Women's cricket: England adrift in new world order

Pete Davies, in Madras, finds the women's game has some catching up ahead
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Thinking of the barefoot boys who play cricket on every patch of wasteground here, Clare Connor asked: "On a Saturday in August, how many wickets fall in Madras?"

"Ninety-three thousand," said Clare Taylor. Melissa Reynard retorted: "Don't be so stupid. Twenty-four. They're all very good bats."

It was Friday evening, and England were at the bar after their messy and controversial exit from this messy and controversial women's cricket World Cup. "It's too late," Taylor said, "to have a sense of humour failure now." But like several players, she had a moment that evening when she looked close to tears.

England at least made the semi-finals; there are four good teams in international women's cricket, and it is now confirmed that England are one of them. South Africa will make it five very soon; of the others, India and New Zealand look on par with England, and Australia look streets ahead. Their cricket is intense, urgent, athletic, and supremely confident; in the final at Eden Gardens in Calcutta tomorrow, New Zealand might beat them, but no one is betting on it.

More than 20,000 women play cricket in Australia; at state and national level their domestic game is fiercely competitive. England's wicketkeeper Jane Cassar played for three months there, and described it as another world. If you don't go training, you don't play; there's no such thing as a friendly, and fitness levels that pass for normal in England would be laughed at.

How do we catch up? Next month the Women's Cricket Association votes on a proposed merger with the English Cricket Board. The vote must be passed, because while the women's national side has made progress in the past 18 months, the women's game overall remains distinctly amateur. There are traditionalists who still think women should play in skirts, but in 1997 that kind of thinking is off the Ark; ask the physio who has to treat the cuts and grazes.

The England squad have moved beyond that; in most regards they look professionals. India has hosted 17 people per squad for this tournament - 14 players, coach, manager, physio - but with Lottery funding, and their inclusion in the ECB's sponsorship deal with Vodafone, England also brought an assistant coach, a sports scientist, and a priceless PR woman called Selena Colmer.

I doubt when she started in PR that she ever imagined herself crawling round the hold of an Indian Airlines jet retrieving luggage while the pilot tried to bar England from the plane. When the manager fell victim to a murky illness, it was Colmer who kept the increasingly Byzantine travel plans on course, and how other sides coped without this kind of back-up it is hard to imagine.

No doubt, in New Zealand four years hence, the seventh women's World Cup will be better organised - but it feels churlish to carp when so many people have been so hospitable. But too many games have been pointlessly one-sided; the likes of Pakistan and Denmark cannot yet compete, and an eight-team format with pre- qualification for the minnows looks best. As for the travelling here, it's been insane.

England would have liked it better, of course, if they were playing tomorrow - but you will not find one of them who would have missed it for the world.

As Reynard, who is staying for the final, said: "I might never have the chance to see Eden Gardens again, and I hope there's a big crowd. It'd be good to sit with tens of thousands of Indians, just watching a game of cricket."