There was a time in the recent history of cricket that the Australian women’s team without Meg Lanning was unthinkable. The idea of playing a pivotal series such as the Ashes without her would have been a major cause for concern. As one of the original awardees of a marketing contract, she has long been a face of women’s cricket in Australia. It is not only her incredible prowess on the field that would be missed, but also her ability to raise the sport’s profile by presenting viewers with a recognisable face.
But in the world of women’s sport, things are starting to move quickly. The Australian chokehold over women’s cricket has been bordering on unbreakable. While Lanning is undoubtedly a player still in her prime and one of the most dominant batters, such is the strength of the game that her absence is no longer a particularly pressing concern.
Instead, the biggest talking point surrounding Lanning’s unavailability for the one-off Test starting in Nottingham this week due to an as-yet-unknown medical issue has been the opportunity it provides for 20-year-old Phoebe Litchfield, a young batting prodigy from the New South Wales town of Orange. Litchfield burst on to the scene as a 16-year-old when she was signed by the Sydney Thunder and scored a half century in her second professional game. While she didn’t make an immediate impact on her T20 international debut, it was her one day international debut for Australia that got the world talking after she finished her first two matches unbeaten on 78 and 67.
The prominence of T20 – particularly in women’s cricket – means many young stars coming through the ranks are best suited to the shortest format of the game when they emerge. For Litchfield, who grew up in a cricketing family and whose father is a respected coach in Orange, her technically correct batting and patience at the crease has resulted in a great deal of excitement about the possibility of her Test debut. She has shone domestically in the 20-over and 50-over formats but she has all the attributes of a player whose greatest performances may come in the Test arena.
Losing Lanning’s leadership may also have raised concerns in the past and, while her captaincy will no doubt be missed by the players, there is no leadership void within the team. Alyssa Healy has gained a wealth of experience captaining the NSW Breakers and has proved capable of stepping up for the national team in the past. Five other members of the Australian squad have had captaincy experience in domestic cricket, giving Healy plenty of teammates to turn to should she require a second opinion in a tricky situation.
The marketability of Lanning remains, many years after she was first used as a key promoter of the women’s game. Her name is one of the first that rolls off the tongue of anyone asked to name a female cricketer. But there’s been significant progress in this area too. Lanning’s inclusion would no doubt add prestige to the series but with so many household names on the team now there is no shortage of players to drive eyeballs to late-night fixtures. Even Litchfield has become well known in her short professional career, with plenty of fans across Australia – and the world – ready to tune in.
Australia’s women have not played a Test match since the last Ashes against England 18 months ago in Canberra but not much has changed. Aside from Lanning, only Rachael Haynes is unavailable (due to retirement). Healy has intimated that she may drop down the order to to balance her wicketkeeping duties with batting but apart from that the personnel remain much the same.
What does look different is the format – for the first time since 1992, a women’s Test will be played over five days instead of four. The Canberra Ashes Test was compelling but rain interrupted a significant proportion of day three, making it difficult to obtain a result despite the best efforts of both captains. The addition of a fifth day – and the will of teams to go for the win rather than a draw – should make this Test match even more exciting and hopefully spark the first result since Australia won at Canterbury in 2015.
With Australians acclimatised to late-night cricket viewing thanks to the first men’s Ashes Test this week, there is plenty of buzz building as the women prepare to transfer their short-form dominance into the most testing format of them all, and prove they are the team to beat – with or without the commanding presence of their longtime captain.