“Eight years ago I was at the T20 World Cup in Sri Lanka with this team and we were excited to get one story in the newspaper back home. This morning I woke up to front and back pages in most of the papers.”
That was the former Australian media manager Kate Hutchison, posting from the MCG on Sunday. She was watching the final of the 2020 edition of the same tournament, along with 86,173 other people.
I started writing about women’s cricket in 2013, when Australia was playing for 50-over silverware in India.
Jo Currie tweet: The official crowd for the Women’s #T20WorldCup final here at the MCG is 86,174. Happy International Women’s Day everyone #IWD
That tournament had nailbiters, accusations of throwing a match to knock out England, and a young Ellyse Perry belting runs down the order before bowling through a World Cup final with a broken foot.
Had she been a man, this would immediately have settled into Rick McCosker-style legend. As it was, the whole win barely rated a mention. Trawling the major papers online turned up nothing, at best a few scraps buried at the bottom of pages.
Looking back through the archives, one of the few headlines from the day of that final is this heroically creepy effort from an Indian website: “Women’s cricket is a glamour sport, says the very beautiful 17-year-old Holly Ferling.”
The only writers on the national team that I was aware of were Jesse Hogan when occasionally permitted for Fairfax, and Melinda Farrell for Cricket Australia. A brilliant Test in Perth in January 2014 could be watched on a single-camera webstream with no graphics or commentary — and that was considered a major advance.
Later that month, England and Australia played a one-dayer in Melbourne. No ground does emptiness like the MCG. It can look deserted with 30,000 in it. On this day the crowd would have been counted in the hundreds. Despite the warm summer sun it was desolate.
Australia’s women’s cricket team won the T20 World Cup in the best way possible — cheered on by loads of joyous fans. (AAP: Scott Barbour )
Skip forward six years from then — only six years — and that same ground was heaving. Over 86,000 people, less than 4,000 short of the world record at any women’s sporting event.
More than enough seats had been sold to pass that record. Any event has some no-shows, and perhaps worries about coronavirus kept some people away. But by the end of the day, the organisers had distributed every ticket they had.
The speed of this change defies belief. Standing in the stadium on Sunday afternoon, having walked through the crowds outside and past the queues for tickets, watching the tiers fill and the people still streaming in, it sent shivers up the spine in the best possible way.
T20 World Cup tweet: Sporting icons. Legendary athletes. incredible women. Trailblazers were in attendance on a historic day at the MCG #INDvAUS #T20WorldCup
Of course, the history goes back so much further than six years. Back through the eras of recent legends like Karen Rolton and Cathryn Fitzpatrick and Lisa Keightley and Belinda Clark. Back through Sharon Tredrea and Christina Matthews. Back through the first World Cup in 1973.
Back through Faith Thomas and Molly Dive, back through the war, back to the first women’s Test in 1934. Back to the players raising their own subscriptions to afford to tour.
Back through all those years of being at best ignored, at least marginalised, and most often derided and threatened and opposed. Being told that no-one wanted to watch this sport, that it wasn’t good enough, that it would never be viable.
Culminating in this: after all those years of a steady, persistent refusal to go away, when CA’s full investment finally arrived, a few short years of the Big Bash and televised matches and proper marketing were all it took to fill that stadium. You build it, they come.
Some were concert-goers, there for the music. Some were feel-good participants, there for the experience. And plenty were regular fans, including large groups of men trooping in with backpacks and jerseys and flags, here to watch the cricket because by now it’s just the cricket.
Australia’s Alyssa Healy hit the fastest 50 in an ICC cricket final ever — men’s or women’s, ODI or T20I. (AAP: Scott Barbour)
Whoever they were, they saw Alyssa Healy driving inside-out over cover for six with an insouciance only belied by her look of delight after nailing the shot.
They saw Megan Schutt shifting the ball through the air to fox the swing of every bat. They saw Australia’s outfielders diving past the ropes to flick back with centimetres to spare. They saw India trounced, but only by virtue of brilliance.
They saw all of this on International Women’s Day, with hundreds of girls running onto the field dressed in the purple of that campaign.
They saw a visibly pregnant Katy Perry on a circular stage shaped like a gender pictogram, wearing a dress emblazoned with the same, belting out tunes about believing in your own worth.
And you can belittle all this as naff symbolism, but for some in that crowd it can mean more. Even the idea that women’s skills are worth attention still meets a fight. Unequivocally putting them at centre stage remains revolutionary.
The key players after the match spoke about what it meant to them. “I don’t think anything’s going to top that,” Healy said. “I hope there are girls in this side who will experience that for a long period of time, but for me I never thought we would get the opportunity to do something as cool as what we did today.
“It’s a dream come true, and I enjoyed every single minute of it. I don’t think you saw me without a smile on my face that whole time. We just went out there and enjoyed the moment. We enjoyed what we were able to create.
“Cricket’s done some amazing things in this country for female athletes, and tonight was really a celebration of that.”
Megan Schutt took three wickets in a brilliant display of swing bowling for Australia. (AAP: Scott Barbour)
Swing bowler Schutt picked up four wickets, overcoming some recent struggles against India’s batting. “Honestly, it was absolutely insane,” she said. “I was a bit distracted a few times while I was out there, counting the Mexican waves, and when all the lights on the phones came on. We spoke before the game about enjoying every moment, and I really genuinely tried to do that. I was one happy girl out there, that’s for sure.
T20 World Cup tweet: “I was getting a bit distracted out there with the Mexican wave, the lights going on, I was just trying to soak it all in.” Megan Schutt describes the feelings on the field during Australia’s #T20WorldCup triumph
“The best part of it was that they were there for us. Normally when we’ve had big crowds it’s been off the back of a double-header.
“When we came in on the bus and we saw people lining up to get in the gates, it really hit me then that this is happening and this is real. They wanted to fill the G and they’ve gone out and bloody done it.”
Healy’s opening partner Beth Mooney spoke of pride. “[I’m] proud to be part of the changing landscape of sport in this country and around the world,” she said. “I feel grateful as well to be given the opportunity to perform on the big stage, and also excited about what the future holds for the sport.”
Just for some final emotional poignancy, there was Ellyse Perry, star of that 2013 match and so many others. So consistent that she had played every single T20 World Cup match in Australia’s history, from 2009 until this year’s semi-final.
Australian women’s cricket team tweet: These two. (heart emoji) @Ahealy77 @EllysePerry
No-one has done more work for Australia’s side than Perry through those years. To lift the team, lift the profile, lift the standard. To be the standout player spanning the divide from an amateur era to fully professional.
In the last group match, her hamstring gave way. All those matches, all those tournaments, and now she would miss the biggest of them all.
But Perry stayed with the team. Wasn’t subbed out of the squad. Didn’t need to be, with Australia so versatile that some members of the XI weren’t required to bowl or bat.
So it felt like she was part of it as much as ever. Watching on in team kit, riding every delivery, beaming as broadly as anyone else with the eventual win.
She was part of it, but not needing to be the one to win it. She was there, but she wasn’t the story. Nobody bar nobody has been in a better place than Perry to see how that story has changed.
Australian women’s cricket team tweet: Our team on stage celebrating a World Cup win with Katy Perry. Iconic. @katyperry #T20WorldCup