The women who will make the next World Cup happen
ICC Women's Cricket World Cup 2021 is still 18 months away - but key moves to ensure its success are happening now.
“Yeah. Totally!” says Liz Dawson, when tossed a gentle throw-down question as to whether it’s important that a tournament showcasing the best female cricketers on the planet should also be delivered by women.
“Cricket is a game that's been played by women in this country for over 100 years. It's part of the fabric of sport in this country,” say Dawson, the newly-named chair of the 2021 ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup.
There’s a lot we don’t yet know about this World Cup. We do know that the tournament’s 12th edition will be held in New Zealand, in January and February 2021 - but we don’t know match dates, venues, the format, or even which nations will be competing for a prize that is now vastly more fiercely contested than it was the last time the event was held on these shores, in 2000.
Last week, however, two key planks were revealed: the board of the company that will deliver the tournament was confirmed, as was the event’s chief executive.
Fittingly, the appointees to the key roles of board chair and chief executive are women.
Dawson’s pathway to sports governance started as a ski instructor-turned-marketing manager for New Zealand Rugby, and then took in stints with the Warriors and as CEO of the short-lived Super League club Adelaide Rams, before veering back to rugby union with a post on the Hurricanes’ board. Dawson is now a board member of New Zealand Cricket and at the forefront of the push for gender equality in the nation’s sporting boardrooms.
“If [New Zealand Cricket] has a vision that it will be a game that can be enjoyed by all New Zealanders – and you include both genders in that – then it's pretty important that you live up to the vision,” she says.
Dawson points out that the contribution to the voluntary sector across all sports is populated by just as many women and girls as men and boys – and there’s no sane (or commercial) reason why gender equity should be parked at the boardroom door.
“If we want a healthy and balanced sporting New Zealand then we should be encouraging all [people] to get involved in sport. There is a place for everyone.”
Traditionally male-dominated sports have ignored females to their own detriment – a fact many are now waking up to, she says.
“If you are a commercial, hard-nosed person saying ‘how am I going to grow my business’, not letting 50 percent of the population get involved at all seems like a not very commercial or sensible way of running a business.”
Football-mad South America provides a good example of that thinking. While the likes of Argentina and Brazil are giants of the men’s game, their female equivalents have long battled simply to survive. However, a 2016 directive from South American confederation Conmebol to only grant professional men’s teams continental licences if they filed a women’s team, has utterly changed the landscape – and interest and engagement with the women’s game is at last growing in football’s Mecca.
“That has not in any way damaged the men’s game,” Dawson points out. “It has continued to grow the men’s game. It has exponentially grown interest in the women’s game – and what is bad about that?”
With the profile of women’s cricket on the rise, the 2021 World Cup comes at what Dawson sees as a “tipping point”.
If the gains made by the establishment of professional televised T20 leagues in England and Australia and the increased exposure of the growing talent and depth in the international game can be consolidated and built upon in 2021, women’s cricket’s elevation to genuine mass market appeal can be secured.
The genesis of the game’s increase in status can be tracked to the 2017 World Cup held in England and Wales, says Dawson.
“They delivered an amazing event that I think really changed the landscape around the international value of the game.”
All matches were televised in all competing nations, and the final at Lords’ was a sell-out.
“It delivered on all the metrics that the ICC put into place. That’s a really firm foundation – they’ve put in great building blocks for New Zealand as a host nation," Dawson says.
And set the bar very high.
What success for the next tournament looks like is yet to be laid out. The next step – following the completion of the current men’s tournament – is for organisers to meet with the ICC to set key “measures, goals and aspirations”.
A key figure in those discussions will be Andrea Nelson, the chief executive of Cricket 2021 Ltd, the standalone entity created to deliver the tournament.
A self-professed cricket tragic whose career in sports began as a communications contractor working on the 2012 London Olympics - and has included key roles delivering the Fifa U20 World Cup and 2017 Rugby League World Cups - Nelson sees 2021 as an opportunity for New Zealand to take its place at the forefront of the overdue elevation of women’s sport.
“Around the world and particularly in Australia and the UK, women’s sport is on a real growth path,” she says.
“Here in New Zealand, this is an opportunity to take it to that level. We’ve got two big, global World Cups in one year [the other is the women’s Rugby World Cup], which is pretty unheard of.”
Those two events, combined with hosting the International Working Group on Women in Sport, “gives us a chance to become leaders in this field – which is where New Zealand should be. That’s really exciting.”
Although she has most recently worked in rugby league, as the general manager of New Zealand’s co-hosting of the 2017 World Cup and then helping to establish the fledgling Oceania Cup, Nelson’s true love has always been cricket.
“I am a true cricket tragic. I will watch every ball of a test match if I can. I’ve recently become more fond of T20 cricket after a slow start. I’ve worked on lots of different events in lots of different sports and you grow to love all of them but, with cricket, I’m starting from a point of love, so I really can’t wait to get my teeth into it.”
Like Dawson, Nelson believes the 2021 World Cup will prove a tipping point for the women’s game.
"I’m the mother of two boys, but my 10-year-old can name as many White Ferns as he can Black Caps. And he could also tell you their batting averages. That enthusiasm, when games are televised and high-profile, is inevitable. The exposure that the White Ferns and other teams [at the World Cup] will do more for perception that a million other programmes," Nelson says.
“So it’s a really great opportunity to create a platform for everything that New Zealand Cricket wants to achieve with women and girls.”
The delivery of major sporting events is seldom a challenge-free process, as Nelson well knows.
On the eve of the 2015 Fifa U20 World Cup, the tournament’s chairman, Jeffrey Webb, was implicated in one of the biggest scandals in the history of sports broke, reducing the official tournament press conference to a farce. The 2017 Rugby League World Cup featured riots and mass arrests on the streets of Auckland that sparked genuine, but thankfully unrealised, fears around spectator safety at matches.
Both events, though, were ultimately extremely successful.
“Every event you work on brings its own opportunities and challenges,” says Nelson. “The big opportunity with the 2017 Rugby League World Cup was to showcase the Pasifika-Maori face of New Zealand to the world through the sport of rugby league. We set that out as our vision really early on.
“Obviously we didn’t ask Jason Taumalolo to join Tonga - but him doing that certainly was a spark that achieved that for the sport.
“The Fifa U20 World Cup was an event that wasn’t necessarily top of mind, but we got 350,000 people through the gates for that. So every event has its challenges, but also its own opportunities. It is going to interesting to get into this one and see how we can get women’s cricket into the headlines.”
While the event may not yet be fully formed, one assumption can safely be made: the final won’t take place at the same venue as when New Zealand last hosted the tournament two decades earlier – the Bert Sutcliffe Oval in Lincoln, rural Canterbury.
Though the venue will change, Kiwi cricket fans will delighted if the result remains the same: an historic four-run win to the White Ferns over Australia in a last-over thriller.