This article was published in The Cricket Monthly

The world’s best swimmers stood on the starting blocks, inside a shimmering metal and plastic rectangle that was Made in China, and insisted on being called a Cube. As they dived in, swimming at the 2008 Summer Olympics began, and the records began to tumble. Not just because those athletes had spent the last four years honing their bodies to a fine edge, but because the playing field had changed, in more ways than one. 

Yes, most swimmers wore controversial compression suits, but it wasn’t just that; the very arena aided their speed. The pool in Beijing was about a meter deeper than most Olympic swimming pools. The extra space allowed the waves caused by the Olympians to dissipate, creating less turbulence. In a sport where every little bit counts, where milliseconds decide medals, 23 world records were set. Athens did not even see 10. 

Cricket may be the sport most allergic to water (only in cricket does a drizzle stop play, with the batters quick to cradle their willows), but for the last year, women’s T20I cricket seems to have been in its own Water Cube. Par scores have soared like eagles, batting records have been shot down like fowl, and new Playing Conditions that came into force last year seem to have a lot to do with it. 

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In the last five years, women’s cricket has seen innovations that have contributed immensely to the flowering of the game. The ICC Women’s Championship, begun in 2013, chalked out a blueprint that men’s cricket will soon follow, and multi-format series helped keep Test cricket alive, at least within the confines of the Urn. Perhaps in the self-same spirit of progress, the ICC changed the Playing Conditions in women’s internationals from October 1, 2017 onwards, leading into the new World Cup cycle.

Two new balls were introduced in ODIs, and the batting powerplay retained. Then came the big one: the number of fielders allowed outside the circle in non-powerplay overs was reduced from five to four. And this change was also applied to T20Is. 

Among the first series held to this new tune was the Women’s Ashes in October-November 2017, which gave us a prelude of the year to come. In the third and deciding T20I, Australia scored 178 for 2, with Beth Mooney getting to her first T20 hundred, 117 off 70. Until then, teams had always won when a batter scored a hundred for them. So Danielle Wyatt and England changed history, without changing that fact. Wyatt scored a century of her own off just 56 balls and England chased down the total with and entire over to spare. 

The next few series showed similar patterns. India chased down their highest ever total (168) against South Africa in February 2018. A month later, they then set their highest, 198, against England, only to see that chased down, courtesy another Wyatt century. In the same tournament, Australia became the first top-10 team to cross the 200 mark since 2010. And in their home summer, England brought that record down, and set up their own monolith: an even 250 on the back of a Tammy Beaumont century. 

If that seems like a lot of centuries, it is. Before 30th September 2017, there had been just three hundreds by women in T20I cricket. Since, that number has swelled to nine. The Mooney-Wyatt game was the first time in the history of the sport that two hundreds came in the same game. Centuries were until recently so rare that Cricinfo’s records page didn’t bother with having a tab for the most T20I hundreds in a career. They still don’t, but the way things are going, will need to add one soon. 

Average run rates have risen by a whole run. That might not seem like a lot, but like with temperature and sea levels, a little makes a big difference. Until September 2017, women’s cricket clocked 5.84 runs per over. Since October 2017, that has now risen to 6.16, and for the top-10, that number is 6.54.  

The rising mercury of par scores reflects how all those involved in the game have changed the way they approach it. For batters, there is now an extra boundary unprotected, an open door that was closed before. “In our preparation, we talk a lot about looking for the fifth gap,” New Zealand coach Haidee Tiffen told me earlier this year. Coaches too have had to press shift+delete on plans they used until recently. “We have a few KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), and even ones that we wrote 12 months ago are null and void,” said Matthew Mott, Australian coach. “I still remember the first Ashes I was involved with (2015), the average winning score in T20 cricket was about 120. We were trying to score closer to 140, and even that was considered a bit over the top adventurous,” he said. 

Mott’s team is one of the prime examples of how traditional coaching adages have been recognised as obsolete in the new environment. Meg Lanning and Ellyse Perry, widely regarded among the best two batters in the world, bat at No. 5 and No. 6 in T20Is for Australia, giving them less overs to face. In the top four, Australia bat the more explosive Alyssa Healy, Beth Mooney, Ash Gardener and Elyse Villani (combined strike rate of 121; Lanning and Perry combine for 111). 

While the extra gap has encouraged batters to play more shots, they are also hitting the ball harder and longer. Powerful batters are now the norm for the top teams, and that trend is trickling down the ladder. “Every team now has two or three hitters who can change the game”, said Indian T20 captain Harmanpreet Kaur to the ICC (Rahul, this was in an interview to me, which will be up in the form of a column for the ICC. If the column is up before this piece, can we use this?). They have also been given a head start by smaller boundaries. 

The ICC playing conditions specify that women’s international boundaries should be between 55 and 65 yards. Think about that; a 55-yard boundary means that the inner circle (25 yards) is bigger than the distance between the circle and the boundary. When India women toured South Africa in February this year, short boundaries stood witness to 42 sixes in the five-match series, despite one match being partially rained off. That tally was just one short of the 43 sixes hit in the entire WT20 2016, across 23 matches. 

With my bowler’s hat firmly on, I have been critical of such short boundaries, fearful of women’s cricket moving closer to the men’s game where mishits routinely go for sixes. But speaking to me when his team toured India in March, England coach Mark Robinson put forth a point of view worth considering. “They (female cricketers) have played on boundaries that were — not too big for them, but were — quite intimidating, especially on slow wickets,” he said. “So what we tried to do was experiment with smaller boundaries. Our challenge as coaches was to get them to express themselves, get rid of the fear. What they learned was they don’t have to over-hit the ball. Then they learnt that they can trust their swing and hit sixes.” That much is true; in the Tri-nation T20 series that India  hosted, players from all three teams regularly threatened the sight-screen, rendering the boundary size irrelevant. 

On that tour, England had in their entourage Julian Wood, a coach who specialises in power hitting. Wood has worked with the Australian team as well, another indication of how seriously teams are taking this aspect of the game. And the new Playing Conditions have pushed this trend uphill. Since after the WT20 2014 until September 2017, the top ten teams hit 256 sixes in 110 matches, at an average of one six ever 97 balls. Since October 2017, 267 sixes have come in just 82 matches, one every 60 balls, a massive rise. Overall, boundaries have become more frequent, from one every 10 balls to one every 7.5. 

This jump in batting opportunity means that the average first innings score has risen from 121 to 139. But this matters less than it used to; one of the biggest shifts in the game in the last year is how little runs on the board count. For the same period, 2014-2017 as above, chasing teams won 51 per cent of the time, winning 56 and losing 52 games. Since October 2017, that number has risen to 63 per cent, with chasing teams winning 46 and losing just 26 times. “Par scores are in excess of 160 on most grounds now, and teams are making 185 and not feeling safe,” observed Mott.

An increase in the number of shots played should also mean more opportunities for the bowlers to take wickets, and 2017 has already seen two T20I hat-tricks, which is one more than the last two calendar years put together. But in reality, the only thing that has changed for the bowlers is their economy rates. Wickets fell at an average of 18.96 in the 119 matches since October 2017. But in the same number of matches before the rule change, wickets cost roughly the same, 18.45. Batting-friendly pitches are a major contributor to the plight of the bowlers. “It’s not a pleasure bowling, as they literally take away everything for the bowler,” said South African quick Marizanne Kapp. She agreed that having just four fielders on the boundary after the powerplay felt like a death overs that lasted 14 instead of four overs. “It’s not fair at all,” she added. “I understand T20 cricket is about entertainment, but a good challenge between bat and ball is also exciting.” 

Both Robinson and Mott though feel it’s just a matter of time before the bowlers catch up. “I think it will be pulled back slightly,” said Mott. “There’s a few ways it could go: extra pace could be a factor. But more realistically, and in the short term, it is variation and changes of pace.” Cases in point: Megan Schutt’s medium-pace inswing is now ranked the best in the world, and England trundler Jenny Gunn has developed a super-slower ball. Her teammates have nicknamed ‘The Whiff’, perhaps because it lingers in the air for so long. “We’ve already seen a real spike in the number of variations our bowlers are bowling. Most of our players probably had one slower ball before, now they have been working on two to three variations,’’ Mott said. 

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There’s more to it though, and Jakarta’s Garuda theatre provided a comparison. This last August, the Indian men’s kabaddi team lost a game in the first time in their Asian Games history, falling 23-24 to South Korea. They were expected to come back strong and defend the gold medal that they have held since the introduction of kabaddi in 1990. Instead they were beaten in the semis by Iran, who went on to beat South Korea in the final and claim history. 

The win hurt India for more than obvious reasons. _____ players (I’m gettin accurate data from PKL about this in a couple of days, and I’ll add it to the copy once I have it) from Iran and South Korea had played in the Pro Kabaddi League in the last two years. Ostensibly, the foreign players seem to have gleaned enough about the Indians through the league to help tip what was an unbalanced scale. 

It’s a pain the Australian women’s cricket team are familiar with. Twice in the last two ICC tournaments, they have been knocked out by the brilliance of players who have benefitted from playing in their domestic Women’s Big Bash League. The first occasion came in the 2016 WT20 final against an unfancied Windies team. First, Deandra Dottin allowed just one run off the final over of Australia’s innings to keep them to 148, still a formidable score. Then Hayley Matthews and Stafanie Taylor combined for a 120-run opening partnership that sealed the chase. All three had played in the WBBL since its inception. And in 2017, in the semifinal of the Women’s World Cup, came Harmanpreet Kaur’s 171*. Harmanpreet had made waves in her debut season for the Sydney Thunder six months earlier. 

In Abhinav Bindra’s autobiography, while talking about the value gained from shooting abroad, he recounts the words of coach Lazlo Szucsak: To polish diamonds, you need diamond dust. The overseas players in the WBBL and England’s Super League are the cream of their country’s talent. They then get to play in domestic cricket considerably higher standard than their own. This naturally allows them to improve multiple aspects of their skill-sets, not to mention get a look at opposition players, a feel of foreign conditions, and intangible benefits like confidence.

Some gains are more direct. During her Player of the Tournament-winning season with Western Storm, Smriti Mandhana spoke about how she was picking up the reverse sweep from England international Fran Wilson, while learning about West Indian conditions from Stafanie Taylor. Alongside central contracts to most teams, the WBBL and the Super League have done much to equalise international cricket. 

It’s not just the top teams and players that are benefitting. In WBBL-03, two Bangladeshi players spent time with franchises through the ICC’s rookie program. Rumana Ahmed observed for two weeks the backroom of the Brisbane Heat, and even got to pick the brain of fellow leggie Stuart MacGill. Off-spinner Khadija Tul-Kubra barracked with the Melbourne Renegades. They carried home lessons along with souvenirs.  “Before, we were doing very light gym and running sessions,” said Rumana. “When I came back from the WBBL, I wanted to try to gain their physical fitness and hitting power. So I too began to train harder in the gym and work on my upper body power.” Both played pivotal roles in Bangladesh’ dethroning of India in the recent Asia Cup; Rumana took three wickets and scored 42* when Bangladesh beat India in the group stage, and took Player of the Match award in the final as well. Tul Kubra took two wickets in the final. “We are trying to make sure this WBBL experience was as much our team-mates’ as it was our own.” Ahmed mentioned in an interview to Cricinfo

It may seem that overseas players have taken more out of domestic T20 competitions than the competition have out of them. But while the world remembers Harmanpreet’s heroics, somewhere on a Cricket Australia hard drive are thousands of megabytes of footage of her facing all manner of bowlers in the WBBL, which will be dissected ahead of the WT20. “I think it’s an advantage and a disadvantage”, said Harmanpreet. “Before, we played only for the country, and we hardly had a chance to meet foreign players. I think after WBBL and KSL, we see their culture, their game plans. So now we can think what their mindset is, we can imagine what the team would be thinking. These things will help.” Interestingly, the success of the WBBL has coincided with a title-drought for Australia; they won their last world title in 2014. 

Such a cross pollination of cricketing knowledge is certainly good for the global game, a natural effect of stronger domestic systems. The changes arising from the Playing Conditions though are a more man-made phenomenon, and it may be a bit too early to judge if those are for better or for worse. If pitches in the Windies support the batters, the WT20 2018 could prove to be the highest scoring tournament in women’s T20I history. If that happens, remember 1st October 2017, the day the women’s cricket world changed. 

With inputs from Cricinfo stats team