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Cricket comes home


As the first-ever standalone ICC Women’s World T20 tournament begins in the Caribbean this November, Alexandra Roland asks: can the Windies win again?

Two years ago, at India’s Eden Gardens Stadium in Kolkata, the burgundy-clad Windies women’s cricket team were dancing, chanting and popping champagne corks against a backdrop of fireworks and a revelling crowd. They were euphoric because they’d just made history, reaching the promised land of women’s professional cricket with a thrilling, hard-fought win against team Australia in the final of the International Cricket Council’s 2016 T20 Tournament. It was their first win on this world stage. The whole day left Windies fans reeling – they’d come a long way and had a lot to celebrate. The women’s victory came just hours before the men’s team bagged a final win against England on the same grass. This November, the women’s team is gearing up for a second tilt at the international title – this time in the ICC’s first standalone women’s T20 tournament, the first time the tournament has been staged in the Caribbean since 2010.

World-class women
Cricket West Indies (CWI) used a bidding process to select St Lucia, Antigua and Guyana as hosts for the tournament from a pool of Caribbean hotspots. Equipped to meet high international standards of accommodation and the influx of crowds both local and international, each locale has worked hard to ensure all preparations are completed well in advance of the tournament so that the teams can perform at their best.

“The West Indies is one of the great places in the world for sports, entertainment and culture,” says ICC Women’s World T20 Tournament Director, Jennifer Nero. “Cricket is the heartbeat of the West Indies, and we want to showcase all these offerings during the tournament. It will be fast-paced, exciting and action-packed, with lots of enjoyable moments. This is the Year of the Woman, and the world’s top teams will be coming.”

Eight teams, comprising the greatest cricketers in the world, were chosen automatically based on rankings; the final two teams selected, Ireland and Bangladesh, earned their places via the ICC Women’s World T20 Qualifier held in July. Fans will see the crème de la crème of female cricket talent: Australia’s Meg Lanning, New Zealand’s Suzie Bates, Heather Knight of England, Sana Mir of Pakistan, India’s Harmanpreet Kaur and, of course, Windies team captain Stafanie Taylor, just to name a few.

Back on top?
The 23-match tournament begins on 9 November at Guyana’s Providence Stadium, where India plays New Zealand in the opening match. Australia and Pakistan then square off; the Windies will end the day playing Bangladesh. India vs Pakistan and Australia vs New Zealand matches happen there, too. The group stages of the tournament continue at the Darren Sammy Cricket Ground in St Lucia with an England vs Sri Lanka match on the second day of the tournament. Both of the semi-finals (22 November) and the final (24 November) will be played at Antigua’s Sir Vivian Richards Cricket Ground.

“We’re really excited about the World T20 in the Caribbean,” says England captain Knight. “It’s an amazing chance to become double world champions [England won the Women’s World Cup in 2017] but we have a lot of work to do first. We showed in India in our tri-series that we’re capable of playing good T20 cricket but we need to keep improving and add more consistency to our game.”

“Every ball is going to have significance,” says Philip Spooner, senior manager of media and communications for the event. “This format leads to thrills and excitement. There’s a huge effort to keep the trophy. The Windies have a very united team. They play for each other. They want to get back to number-one status.”

Playing for the people
Since their T20 triumph, the Windies team has slightly slowed their stride. They failed to qualify for the semi-finals in last year’s Women’s World Cup, and haven’t bagged as many international T20 victories as their upcoming competitors. However, channelling the momentum from the last T20, Stafanie Taylor remains optimistic – Australia has won the title three times before, but with the Windies playing on their own turf she reckons they have home advantage. “We won the last edition in India, and that was an amazing feeling,” Taylor says. “We are now playing at home, and it would be even better to win again – this time in front of our supporters. We know the grounds, the pitches and, most importantly, we know what is required. We’re playing for the people of the West Indies and we want to win again for them.”

Six months in advance of the tournament the Windies began preparing via a wide-ranging training programme incorporating psychology and mental skills along with yoga and meditation. “We would love to win, but we know there’s a process,” says Taylor. “It means training, working hard to reach the final and crossing that line. It’s not going to be easy. Everyone is improving as time goes on, and everybody is coming to fight. Playing at home, I know there are going to be some nerves. It’s going to be all about keeping our composure and focus.”

Inspiration on the pitch
If the tournament kick-off celebration in July is any indication of the West Indian affinity for the sport of cricket, the T20 event will attract both international attention and ardent local support. November looks set to turn into one long cricket carnival.

According to Spooner, women’s cricket in particular has seen a dramatic increase in viewership over the past few years. The 2018 T20 is the first time the women’s event has been held separately from the men’s, which reflects the industry’s recognition of the legitimacy and momentum of the women’s game.

“The women’s game has always had a lot of support, and around 30% of the spectators in the stands are female,” Spooner says, noting how the game is increasingly inspiring women. “Cricket is now seen as a viable career opportunity for young girls; it’s the game of choice.”

The sport has grown exponentially in recent years. In the past, cricket was a hobby or at best a part-time job for women. Now, professional athletes are sustained with contracts and competitive compensation.

“When I started to play, [women’s cricket] was nowhere close to where it is now,” says Taylor. “It’s come a long way. It’s expanding. Players are improving.” Players such as Taylor are now household names. Last year, her alma mater Eltham High School in St Catherine, Jamaica, broke ground on the Stafanie Taylor Oval, part of a large revitalisation plan of their existing institution.

“She’s an ambassador of how to play the game,” Spooner says of Taylor. “Her personality, it’s very passionate. She speaks a lot about the game through PR and social work. She’s a shining example of how the game has matured.”

With maturity comes great responsibility. Team members take seriously their influence over younger athletes; their successes have paved the way and they want to pass the torch along to the next generation. The entire Windies team has the goal locked in their minds.

Ones to watch – the key Windies players to look out for

Stafanie Taylor
Position: All-Rounder, Windies Team Captain
Taylor has been a force to be reckoned with ever since she began playing aged eight in her Jamaican stomping grounds. She’s been amassing accolades since her teens, and hit the international scene at the age of 17. Her résumé is a long one: ICC Women’s Cricketer of the Year 2011, ICC Women’s ODI Cricketer of the Year 2012, ICC Women’s T20I Cricketer of the Year 2015, Player of the Series at the ICC’s 2016 T20 event, where she scored the most runs, and West Indies Players’ Association/Cricket West Indies’ Women’s Cricketer of the Year 2017 and 2018. The Order of Distinction, the sixth-highest honour possible for a Jamaican national, was presented to her in 2017. According to the MRF Tyres ICC rankings, she’s the number-one T20I batter, coming in at a 676 rating, and the number-two ODI all-rounder, with a 385 rating. The shot she’s most known for? The cover drive.

Shakera Selman
Position: Fast bowler
Understanding the nuances of the game can be instrumental in being a good bowler. Barbados-born Selman says her greatest strength as a main bowler and dynamic fielder is knowing the game inside and out. She tells young athletes to believe in their capabilities: “Stay focused on what you want to achieve and you could accomplish anything.”

Merissa Aguilleira
Position: Wicket-keeper and Batter
Trinidad-born Aguilleira joined the Windies team ten years ago. She calls herself a key motivator. “I’m definitely looking to perform at a high standard for my team. We have been training really hard in camp, working on all different aspects of our game, mentally and physically. With God’s grace and strength we can put our hard work into play and defend our title for the people of the Caribbean and our fans around the world.”

Anisa Mohammed
Position: Spin bowler
Originally from Trinidad, Mohammed joined the Windies team in 2003. She’s most proud of being the first cricketer – male or female – to take 100 wickets in T20 internationals around the world. “I hope to perform really well for my team. We have been training together as a team over the last few months, and we are confident that we will retain our title at home.”