Maidens Bowling Overs
By Michael Gregson
Sri Lanka's latest record breaking cricketer is setting a shining example, especially to those of questionable match fitness and sometimes dubious behaviour off the pitch.
They know who they are – and you probably do too, but up until last week you were unlikely to have heard of Chamari Atapattu.
She smashed the third highest score in women's one day international cricket in an unbeaten 178 against Australia and etched her name in history books. Her innings at the women's International Cricket Council (ICC) match in Bristol last Friday was the highest score by a female Sri Lankan player in one day international cricket. It was also the second highest at a world cup, behind only Belinda Clark's 229 scored against Denmark in 1997. Atapattu broke a 35-year-old record for the highest individual percentage of runs in an innings, scoring a remarkable 69.26 per cent of Sri Lanka's 9-257. It was the highest individual score against Australia, while her six maximums equalled the record for most in an innings. In total, 124 of her 178 runs came in boundaries, the most in a women's ODI. She deservedly received the player of the match award.
Despite her efforts, Australia comfortably chased down the total, with a magnificent innings by Aussie skipper, Meg Lanning, who notched up an unbeaten 152.
With performances like these, it is hardly surprising that women's cricket is in the spotlight more than ever, especially with the ICC increasing the prize money to $2m as part of its efforts to put the women's tournament on the same level as the men's competition.
The women's game has made such huge strides in recent years that it would be easy to think that it is a relatively new phenomenon, but in fact it goes back a long way.
Isabelle Duncan, author of A History of Women's Cricket, told the Guardian Newspaper: "You tend to think women's cricket started two minutes ago, but the depth of the history surprises everybody."
An English painting from 1344, considered to be one of the earliest known records of the game, shows what appears to be medieval mixed cricket: a nun, holding a ball, about to bowl at a monk with a stick. By the 18th century, women's cricket had become so popular in England that a game involving Sussex Women in 1747 had to be abandoned after rioting broke out among the spectators.
For a time in the 19th century, women's cricket became both highly popular and a professional sport. "But it goes downhill from there," says Duncan. "Women were practically locked up behind high walls at school, cricket wasn't considered becoming for a lady, and the industrial revolution put a stop to the game among the working classes, because they were too tired to play. Everybody became prudish and it went completely backwards. There were still some very talented women, like WG Grace's daughter, Betty, but then he himself stopped her from playing. She left school never to play again – it was just criminal! But those were the prevailing attitudes."
The first women's international match was played in 1934, just after the England men's team had lost The Ashes at home.
Like Chamari Atapattu today, those English women showed the men how it should be done. Myrtle Maclagan and Betty Snowball, England's opening bats, were considered the female equivalent of Hobbes and Sutcliffe, the greatest opening pair in test history.
The 23-year-old debutant Maclagan, who had taught herself to bowl off-spin, took seven wickets for 10 runs against Australia in the first innings of the first ever women's test match in Brisbane. Meanwhile, Snowball put her bat to good use when England travelled on to New Zealand, and scored 189 runs in 222 minutes.
Many of the players returned home penniless from the tour, which they had funded entirely by themselves. The women's game had to rely on amateur fundraising for another 60 years, with events like knitting drives. In the 1960s, Enid Bakewell, one of the greatest all-rounders the game has produced, was selling chocolate on the boundary at Trent Bridge to raise money. Just imagine a male player doing that.
Rachael Heyhoe Flint, who died earlier this year, took the women's game to a new level. She was captain of England from 1966 to 1978 and never lost a match while she was the skipper. She was unbeaten in six test series and played for the English women's cricket team from 1960 to 1982. Heyhoe Flint was captain when her team won the inaugural 1973 Women's Cricket World Cup, which England hosted. She was also the first female cricketer to score a six in a test match, and was one of the first women to become a member of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC).
Later on in life, she became one of the first female directors of the England and Wales Cricket Board and in October 2010 was inducted into the ICC Cricket Hall of Fame, the first woman to achieve this accolade. Outside of cricket she became a member of the House of Lords, sitting for the Conservatives as Baroness Heyhoe Flint of Wolverhampton.
In 1998, the England women's team was finally brought under the same organising body as the men, the ECB, which made the promotion of women's cricket one of its main priorities. It was during this era that Charlotte Edwards made her mark on the sport. She made her debut for England at the tender age of 16 and captained England in 2005, leading the team to many notable victories. In 2009, with her at the helm, England won everything there was to win. They retained The Ashes, won the World Cup and World Twenty20 tournament. Despite all her success, Edwards was effectively sacked last year by a new head coach, who said the team needed to 'get fitter' and 'toughen up a little bit', something that might sound familiar to fans of Sri Lankan men's cricket.
England's women players now have full-time contracts, and with that comes added scrutiny and pressure as Edwards knows all too well. She has now retired from playing, but believes women's cricket is now better placed than ever.
For a woman who had to buy her own blazer when she was first selected for England, it has been an amazing transformation.
"It has changed dramatically really," she says. "My first World Cup was in India in 1997 and I went there as a complete amateur – now the girls are fully professional and playing for a huge prize. That says it all, doesn't it?"
"I think this tournament is going to be the best we've ever seen and is a huge opportunity to sell the game and promote it, not just in England but globally."
A successful tournament in terms of entertainment and revenue could also, she argues, open up a whole new world of opportunities for female cricketers in the future, including women like Sri Lanka's latest cricket hero, Chamari Atapattu.
The newly announced prize fund of $2m is a tenfold increase from 2013's tournament – and a quantum leap from the 18th century, when women played for lace gloves and barrels of beer.
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