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Cricket news - WBBL 2019 - Standing alone and standing apart

Will the standalone WBBL in 2019 pave the way for a new and refreshing trend in women's cricket ahead of next year's Women's T20 WC?

The road leading up to North Sydney Oval (NSO) from the Sydney Harbour Bridge had turned magenta for nearly a week leading in to October 18. And the first landmark that came to view once you took the Pacific Highway slip road, having passed the iconic Sydney Opera House to your right upon getting on the bridge, was a massive hoarding carrying the images of Australian cricket's two icons, Ellyse Perry and Allysa Healy.

Both obviously displaying their Sydney Sixers colours with great pride. The sea of magenta only spread further over the opening weekend of the first-ever standalone Women's Big Bash League (WBBL) and it wasn't restricted to the NSO, the unofficial home of women's cricket.

A day later, on October 19, the West Terrace in Adelaide's CBD had turned blue. The Strikers were playing their first home-game at their own base for women's cricket, the Karen Rolton Oval (KRO), aptly named after one of the greatest to have played the sport.

The KRO is a unique venue, considering it is completely open and is visible from most major roads leading in and out of the city-centre. It was here - in its previous avatar as Park 25 - that the Australian men's team had held an "open air" practice session back in December 2014, their first following the unfortunate death of Phillip Hughes.

And you couldn't drive past the KRO over the weekend without realising that the WBBL was in town - courtesy also a large Strikers logo which was erected on the hill facing the busy North Terrace. And the flavour, colours and vibe of the premier women's cricket T20 league in the world have found their way around the country, to Melbourne and Brisbane-and soon enough to Perth and smaller centres like Burnie and Mackay-over the last two weeks. The fifth edition of the WBBL hasn't just been standalone; it's been a standout already.

BBL head Alistair Dobson though doesn't see the WBBL's attempt to stand apart after having spent four seasons piggy-backing on the men's tournament as a "moment in time", but as a "natural evolution".

Speaking to Cricbuzz, the former AFL senior marketing manager who took over from Kim McConnie in May also feels that it was time for the women to get their own "slot in the spotlight".

"The colour, the excitement and the experience of coming to the WBBL mirrors the men's BBL. But the key difference is the pure strength and quality of the competition in the WBBL where you got all the Australian players playing throughout the whole competition and the best players around the world coming in. Its quality is at the heart of making it the best women's cricket league in the world, and it warrants its own space," says Dobson.

The new BBL boss then talks about the amount of unprecedented preparation that his team had to put in this time, which involved setting up standalone venues, standalone broadcast production and also partnering with the clubs to spread the word and awareness into the communities.

Only 23 of the 56 matches in the tournament will be on live TV though with the rest to be streamed online. But Dobson insists that the evolution of the WBBL's broadcast this year isn't focused so much on the number of games but on occupying the primetime slots on Fridays and Saturdays.

"We work with our broadcast partners each year on optimizing the schedule. We're getting national coverage in primetime and the big Friday and Saturday night games will give exposure for not just the league, but the players and women's cricket around Australia in general," he says before adding how the uniqueness of the WBBL broadcast was the non-stadium venues that the games are played at. "It's a real point of difference with the WBBL where our broadcast partners love having the opportunity to get right up close to the action and get great access to the players like the fans can at these nice, smaller venues as compared to the bigger stadiums."

The women to their credit have made more than just the most of their unique exposure, not just on TV but also at the more boutique venues. We've already seen a string of close matches, lively family atmospheres at the grounds-including a bucks party during a game in Adelaide-an on-camera marriage proposal to a player and the arrival of women cricket's first-ever YouTube sensation-in 16-year-old Phoebe Litchfield.

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Not to forget hat-tricks, sensational catches, big foreign names, and Ellyse Perry doing Ellyse Perry things. And like national team coach Matthew Mott puts it, the audience is voting through viewership numbers and by turning out in sizable numbers for every game. The overall crowed that turned up at NSO to see the Sydney derby on October 18 was three times that of the highest turnout ever for an opening game of a WBBL season.

Mott has been in-charge for over five years now and has overseen the rise of an indomitable reign for the Australian women's team during the last 18 months. He believes that the advent of the exclusive WBBL is not confined to the significant growth of his team but is a wider reflection of the burgeoning status of women's sport in Australia.

"We're really proud that we are one of the teams that is really driving that change. It's about empowering more young girls and boys to play the sport. It's really important that we don't get caught up in saying that it's only about young girls. My son's a great example. He loves watching the WBBL and he doesn't see gender at all. He's a Sixers fan and is just as excited when the girls come on as the boys. I think that's a real change in mind-set from the Australian public and the appetite to watch good quality cricket is getting better. Women's cricket is certainly not a new phenomenon but there's certainly a lot more public than ever before and it's an exciting time," says Mott.

He admits that the WBBL needed the springboard of being clubbed with the men's league to get it in eye-line of the cricket-viewing public of the country. The unprecedented success that the likes of Perry, Healy and Meg Lanning have achieved in recent times though will only trigger greater interest and more intensity in the tournament according to Mott. He goes on to call the WBBL an "absolute revelation" for not just Australian but world cricket itself.

"It's raising the bar in women's cricket. One of the criticisms of the WNCL program was not enough teams and perhaps the talent not spread enough around states. But the player movement that's happened and the young players not just getting games, but getting games in prominent positions, and being able to put their names in the spotlight has had a huge impact.

"We've seen it with our team with the likes of Georgia Wareham and Sophie Molineux and Tayla Vlameinck who have come through that program and been exposed to international players and Australian players in the spotlight of national TV. And when they then come into our program they fit in seamlessly," he says.

At a time where the Australian team seems to struggle often to find an opposition to challenge their supremacy at international level, Mott also believes the WBBL could help lift the standards of some of the foreign players who play in the league and in turn enhance the quality of the world game.

"Chamari Attapathu is the perfect example. She came in and didn't have a great tournament but you can see that she's rubbed shoulders with our players. I think people were worried that we were giving too much to other teams. But it's a global game now and we've got a responsibility to not just for Australian cricket but to grow the world game," he adds.

It was during Dobson's time there that the AFL launched their own women's league-back in 2017-and the AFLW is on the verge of expanding even further in terms of teams and coverage. While he does see "few similarities", the former BBL chief insists on there being "major differences".

"Both the sports have tried very hard to find that space and create unique competitions and unique products whether its broadcast or at the stadiums. They are different from the point of view that in terms of the AFL, that's still a new and emerging league and professional women's footballers compared to women's cricket which has got a longer, richer history of professional players. Across the board though women athletes are really engaging and kids find them very approachable and fun to be around while making them aspirational," says Dobson.

He however doesn't buy into the popular notion around Australia of how footy and cricket are always looking to find ways of eating into each other's otherwise defined seasons. Already some local cricket clubs in certain suburbs of Sydney are finding it hard to find fixed venues at all times.

"The move to a standalone season is in the best interests of the WBBL. There's plenty of space in the calendar for multiple sports and they can all actually work together to grow the audience and the connection to the amazing female athletes playing in these sports. It's an increasingly busy sporting calendar in Australia where you have multiple leagues and multiple sports all vying for the same slot in the year," he says.

What Dobson doesn't shy away from is agreeing that there are some "calculated risks" involved with divorcing the WBBL from the BBL the way it's been done. For starters, it means having to attract a cricket audience during a period of the year that's not historically been billed too highly for high-profile cricket and when the kids are still in school.

"For us, the risk is the ability for the cricket community and fans around the country to connect in an October-November season which isn't naturally a high-profile time for cricket, which is why we have been calling for our clubs and players to be really active with the community as we move around the country," he says. What is in favour of the WBBL is the rather low-key home summer for the men's team, with none of the major crowd-pullers-be it India, England or even South Africa-making it to these shores this year. Only 16,000 turned up at the Adelaide Oval a weekend later for the facile T20I against Sri Lanka, and there were many empty seats on show during the second game at the Gabba.

"It is an opportunity to schedule the WBBL at a time when there isn't a lot of other cricket happening compared to that peak summer school holiday period. It's the clear air that allows us to broadcast games on Friday and Saturday night. It's a 2-3 or more year project, where we know it'll grow each year and we'll judge it based on crowds and TV audiences this year and look to continue to grow."

The onus is also on WBBL05 to create the momentum for the Women's T20 WC, which will be held Down Under in February. Dobson refers to the league this season as being a "dress rehearsal" to the world event with the best players from here and around the world-except India-making their presence felt in advance.

Both Mott and he agree that the two tournaments are "intertwined" quite strongly on and off the field and that the WBBL will play a role in supporting attendances and audiences for the World Cup, leading up the ultimate goal for CA-"filling up the MCG on the day of the World Cup final which also happens to be International Women's Day".

"A lot of people watched that semifinals day of the WBBL last year and I can honestly say it was one of the best days of cricket I've seen. Knife-edge results and the momentum from that was really huge. If we get games of that calibre, that's going to have a great impact on viewership when we lead into that World Cup. I know Cricket Australia have put an enormous amount of resources in making sure it all works and there's pressure on us to do well even in that tri-series against India and England (right before the World Cup) who are probably two of the strong contenders," says Mott.

Dobson though is aware that while the WBBL can still find a mutual buffer in the World Cup this season, it'll be up to the likes of him and others on the BBL board to make sure the event "drives audiences" going forward and ensures that the standalone season is cemented.

And even as a bunch of pioneering women, with a group of fearless and extremely talented teenagers to boot, continue to boldly go where few even dreamt they could till a few years back, Mott realises that what transpires on March 8, 2020 and how many witness it in person could well define this era of women's sport-that it will be a "moment in time".

"Our players have made a commitment that we're really going to embrace that pressure and try and build the momentum around that game (World Cup final). We see it as not just important for cricket but women's sport and the women's sport movement. That could be a real driver for the next generation of sports people in Australia."

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