The final two hours of the Canberra Test will be replayed again and again. The dying hours of the fourth day, players on both teams losing their nerve and then finding it again. The way the match swung back and forth, from England can’t win it, to England can’t fail to win it, to the last passage where the upper hand changed by the over, by the delivery. Exhaustion, confusion, moments of supreme skill, experienced players having their poise desert them, inexperienced players forging on with the boldness of the young. In the breathless moment after it was done, no winner, two winners, and a point at which winning didn’t matter at all.
Had Australia taken the 10th wicket with the final margin of 11 remaining, only two women’s Test wins would have been closer. Had England scored the 12 they needed, it would have been the first Test decided by one wicket. There has never been a match drawn in the fourth innings with so few runs between the teams. New Zealand in Auckland in 1957 and England in Hyderabad in 1995 are the only other teams to draw a match nine wickets down. None of those other close finishes reached millions of people on TV and online. For all of those reasons and others besides, the ending at Manuka Oval is special.
As those viewer numbers spiked on Australian free-to-air, and as interest peaked around the world, something very obvious dawned on some cricket administrators. If you train quality players, and give them a stage when a grand finale is possible, they can put on a show that people want to see. It is only a few years since Cricket Australia under James Sutherland’s reign – while visionary in expanding the Big Bash League for women – was suggesting that even women’s 50-over cricket should be retired, with all efforts to be put into the Twenty20 version. Test cricket was too hard.
Since then the pendulum has begun to swing. India’s board suddenly returning to the format in 2021 provided an important push. A couple of other boards are starting to get interested. But a lack of equality is the status quo. Among the three current competitors, women’s matches are scheduled over four days, men’s matches over five. Women get one Test on occasional tours, men play series after series. Women have no long-form cricket in domestic calendars to help them prepare, men agonise over whether their extensive domestic competitions are good enough or long enough or useful enough.
The reason as ever is money. Long matches cost more to stage than short ones. More ground rental, more staff hours, more security and permits and red tape. Long matches are a harder sell to broadcasters, who have to commit more resources and give over more airtime for ad revenue that may not exceed that for a short game. A Test here and there as a token inclusion is easier to smooth into the bottom line.
But this is judged in an environment where the women’s game is set up to fail. Games without enough time to reach results, where a few hours of rain can extinguish the contest. Games played on used pitches to save the cost of fresh ones, even though liveliness for bowlers at lower pace is the most important ingredient. Games for players given no chance to hone their skills in the format, asked to show up and produce their best without knowing what it is. Games so infrequent, so rare, so precious, that players are stifled when it comes to taking risks, too worried about wasting a chance to seize a chance.
In a sense, none of those arguments matter. What matters is that there is no justifiable argument for why women should be confined to a narrow version of the game when men across the cricket world are not. There is no justification for making the women’s game smaller, quieter, something that takes up less space. In a sport that reveres Test cricket as the pinnacle, the ultimate challenge, the form that ordains the greats, that pinnacle cannot be closed to half the population. Anyone should be able to attempt the ascent.
With any luck, Canberra’s final flurry should create movement beyond that afternoon. Yes, the finish was brought about by the constraints of a four-day game and time lost to rain. But great finishes are far more likely if we give matches time to produce them. They can happen organically instead of relying on captains to create them. They are more likely the more opportunities they have to happen. The day after the match, a father wrote to me describing his son in the nets pretending to be Alana King. We can have new storylines, new moments, new heroes. The quality of the game is there waiting for us, if we’re only prepared to let it come to life.