Six years ago – the last time I was at the MCG – an ODI took place in Melbourne, as part of the Women’s Ashes series. The match was due to get underway at 10am. When I arrived at the ground, I wandered around, trying to find a way in: none of the gates were open. You wouldn’t have known there was a game taking place.
MCG security, I later learned, had decided that they weren’t going to open up the gates to the ground until 9.30am – half an hour before play was due to start. Players’ families were queued up, trying to get in. And the couple of journalists who, like me, were trying to cover the match, were told we would be unable to enter until after the toss had already taken place. It took us a good while to work out who was batting first when we did get inside.
Skip forward six years, and here I am, back at the MCG for another women’s match. Only this time, every gate of this mammoth-sized ground is wide open, beckoning in the tens of thousands of fans who are gradually taking their seats. The place is crawling with photographers, journalists, ardent fans in “Australia” or “India” shirts. The ICC have advised that all fans should be seated by 5pm (an hour before the match is due to start).
It’s really quite the contrast.
29 December 1997, Eden Gardens, Calcutta. Australia are playing New Zealand in a World Cup final. 80,000 people fill the ground: virtually all of them women and girls bussed in by the local Sports Minister. Before yesterday, it was the highest attendance ever at a women’s cricket match. Before yesterday, it was an anomaly.
Harmanpreet Kaur is asked about Eden Gardens 1997 in her press conference the day before the final. “I didn’t even know there was women’s cricket then,” she says. Last night’s match seems unlikely to go under the radar in the same kind of way.
It is not just about yet another Australian World Cup title. The world record for attendance at women’s sport may have remained intact, but this is women’s cricket’s big moment. When 86,000 people at the MCG paused during the 16th over of India’s chase to light up and wave their phones, you could almost hear the lyrics of Katy Perry’s “Firework” echoing through the ground:
“You just gotta ignite the light
And let it shine
Just own the night
Like the Fourth of July
‘Cause baby you’re a firework
Come on show ’em what you’re worth
Make ’em go “Oh, oh, oh!”
As you shoot across the sky-y-y”
During the second ever women’s match at the MCG – a Test in January 1949 between England and Australia – England batsman Molly Hide drove the ball down the ground. It passed through the fence, and disappeared into a drain: the cover was not big enough to stop the passage of the smaller, five-ounce women’s ball.
Fortunately, nowadays, the drains are fully covered: else the sixes slammed over long on by Alyssa Healy (one of them, at 83 metres, clocks in as the biggest six of the tournament) would have significantly lengthened yesterday’s game.
“Women have no power”, they have been saying since time immemorial. “They don’t hit sixes.” 1899: WG Grace declares that cricket is “not a game for women”. 2011: The Sun’s John Etheridge tweets that “Women’s cricket is a joke. The standard is truly appalling”.
The 80,000 people who watched Healy rack up a 30-ball fifty yesterday – the fastest ever hit in an ICC final, men’s or women’s – might beg to differ with Grace and Etheridge.
6 April 2014, Shere Bangla National Stadium, Mirpur, Bangladesh. It’s just a few months after the farce at the MCG, when security didn’t even want to open the gates. England are playing against Australia in the final of the Women’s World Twenty20. It is Meg Lanning’s first tournament as captain; during the group stages she has racked up a record score of 126 against Ireland. Australia walk all over England in the final, winning by 6 wickets.
Six years later here we are on 8 March 2020, at the MCG, in Melbourne, Australia. The result is the same – Australia are triumphant – and the margin of victory is equally huge – 85 runs. The similarity between the two occasions, though, ends there. Beth Mooney’s unbeaten 78 in yesterday’s final took her officially past the record set by Lanning in 2014 for most runs made during a T20 World Cup: all 259 of Mooney’s were broadcast in glorious technicolour; Lanning’s went largely unnoticed.
And in 2014 the official attendance at the final was 4,313. At the G, it’s 86,174. The roar around the ground when the final wicket falls and Australia are world champions once again is unimaginable in its volume.
How do the two occasions compare? Just ask Lanning: “They’re both special in their own ways, but this day today is incredible, and something we could only have dreamed of happening. It was something else. This day is the best of my career so far.”
How about 2020 vs 2018 in the Caribbean – in front of a crowd of 9,000? Here’s Alyssa Healy: “This is soooo much better. To sit here tonight with a medal around our neck at the MCG is going to be very hard to beat.”
23 July 2017: Lord’s Cricket Ground. A full house watches England play India in the World Cup final. India, chasing just 228, collapse to 219 all out. “After the loss of two early wickets, we were cruising with two partnerships that Punam built with Harman and Veda [Krishnamurthy],” captain Mithali Raj says after the match. “But then we lost our way. I think it was the inexperience of playing on such a big stage on such a big occasion.”
2017 may have been big: 2020 is even bigger. 7 of that India team are playing again today. Once again, they are chasing; once again, they fall short. Same old story? Maybe, maybe not. “We enjoyed it,” says Harmanpreet Kaur after the match. “Winning and losing are a part of the game. You cannot convey your day with winning and losing because one team is going to win and one team is going to lose. I think, at the end of the day, it was a great tournament for us. Hopefully, in future, we’ll give our best and try to win for the country.”
Harmanpreet Kaur: the Captain of Hope.
Shafali Verma doesn’t remember the loss in 2017. She is 16 years old: this is her first World Cup final. She has no real conception that this is the biggest match, ever, in the history of the women’s game.
Sometimes players drop catches. Shafali drops a big ‘un: putting down Healy in the very first over of the match. Sometimes players – especially those like Shafali, who live by the sword and die by the sword – get out cheaply: in this instance, she is out third ball, nicking it to Healy behind the stumps. She has been the mainstay of India’s batting all tournament: if anything, it’s surprising she hasn’t failed earlier. Was it nerves? I doubt it. To Shafali Verma, filled with the insouciance of youth, it’s just normal to play in front of a crowd of 80,000 people at the MCG. You might tell her that it isn’t, but since when did a teenager ever listen to anything someone tried to tell them?
My hopes for Shafali’s career are many, but here is one: that she retains that insouciance throughout her career. May 80,000 people never be just associated with a memory of the time she dropped a catch and got out in single figures. May it one day become the everyday occurrence that it seemed like to Shafali on 8 March 2020.
Ever heard the expression: “On the shoulders of giants”? It means we couldn’t have done this without all those who went before. It means that every painful loss – at Lord’s for India in 2017 – and every glorious victory – for Australia in Bangladesh in 2014, or Antigua in 2018, or any of the others – was a precursor to this. It means that Meg Lanning and Harmanpreet Kaur couldn’t be playing in front of packed-out crowd at the MCG if Jill Powell, Betty Wilson, Belinda Clark and Betty Archdale hadn’t played in front of an empty one. It means that every day of international women’s cricket before 8 March 2020 – every day when no one showed up and the players and umpires weren’t paid a cent but they did it anyway – has all been leading up to yesterday.
Australia beat India by 85 runs on International Women’s Day, 2020. And it was all done on the shoulders of giants.