It is an anomaly that the qualifying event for a World Cup in England is being played in Sri Lanka, but that, perhaps, will be the last thing on the minds of the 10 teams fighting to be a part of the biggest event in women’s cricket.
In principle, identifying four more contenders to join Australia, England, New Zealand and West Indies for the World Cup in June spells expansion and indicates the drive off the ICC to promote the women’s game. But, there is a serious gulf in the quality of the teams in the Qualifier.
Thailand, for example, will be playing their first 50-over game ever on February 8 – and it will be against India, the tournament favourites. Some recent match practice might have helped even the scales, but Thailand, in the last one year, have only played five T20s. The threat posed by Zimbabwe, Papua New Guinea and Scotland seems similarly underwhelming. Expecting a level-playing field in the competition – where three teams from two groups of five will progress to the Super Six stage – would be far-fetched.
The Qualifier may well become an opportunity for the bigger sides – India, South Africa, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – to get more game time and fine-tune their combinations in preparation for the World Cup. Bangladesh and Ireland, who have been in the fringes of women’s cricket showed sparks of their ability at the World T20 in India last year, would be keen to play the role of a banana skin.
The four teams who progress to England will also be a part of the next ICC Women’s Championship table. Considering most of the top-eight nations play a minimum of five ODIs in a series, with three of them counting towards the championship, the new entrants could potentially stand to play a lot more than the 21 games they were guaranteed over a three-year window from 2018 to 2020.
Here is a look at all the teams in Qualifier, which begins on February 7, their key players and their chances of making the World Cup.
They are still hurting from a first-round exit in the 2013 World Cup and an inability to make the semi-final of the World T20 in 2016. Mithali Raj and co. could have earned direct entry for the coming World Cup had they beaten Pakistan in a series, but that was a non-starter because of political tensions. India are looking at this tournament as an opportunity to prepare back-ups for the injured opener Smriti Mandhana and their bowling spearhead Jhulan Goswami.
Recent form: Won the Asia Cup T20 by beating Pakistan in the final in Bangkok in December with Raj making an unbeaten half-century in the chase. Prior to that, they beat West Indies in the three-match ODI series at home, but lost the T20Is.
Chances of making it: A largely spin-based attack will thrive on Sri Lankan pitches. Add a much-improved batting unit, and they have every chance of making the final.
At the World Cup in 2013, they were the rank outsiders who made it past the group stages. At the World T20 that followed, they made their first-ever semi-final. Those performances earned them a Test, a direct sign of improvement in women’s cricket, later that year. Having failed to make the semi-finals of the World T20 in 2016, the team has had a change of guard with Dane van Niekerk, who made her debut as a 15-year old, taking over the captaincy across formats from Mignon du Preez. If their warm-up performance, where they shot out a strong Indian batting line-up for 155, is anything go by, they will be more than a handful.
Recent form: They gained valuable match-time in subcontinent conditions beating Bangladesh 4-1 last month. In October, they registered their first-ever ODI win over New Zealand, but eventually lost the series 5-2.
Chances of making it: Their sheer athleticism in the field, and a largely improved bowling attack that has had vital contributions from spinners recently – Sune Luus finished as the top ODI wicket-taker last year, with 37 in 22 matches at an average of 20.40 – make them a definite threat in conditions that may not be too alien, after all.
In 2011, the PCB managed to do what even bigger boards like Australia and England did much later: 19 top cricketers were awarded central contracts following their Asian Games gold-medal performance in Guangzhou. At the World T20 last year, improvements surfaced when they came within touching distance of a semi-final. At the World Cup in 2013, they were merely looking at “gaining experience.” Now, they want a lot more.
Recent form: They beat Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Thailand en route to the Asia Cup final, which they lost to India. Prior to that, they were whitewashed 5-0 in the ODIs in New Zealand. The improvements from their point of view: they topped 220 in two matches, and then ran the hosts close in the only T20I on tour.
Chances of making it: Their opening game against South Africa on February 7 could likely determine the group toppers. Should make it into the Super Six stage, but have to be vary of Bangladesh, who recently beat South Africa to register their first ODI win over a Full Member.
They need to look no further than their 2013 World Cup exploits in India, where they ousted the hosts and beat England to qualify for the second round. Familiarity of conditions will be an advantage, but their batting has regressed. Lack of power hitters and fitness that was rated by their own coach Hemantha Devapriya as “not up to standard” makes them vulnerable to meltdowns.
They are over-reliant on Chamari Atapattu, the only Sri Lankan to score two ODI centuries in women’s cricket. Absence of a proper domestic structure has resulted in them having to learn on the job in international cricket.
Recent form: Sri Lanka made totals of 168, 173 and 161 in the first three ODIs against England. Against Australia, they passed 150 just once in four ODIs. They lost both series. The defeat to Bangladesh in the Asia Cup T20 further exposed how much ground they have lost.
Chances of making it: The lack of wins recently makes it a question of form v confidence. They could face stiff competition from Ireland for the second spot in the group stages.
The other contenders
Ireland, semi-professionals fighting for recognition, will bring into the tournament their experience from the World T20 in India last year. With money being pumped into their development activities and teams visiting their shores ahead of tours of England, players are finally getting good exposure. That some of them have earned contracts with Women’s Big Bash League frachises through ICC’s Associate Rookie Programme – Kim Garth, who featured for Sydney Sixers in the final two weeks ago – is an indication of how far the sport has come.
As things stand, Ireland are the best-placed among the sides that don’t yet have international status to make the World Cup. Bangladesh may also be in the hunt for a Super-Six berth, but for Zimbabwe, Thailand, Papua New Guinea and Scotland, this will be an opportunity to understand where they stand on the global stage and what they need to do to bridge the gap.