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Women’s T20 World Cup Qualifiers: Sri Lanka pitted alongside Australia, India; debutant Scotland paired with England, WI



It’s 2024. Women’s cricket has grown exponentially around the world. Professional contracts are in place, franchise leagues are mushrooming around the world. The sport now has full-time players who can afford to gainfully take up cricket. Solid medical support and insurance, vibrant staff contingents, cutting-edge technology and even AI have made ITS way into a vertical which is only looking upwards. 

The recently concluded T20 World Cup Qualifiers added to this massive surge ahead in the women’s game while also offering an unsavoury reminder of the vestiges of past handicaps that continue to haunt the game.

Sri Lanka, led by veteran allrounder Chamari Athapaththu, and Scotland, led by the sprightly Bryce sisters Kathryn and Sarah, completed the deck of the upcoming women’s T20 showpiece in Bangladesh. Sri Lanka settles into what’s easily the group of death in the tournament alongside holders Australia, a formidable India, Pakistan and New Zealand while Scotland – which will feature in its maiden World Cup campaign – joins England, West Indies, host Bangladesh and South Africa in Group B.

Road to the World Cup

The journey to acquire that ‘Q’ against their names was not without challenges. Sri Lanka won all its group games including a win against Scotland, all by largely comfortable margins. 

However, the semifinal clash against a spirited United Arab Emirates led by Esha Oza nearly drove Sri Lanka’s campaign off the cliff. Vismi Gunaratne’s 44-ball 45 helped the side post 149 for 6 after being put to bat. In response, UAE valiantly countered an experienced Lankan bowling arsenal with captain Esha leading from the front. Her 44-ball 66 sparked hope in the hearts of players in the dugout and the sparse home fans and families of the cricketers watching from the stands. However, Athapaththu has seen many seasons change, and a little heat from the Middle East was nothing for the islander. Her strikes with the ball with help from 38-year-old pace-bowling veteran Udeshika Prabodhani (who rocked Esha’s stumps to end her resistance) saw a nervy win through.

Scotland saw off a stronger Ireland outfit courtesy of an all-round effort from skipper Kathryn Bryce. The Scots restricted Ireland to 110, with Bryce taking four wickets and conceding just eight runs. Two of those wickets came in the very first over of the day when Ireland – having opted to bat – looked to put up a competitive score. The Irish could never recover from the opening jolts from Bryce but crawled to a modest yet sub-par total courtesy resistance from Lena Paul (51-ball 45) and Arlene Kelly (27-ball 35). Bryce then pitched in with the bat with an unbeaten 35 to guide her side home with 22 deliveries to spare.

These two sides and some of their well-travelled players, who ply their trades in multiple leagues around the world including the ICC-backed FairBreak Global, Australia’s Women’s Big Bash League, England’s The Hundred and India’s Women’s Premier League, then clashed for top honours in a final in Abu Dhabi.

Scotland, with Kathryn on the bench with a niggle, opted to bowl and struck early with Vishmi falling to Priyanaz Chatterji in the third over. Harshita Samarawickrama fell soon after in the sixth over and Kavisha Dilhari fell after a 13-ball 15. Athapaththu was striking under 100 at this point, just looking to see off the nervous phase of the game and trying to find support at the other end. That pillar was Nilakshika Silva. 

The pair put together a 106-run stand for the fourth wicket, Nilakshi contributing 19 off 24 balls and Athapaththu with the lion’s share – 83 runs off just 41 deliveries. From scoring just 24 runs off 27 balls early on, she brought up her 100 in just 60 balls. Rachel Slater eventually dismissed the Lankan skipper but not before the carnage had already ended, including 13 fours and four sixes. Her 63-ball 102 was the first T20I century scored by a Sri Lankan woman. A massive 170-run target was set for Scotland to win the Qualifier.

Saskia Horley and Megan McColl began with intent in a tall chase but Horley was run out in the third over. A double-wicket maiden from Udeshika where she took out McColl and skipper Sarah Bryce in the fourth helped Sri Lanka place one hand on the winner’s trophy. The spinners choked the run flow and while Priyanaz fought a lone battle (eventually in vain), no one could replicate Athapaththu’s dominance with the bat on the Scottish side. While the Scots batted out the 20 overs, they fell short by a massive 68 run-margin. 

The purpose of the final, given that both sides had secured qualification by making it to the summit clash, was to determine which groups they would compete in the World Cup draw. 

Ironically, Sri Lanka’s reward for victory is a place in the cut-throat group A, where a few upsets might well be loading. Scotland’s competition is no easier – neighbour England and South Africa have been steadily improving their T20 pedigree while West Indies will bank on a Hayley (Matthews) storm as it looks to play to its potential in the World event.

Incidentally, England and Scotland’s meeting on October 14 will be the first clash between sides – which share a land border – since 2001.

Growing the game

The Qualifiers threw up some heartwarming stories about struggle, determination and pure passion to keep cricket and its spirit alive in different nations. Take Vanuatu for example.

The island nation where cricket is very much an amateur practice, sent a team where a large chunk does seasonal work (fruit picking) alongside pursuing their ambitions in cricket. I Comply Labour and Agricultural Compliance tied up with the Vanuatu Cricket Association to provide nets and other training facilities to the players. VCA CEO Tim Cutler revealed that the ICC sends the nation a little under USD 500,000 (INR 4.18 CR approximately) to manage its running – right from playing for the 18 contracted players under the board (14 men, four women), programmes across junior and school cricket, procuring and maintaining grounds and equipments among other things.

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Vanuatu made it to the World Cup qualifiers by winning the East Asia and Pacific regional qualifiers, where it pipped a more established Papua New Guinea among other teams in the fray, becoming the first outfit (male or female) to make the Qualifiers of the World event. However, the side fell short of funds to afford kits and other necessities to even make it to UAE to play in the tournament. This isn’t the first time the nation has had to fundraise. They did so in 2019 ahead of the Pacific Games too. This time, their campaign exploded on social media with support (monetary and otherwise) flowing in. Among its wellwishers is also Hannah Darlington, who in the past has also left behind equipment for players to use in Vanuatu when she played there during an Indigenous XI’s tour last year.

Vanuatu went on to beat Zimbabwe by six wickets in the first Qualifier encounter, a historic achievement for a side playing its first competitive encounter against a Full-Member nation. It did not win anything else and was placed last in the group table, tied with Zimbabwe but lower due to a poorer net run rate. However, nothing would stop the side from soaking in the positives and continuing its push to be part of a World Cup, something this football-crazy nation has not tasted in any discipline.

Ireland’s heartbreaking loss in the semifinals went against expectations. It is the nation that is a Full Member, it is the one with resources to support programmes for men’s and women’s cricket. Had that one PowerPlay gone differently, perhaps Scotland wouldn’t be celebrating a tryst with history today. UAE and Esha Oza too would feel a bit hard done by after running Sri Lanka so close in the opening part of their semifinal. 

A case for expansion?

There’s much at stake in Bangladesh later this year. Athapaththu, who has been teasing retirement for the better part of the last month, has a big goal to play towards. She is at the helm of a flourishing side that has grown from strength to strength in the last few months and will not allow teams to walk over it, even if the group has giants like Australia, India and New Zealand. While UAE’s exit was heartbreaking, that Athapaththu, frankly the rest of the world, gets more of the Sri Lankan captain who looks to be in the form of her life with bat and ball came as a relief.

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2024 will see two World Cups in the span of a few months. The men’s variant in the USA and West Indies will see nine Associate nations take to the field, while the women’s event will see just one – debutant Scotland. The men’s event has 20 teams participating, an expansion from a 12-team pool in the inaugural edition in 2007. The 2014 edition saw the tournament expand to 16 teams and the 2024 edition is set to welcome more contenders to the fray. 

The women’s variant began as an eight-team affair in 2009. 2014 brought an expansion here too, to 10 teams. The next widening of the playing pool to 12 teams is scheduled for the 2026 edition, which will be hosted by England. 

Given how teams around the world have been punching above their weight, eyeing that Full Member status as the larger goal, but also vying for opportunities to play higher-ranked opponents to up their own standards, the World Cup – that too in a format hailed by the ICC as its developmental vehicle – would have been quite a nifty way to do that. While the bracket is set for this edition and the next, the Qualifiers have underlined that there’s room in the world’s biggest stage for more players to come and win the hearts of those patronising the support. It’s time for the powers that be to welcome them with open arms.

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