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Battle of the sixes not sexes for England's golden girls

Wonder women can go all the way, starting with victory over Sri Lanka today, writes John Collis

Somerset's chief executive Richard Gould listened to the click of the turnstiles and looked out on a rapidly swelling crowd at Taunton as England's women got their Twenty20 World Cup campaign under way on Thursday. Only a few years ago the women's game, even at international level, was played in front of parents, friends and a few curious cricket lovers. Now the expanded Taunton ground was healthily and noisily crowded. A real Twenty20 crowd, in fact.

"There's such a great atmosphere," Gould said. "And it's good to see so many youngsters, particularly the girls who have been attracted by the Chance to Shine scheme bringing cricket into the schools. Hopefully this will encourage even more participation in women's cricket."

If England, holders of the Ashes and 50-over World Cup, were burdened by being tournament favourites, they disguised it well, washing away fancied India by 10 wickets. Today they face Sri Lanka with confidence high. Player of the match and England captain Charlotte Edwards, who top-scored with 61 not out off just 53 balls, including two pulled sixes that Kevin Pietersen would have been proud of, said: "People were wondering how we'd react to the pressure of being favourites but we've answered that, coming out fighting."

Edwards, whose MBE for her services to women's cricket was announced yesterday, was the youngest player to make her England debut at the age of 16 in 1996, although she has since been eclipsed by team-mate Holly Colvin. Edwards' cricketing CV also includes 12 centuries in 1997, a then-record one-day score of 173 not out against Ireland aged 17, and an award as ICC Women's Player of the Year in 2008.

"But we can't take anything for granted against Sri Lanka," she continues. "We will play every game as if it's the semi-final. This was our biggest game so far and we've taken a big step forward. I think we've learned lessons from watching the men's Twenty20 over the last few days. Mark Lane [the England coach] just told us to go out and play our natural game."

It is a mark of the development of women's cricket that Claire Taylor was surplus to requirements on Thursday. In April she was named as one of Wisden's five cricketers of the year, something surely unthinkable even five years ago. "You get invited out to lunch by the editor and he drops this bombshell," she says. "But then you can't tell anyone for five months!"

One curiosity of Taylor's distinguished career is that she had a top score of 18 until she made 137 against Australia in 2001. At Lord's in 2006 she made 156 against India, a one-day record for the ground, consigning Viv Richards to second place. When the ICC introduced world rankings to women's cricket in 2008, she was installed at the top. When England won the World Cup this year, she was player of the tournament with 324 runs at 64.80.

Of her Wisden award, she modestly points out: "It is really a recognition of the advances the women's game has made in recent years. As well, of course, as a huge honour to be recognised ahead of such players as Charlotte. You see all these schoolgirls here. This is all down to Chance to Shine going into the schools and enthusing them, making them think they could maybe play for their county and perhaps one day pull on an England shirt. It can only grow from here."

And if one of these girls, all screaming and shouting for their heroes as if they were at a Take That concert, does make the grade, they will have to get used to a regime just as tough as in the professional men's game, with its ice baths and circuit training.

"Oh yes," says Edwards, "in terms of warming up and warming down we are just like the guys. I've been playing international cricket for 13 years and the difference is phenomenal. We are all getting more powerful, stronger and fitter. Hopefully we can keep raising the bar every year. None of us knows where women's cricket is going but surely with the much greater profile of this tournament and then the Ashes it can only get stronger."

It is a few years since this correspondent last covered a women's match but this week the evidence is there to see. Back then, the throwing from the outfield was weak and few boundaries were hit. Now they are professional athletes, whipping the ball back to the stumps and putting power into fours and sixes.

"To go all the way in a competition like this," says Taylor, "you've got to be mentally strong and technically strong."