing Lizelle Lee’s leg stump by a fair old whack – but with Lee the big South Africa wicket, perhaps that was understandable.

“It ended up being a terrible review really,” Shrubsole told CRICKETher afterwards. “I thought it was bit closer than it was, and then you watch a replay. It was one of those things – DRS is new to everyone and we are getting used to it.”

By the halfway stage England had already broken the backbone of the South African innings, reducing them from 27-1 to 30-4. Kirstie Gordon again bowled well, but it was Nat Sciver – with remarkable figures of 4-1-4-3 – who starred.

While it seemed incongruous for Mark Robinson to stick with an unchanged side, not bringing in Tash Farrant on this seamer’s wicket, the performance of Sciver today showed that she is quite capable of stepping up in Katherine Brunt’s stead, Farrant or no. After her good showing with the ball in this season’s KSL – 10 wickets at 28 – Sciver can now, I think, be considered a frontline T20 bowler, rather than a batter-who-bowls. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what has changed for her over the past few months, but something certainly has.

“She has worked really hard leading up to this – made a little bit of a technical change to her action, and the ball is coming out beautifully,” said Shrubsole of her new-ball partner. “We’ve always known that she is capable of this and she is a world class allrounder – she has shown it with the bat in the past, and she is showing it with the ball now in this tournament.”

Shrubsole then wrapped things up with a 20th over hat-trick. Easy pickings in one sense; but this was the clinical performance that we didn’t see against Bangladesh – England determined not to take their foot off the pedal until their opponents were ground into the dust.

By the time South Africa took the field, they were already thoroughly demoralised, as evidenced by some terrible pieces of fielding – new keeper Faye Tunnicliffe letting through 4 byes and Masabata Klaas failing to collect a straightforward pick-up at third man. It didn’t help that DRS was unavailable for much of the England innings due to a power outage. (Power cuts appear to be common here in St Lucia – we had one in our villa a few days back!)

Meanwhile the England openers, after such a disastrous start against Bangladesh on Monday, seem to have recovered their joie de vivre, presumably due to being able to train properly over the past 3 days thanks to some Caribbean sunshine. It was a shame they couldn’t finish the job, but to reach 55 without losing a wicket set the platform for the middle-order that was so non-existent on Monday.

So South Africa are out of it; while England are assured of a place in the semi-finals, after West Indies beat Sri Lanka.

From the South African perspective, after such a good showing in last year’s 50-over World Cup this tournament has been a huge disappointment. Their key problem is clearly their batting. Wednesday’s collapse against West Indies was pretty bad, but this was in some ways even worse: none of their top 4 could muster up a strike rate of more than 60. Their biggest asset with the bat, Lizelle Lee, seems to be stifling her natural game, holding back when she should be firing. While this might be assumed to be on the advice of her coaches, Hilton Moreeng categorically denied this in the post-match press conference.

England, meanwhile, face defending champions West Indies in their final group match on Sunday. Despite already being through to the next stage, England will want to win this to ensure they top the group and avoid a likely semi-final clash with Australia (dependent on the Aussies beating India tomorrow). It should be a cracker.