Women’s cricket is having its biggest year yet, with a summer of broken records putting more eyes on England Women than ever. Over 110,000 tickets were sold for the women’s multi-format Ashes series, which culminated in a series draw following England’s landslide win in front of a sell-out crowd at Taunton. The historic match-up between England and Australia might have seen the Aussies retain the urn, but in racking up four and a half times the attendees of the previous series held in the UK, both teams achieved more than just hardware for the trophy cabinet. “We were so jealous of the Lionesses when they won the Euros,” England pace bowler Kate Cross says looking back on the catalysing tournament of last summer. “This series feels like our moment to do that [for cricket].”
With the 2023 Ashes scheduled as a double header, the women’s games were interspersed between the five men’s Test matches. It’s not the first time the two series have run concurrently, but it does feel like the first time that England Women have been given a real share of the pie. With a tagline that suitably hyped up both games (“The only thing better than an Ashes series? Two.” – no lies were told) and posters featuring players from both squads celebrating in tandem, fans have had no choice but to consider the series together.
“There’s always a vicious cycle of ‘Is there the product to market?’” opening batter Tammy Beaumont says about the women’s game. “And actually, [this summer has shown] that there’s definitely a product, and if you market it properly, people will come and engage.”
In a quick survey of my (all-male) cricket WhatsApp chat, most members have tuned in to more women’s games than before as a direct result of the combined schedule. Those who hadn’t still stayed up to speed on the women’s series due to England Cricket’s use of one social media account to spotlight both the men and women’s sides. Each time a wicket (Kate Cross’ Trent Bridge jaffa to Phoebe Litchfield), catch (Sophie Ecclestone’s utterly ridiculous Bristol ODI take), or boundary popped up in the notifications bar, my heart sang a little bit louder: Blokes that have followed cricket their whole lives are getting excited by the women’s game.
Needless to say, the marketing team for this year’s Ashes campaign has made significant headway. Cross admits that being part of the momentum pushing the game forward is gratifying, particularly considering she was once advised to get Twitter in order to promote the England Women’s fixtures herself. “It’s not the reason that I started playing cricket, but one of the bonuses [is being] part of this huge momentum and opinion shift,” she says.
As with most women’s sports, cricket has come a long way in the past 20 years. Pros still have stories about playing on boys’ teams growing up in the 2010s. “[It] was your only choice,” England bowler Freya Davies says. “You had to be willing to be the one that changed in a car or in a disabled toilet.” Batter Maia Bouchier shares similar memories: “Boys would literally come up to me and look at my chest to check if I was a girl. I’ll never forget it.”
Like Cross, Davies describes the shift in the last 10 years as “massive.” Players now enter England set up with professional contracts, a change affected in 2014, and gamechangers like Nat Sciver-Brunt and Sophie Ecclestone have signed for hundreds of thousands of dollars to play in India’s Women’s Premier League. That’s on top of fees handed out for The Hundred, a five-week-long tournament celebrated for its scheduling of men’s and women’s games on one day for a single ticket price. “I think if The Hundred has taught us anything, it’s that cricket, no matter what gender [is playing], draws the crowd,” Davies says. “You just need to put us on a level playing field.”
But where short-form cricket has elevated the women’s game in recent years, Tests and multi-day matches still lag behind their male counterparts due to a lack of domestic infrastructure and the prioritization of white ball games. England captain Heather Knight, who’s been on the team for over 13 years, has only played 11 Test matches in her career. (To put that into perspective, men’s captain Ben Stokes played 15 Tests during 2022 alone.) The main reason? White ball cricket sells. In its latest valuation, the Indian Premier League, a T20 franchise, was ranked the second most valuable sporting league in the world, second only to the NFL.
Both Beaumont and Cross feel strongly that the International Cricket Council (ICC) could be doing more to promote women’s Test cricket. Last year, the organization’s independent chair, Greg Barclay, said he didn’t see the women’s long-form game as “part of the landscape moving forward to any real extent,” something Cross describes as the “biggest shame.”
As a result, the squad have found themselves fighting not just for wins, but for the future of the format too: “That’s something we spoke about going into that week at Trent Bridge,” Cross says of the Ashes Test that opened the women’s series. Beaumont echoes the sentiment: “Every Test match we’ve played, we had to play it in a way that [proved we] deserved another one.”
Whether it was kismet or just really good cricket, the five-day Test at Trent Bridge — England Women’s first ever at home — broke records, and lots of them. Sky Sports recorded the most viewers on record for a women’s Test match, and the 23,000 attendees over five days set a new high. On the pitch, Beaumont’s 208 runs made her the highest scoring England player in a women’s Test, and Ash Gardner’s bowling figures of 12 for 165 are now the best by an Australian woman in a Test match. Although England didn’t win, Beaumont says “a secondary goal [was] achieved.” People were talking about women’s Test cricket.
Nonetheless, there’s room for improvement. Whereas the men’s Ashes series is a hotbed of drama, controversy, and banter on the world’s stage (“They feed into it a little bit more,” Beaumont says), England Women aren’t yet afforded that luxury. “Our narrative is still, sadly, [the fact that] it’s great that we’ve got 20,000 people watching us,” Cross says, but she’s optimistic for future headlines. “[When] we’re not having to sing about the fact that we’ve got a series, you’ll probably see a little bit more of that [drama]. I love Stuart Broad coming out and [saying “in” after each ball] and the stump mic [picking] up those comments. It really does take me into the center of what it feels like to play cricket.”
As with all sports, it’s the emotions that carry players and fans through a season. Cross thinks back to when she first met Andrew Flintoff while training with the Lancashire academy as a teen. “He was my childhood hero growing up. I’m a product of the 2005 Ashes,” she says. “It was just a ‘Hi, Crossy, how are you?’ Such a small moment for him, probably, [but it’s] always stuck with me, and it made me want to be that person for other people.”
I ask if she’s made similar connections with fans, and Cross recounts a story of a young boy she met in Nottingham. “His mum [messaged me to say] that he clutched [my] autograph to his chest until he got back to Leeds. He said that it was his favorite autograph.” Despite losing the Test match that day, Cross was heart-warmed; eking out those emotions is, after all, how you know you’re connecting.