Once upon a time there was a women's team sport that wanted to grow.
Traditionally seen as a male sport, it has strong associations with the Empire, and at times it can be an expensive and difficult sport to understand – the laws of the game in particular being legendarily complex. The truth, however, is that it is played by women across the world, and the rules are not nearly as difficult to understand as is often suggested.
The highest level of the sport was the international “test match” – it is what all players aspired to take part in. However, when a shorter, cheaper, simpler, faster version of the game came along this was seized upon as a great way to expand the reach and popularity of the game. Great for TV it also offered the prospect of expansion into new nations not previously associated with the sport. Offer the shorter version of the game, went the theory, and once it takes root players will move on to the “real thing”.
At the same time the sport was moving to combine what had hitherto been separate associations of men and women, and the newly combined international association fully endorsed and supported the move. And it has worked – the short form of the game now gets media and TV coverage it could never previously dream of, and many countries that previously did not play now do. It’s a great success.
Except for one problem. The test match form of the game is all but dead.
I exaggerate? Well not really – because I am talking about women’s test cricket. Today only England and Australia now play the “real” game at all. Ireland have not played a test since 2000, Pakistan not since 2003, New Zealand’s last test was in 2004, India 2006, and Netherlands and South Africa in 2007. One-day and 20/20 cricket is now the norm for the women’s game.
All very interesting, you may say, but why bring this up on a women’s rugby website?
Because the parallels are astonishingly similar to what is now happening with women’s rugby. A couple of years ago sevens rugby was being spoken of as being the way to expand the female game, of introducing new players and countries. Shorter, faster, simpler, cheaper, with better media coverage – perfect for TV with its 14 minute games. And a wonderful stepping stone on the way to proper test rugby.
But that has gone rather quiet of late – now we are more likely hear of sevens being the norm for the women’s game. And even if that is not the official line, the signs from elsewhere are certainly worrying. The all-but collapse of the XVs European Cup last year was one concern and now there are more about the future of the 6 Nations. It is not far fetched to suggest that if there was not a World Cup in 2014, or an existing contractual requirement to take part in some tournaments, the test match landscape could be plainer yet.
Okay, as with any attempt to find parallels in history, there are number of differences between what happened with cricket and what may be happening in rugby. One-day cricket is far closer to the routine women’s game at club, county, state and provincial level – test cricket was always an oddity – whereas XVs rugby is the basic club game in many countries, even some who do not play XVs tests. But the echoes are still strong.
And yes, women’s international cricket has never had such a high profile. Based on one-day and 20/20, it thrives, with more players than ever before - but it is at a cost. It is actually quite subtle – but it is the loss of a type of player, and a type of game. We no longer find the batsman who scored slowly but was hard to get out, or the bowler who always took wickets but cost a few runs. The long, subtle duels between the two are no more. Increasingly at the top level the players are almost identikits of each other. It’s all fast scorers, containing bowlers, and a game that lacks subtlety.
With rugby – which I contend is going the same way - the loss is likely to be far more obvious, and sad. It will be the very idea of a unique game that has a place for everyone of every shape and every size, the loss of anyone with a number on their back that is five or less, for a game that is fun to watch and play – for a while - but leaves you wanting something with a bit more bite to it.
Women’s cricket sold its soul about 20 years ago, and now there is no going back. My fear is that the devil, with five ring jingling on his fingers, if now offering a similar contract to women’s rugby – and that the game may be signing it early next week if it is decided to take apart the women's 6 Nations.
But with the prospect of everything the sport said it wanted on offer, will anyone be reading the small print this time?