Women’s Hundred returns with new stars but prime time pressure

Aand so it returns, with all its summer razzmatazz. The men have been at it for a week now, but after a short delay due to the Commonwealth Games, the second edition of the Women’s Hundred will begin at the Kia Oval on Thursday, with reigning champions Oval Invincibles at the helm. -head to head against Northern Superchargers.

There will be live music. There will be fireworks. There will be coverage on the BBC (seven women’s matches this year), leading up to a final at Lord’s on Saturday 3 September.

So far, so familiar. However, this year’s sequel is not without tweaks. There are personnel changes: A number of Australia’s leading internationals will get their first taste of 100-ball cricket, including Ellyse Perry (Birmingham Phoenix), Megan Schutt and Beth Mooney (London Spirit) and Alyssa Healy (Northern Superchargers). A high-profile absentee will be Meg Lanning, who pulled out of the competition after announcing on Wednesday yesterday that she will retire from cricket indefinitely for personal reasons.

In a small step towards reducing the chilling gender pay gap, the 16 highest paid women will this year earn slightly more than the lowest paid men (£31,250 compared to £30,000). Perhaps most significantly, several women’s games, including Thursday’s curtain-raiser at the Oval, are being played in prime time, after the men’s game has finished. “Hopefully we can do justice,” Invincibles captain Dane van Niekerk said on Wednesday.

If anything should happen in the past year, he should not be afraid. For players like Alice Capsey, who at 16 was the sensation of last year’s competition, the Hundred paved the way to the international stage, where she thrived. She also smashed England and Wales Cricket Board attendance targets away from the park, with an average attendance of 7,500 for the women’s matches and a record crowd at Lord’s of 17,116 for the final.

Dane van Niekerk raises a fist in the air after the Oval Invincibles won the 2021 Hundred final at Lord's
Dane van Niekerk raises a fist in the air after the Oval Invincibles won the 2021 Hundred final at Lord’s. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

The Lionesses may have brought football home last month, but it is cricket that is winning the battle for attendance in the national women’s sport (by comparison, the Football Association’s aspiration is a average of 6,000 people in the Women’s Super League in 2024).

It says a lot that the opening week of the Men’s Hundred has been sorely missed: without the double-header model that was at the core of its success in Year 1, is the Hundred really the Hundred?

On the other hand, in a competition where the public message has been “one team, two teams”, it remains to be seen how much interaction there will be between the women’s and men’s teams. Last year social distancing and Covid ‘team bubbles’ were trotted out as excuses for some of the men barely seeming to know their female partners’ names. There will be no such mitigation this time.

Is there also, perhaps, some pressure that comes with knowing that the women’s competition now has to live up to the high expectations it fostered in 2021? “Watching the men’s team, I got really excited for our games, remembering how electric and amazing it was to play in front of a packed crowd,” Van Niekerk said.

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“I expect no less [this year].” The ECB will be desperate to make sure it lives up to its hopes, partly because the success of the Women’s Hundred has proved a surefire way to silence critics of the whole 100-ball concept.

For Van Niekerk, whose skilful captaincy was instrumental in the Oval Invincibles’ victory last summer, the tournament has a more personal significance. It will be her first time playing cricket since November last year, when the South African suffered a brutal ankle injury that kept her out of the World Cup and Commonwealth Games.

“I was almost bedridden for three weeks,” he said. “This injury has taken the biggest toll on me mentally. I’m grateful to be able to play again, I need it. I’m made to play cricket.”

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