Alex Blackwell remembers the Southern Stars’ first T20 fondly.
It wasn’t because of a big knock – she never batted in Australia’s 7-wicket win over England in Taunton, back in 2005.
What stood out most was the match, between two of world sport’s biggest rivals, just didn’t quite have the same intensity to it.
“It did feel like a novelty,” Blackwell tells Sportette.
“Back then, One-Day cricket was the pinnacle of the women’s game – every four years, you built to a World Cup.”
A decade on, T20 has well and truly shaken off its ‘hit and giggle’ tag, quickly emerging as the premier format, and the way forward for women’s cricket in Australia.
It was 2006 when Blackwell – Sydney Thunder’s inaugural captain – took part in high-level Cricket Australia discussions that set to develop a blueprint for the women’s game.
T20’s big push was on.
“The focus of T20 over the last decade has been really important to get that exposure and show the world there is a product worth watching,” she says.
This is the premier cricket league for women in Australia – domestically, this is what you want to be playing
“The tournament [WBBL] is about excitement – it’s about engaging fans. This is the premier cricket league for women in Australia – domestically, this is what you want to be playing.”
Blackwell, who was the first Australian woman to play 200 games for her country, admits leading the Thunder in the first ever WBBL ranks as one of her proudest moments.
“I feel so excited about cricket at the moment,” she says.
“To captain alongside Mike Hussey, I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for me personally. We interact with the men’s team and support each other before and after matches. It’s great to be part of a professional club – it’s just the beginning.”
As Blackwell sees it, women’s cricket is enjoying an unprecedented boom period.
Domestic attendances have never been better and interest in the game is at an all-time high – particularly TV ratings.
The first two televised games of this season’s WBBL attracted three times the average audience of free-to-air A-League football matches in 2015.
“The cricket fan has changed over the years,” Blackwell says.
“The Big Bash was brought in to engage different cricket supporters. We see families come to watch the matches, and families are made up of mums and dads, and brothers and sisters. There’s a more diverse crowd watching those Big Bash games.”
“We had an excellent fan day [at Rouse Hill] and it was really cool to see parents and kids want our autograph, yet they hardly know us! There’s such a buzz around it,” she says.
Blackwell also credits the WBBL for helping to professionalise the women’s game.
“If you ask me, I’m a professional cricketer,” she says.
“I did go back to work two days a week just over the last few months, so it’s a bit of a transitional time still. But I can pretty much support myself year-to-year playing cricket, and that wasn’t the case when I was 19.”
Blackwell, now 32, also predicts the WBBL to play a key role in developing Australia’s next crop of stars.
Like the men’s Big Bash League, the tournament allows players to ply their trade away from their state sides –spreading the talent pool further across the eight franchised teams.
“The Lendlease NSW Breakers have been really dominant over the last 10 years, and for so long, we’ve had young kids who have been trying to push into that senior team but it’s just been stacked,” she says.
“This Big Bash adds extra opportunities for players to burst onto the scene.”
And the incentive to perform has never higher with the Southern Stars playing more cricket than ever before –starting with the 2016 T20 World Cup, to be held in India.
“We are taking this WBBL seriously because it’s the pinnacle of our sport,” Blackwell says.
“We’re leading into a T20 World Cup next year, so this tournament is a big deal – performances in the Big Bash will lead to Australian selection.”
“There’s ODI World Cups, there’s T20 World Cups that are held more frequently – there’s now an Ashes series that is a multi-format. We’ve also got a women’s championship where we’re playing the top 8 nations around a cycle of two years – there’s so much more cricket now.”
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