On the eve of the 2018 Twenty20 World Cup, world cricket's players union issued a report into the international women's game. Titled Women's Global Employment Report & Survey 2018, the first of its kind in women's cricket, the 60-page document looked at the professional player landscape.
It grouped the women's teams of the 12 full member International Cricket Council nations into three categories: progressive professional, fledgling professional and amateur.
Just over a month later in the Caribbean, the teams finished according to their classification. Australia, as the sole progressive professional nation, defeated the second most advanced team, England, in the final, while two other fledgling professional countries, India and the West Indies, were knocked out in the semi-finals.
Australia may find it increasingly difficult to stay ahead of the competition.Credit:AAP
New Zealand and South Africa – you guessed it, both fledgling professional nations – finished third in their respective five-team groups, while the "amateurs", Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Ireland, occupied the bottom two places in each pool.
Australia may still win the T20 World Cup, though they have been far from dominant, which should not come as a surprise given rival boards are catching up in terms of their investment in the women's game.
If anything, Australia, who have won 10 of the 15 T20 and 50-over World Cups and are ranked No.1 in both formats, should find it harder and harder at future ICC tournaments. And part of that could be through their own generosity.
While there remains a chasm between salaries for Australia's leading male and female players, Meg Lanning, Ellyse Perry, Alyssa Healy and co enjoy benefits not granted to nearly all their international rivals.
Major Australian stars like Ellyse Perry are in a league of their own. Credit:Getty
As part of the pay deal signed in 2017, Australia's top female players can earn as much as $300,000 a year. Up to 15 players can be nationally contracted with a minimum retainer of about $80,000, while there are close to a further 100 on state deals worth an average of $26,460.
"Domestically, Australian women’s cricket is significantly further on in its development than any other nation," the Federation of International Cricketers Association's report, which covered 2017-18, said.
But for how much longer? And has there already been a shift on the field?
In announcing a new £20 million ($39.5 million) investment in their women's game after last year's Ashes thrashing, England's board conceded they had fallen well behind Australia. The funding will allow 40 full-time professional domestic contracts to be awarded on top of the 21 national contracts.
Former Australian international Lisa Keightley was named the first full-time head coach of the England women's team, the reigning 50-over world champions.
"Over the last five years, Australia have made similar investments which we are about to make," England's director of women's cricket, Clare Connor, said at the announcement last year.
"There's no getting away from the fact we do need to close the gap, certainly around the number of female players who can make a living playing the game."
India, who beat Australia on opening night, upped their spending significantly after their surprise appearance in the 2017 World Cup final. The value of their top-tier deals was quadrupled to about $104,000, while second- and third-tier contracts are worth about $62,000 and $21,000.
South Africa, who upset England in Perth, are aiming for 50-over supremacy.Credit:Getty
Another rise is on the cards should India, who have already qualified for the semi-finals, continue their run in Australia. Momentum will also grow for another expansion of the women's IPL.
South Africa recorded their best finish at an ICC event in 2017, when they made the semi-finals, three years after they increased their number of central contracts from six to 14. Under their system, players are ranked from one to 14 with the top player earning 500,000 rand (about $49,000) down to 300,000 rand ($29,400), not including match fees of about $550 for one-day internationals and $350 for T20s. Players now fly business class, Cricket South Africa's acting head of pathways, Eddie Khoza, said.
Though stronger in the 50-over arena, South Africa posted a big upset by defeating England in Perth to leave them well placed to qualify for their first T20 World Cup semi-final berth. Such is the confidence they have in their program, they are making no secret of their ambitions.
"We cannot keep quiet any more about it, we want to win the 2021 [50-over] World Cup," Khoza says. "We see some good signs we are heading in the right direction."
New Zealand, who are hosting next year's World Cup, announced last August they would more than double their player payment pool to $1.05 million for this season with players able to earn up to about $76,500, including match fees, up about 66 per cent from $46,000.
The number of central contracts was increased from 15 to 17 with retainers worth between about $42,000 and $61,000. Importantly, players have a three-month leave period for study, work and playing abroad.
There were seven White Ferns playing in this season's WBBL, which has added to their players' development.
As far as domestic women's Twenty20 events go, Australia's competition has become the female version of the Indian Premier League, even if the scale of pay is a fraction of those riches. Players from six foreign nations took part in the recently completed WBBL with New Zealand and England each boasting seven and South Africa six.
Not only are they becoming more familiar with conditions on these shores, but they are taking home lessons learnt in the Australian system. Australia's stars are demystified through familiarity.
"We've had seven or eight players in the WBBL," Kiwi wicketkeeper Katey Martin says. "Sophie [Devine] was one of the outstanding performers. That enables our players to develop our skill sets.
"We play against Australia nearly every year. Being a professional cricketer in these environments – you look at the Junction Oval, it's an outstanding place to play. We've gained that confidence from being successful in the Australian competitions and we're really fortunate we can play in those."
Former Australian star Lisa Sthalekar is sceptical about whether the gap between Australia and the rest has actually closed. Her view is Lanning's side is being hampered by the considerable pressure of playing at home in a major tournament, pointing to Australia's record in bilateral series as a sign of their dominance. Since the last T20 World Cup, Australia have won 13 of 17 games in the format and are 12 from 12 in the 50-over arena.
"Sri Lanka have looked good, they would've beaten New Zealand and Australia if their fielding had improved," Sthalekar says. "Pakistan look good, they've beaten the West Indies. South Africa beat England.
"Certainly, in the tournament, we're getting to that place where you have to play good cricket to win. That's what we want to see.
"I do feel at the moment Australia are weighed [down] by the expectation of a home World Cup. You look at the result of the last two years, they've absolutely dominated most teams."
Kiwi veteran Martin feels the gap is closing, though as a rival she is naturally predisposed to that thinking.
"With all teams being able to play each other throughout the four-year cycle with the ICC world championship, [that] has made a difference," she says. "Teams don't fear each other as much. When you play against a team often or every couple of years you get a bit more confidence and feeling that you're there.
"That's the pressure on Australia to keep going."
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