Ambitions abound as Women's T20 World Cup opens Down Under
By Nick Mulvenney
SYDNEY (Reuters) - The Women's Twenty20 World Cup gets underway when hosts and defending champions Australia meet India in Sydney on Friday and hopes are high that the seventh edition of the tournament will prove transformational for the game.
Great strides have been made in professionalising and popularising women's sport around the world over the last few years and nowhere more so than in Australia, where the top female athletes have become household names.
Once a sideshow to the men's version, the T20 World Cup will stand alone for the second time and the business end will be played out in the venerable confines of two cathedrals of the sport -- the Sydney and Melbourne Cricket Grounds.
Organisers are hoping that the final at the MCG on March 8 will attract a record crowd for a women's sporting event, topping the 90,185 that turned out for the 1999 soccer World Cup final at the Rose Bowl in California.
Even with the promise of American pop star Katy Perry belting out her hits at the MCG on International Women's Day, Australia will probably need to make the title-decider for that to be happen.
That does look a fair bet, however, given Australia's dominance of the shortest format of the international game as the winners of four of the last five World Cups and 26 of their last 31 matches over the last two years.
Boasting central contracts and the Women's Big Bash League, Australian women's cricket is booming and the backbone of the side is made up of elite talents such as Ellyse Perry, Meg Lanning and Alyssa Healy.
IMPRESSIVE YOUNG TALENTS
All of their four defeats over the last two years -- they tied one match -- have come at the hands of 2009 champions England or the fast-improving Indians and they look like the teams most likely to threaten Australia's defence of the title.
The Indians have some impressive young talent, not least teenaged batting talent Shafali Verma, but they know they need to find some consistency if they are to get past the semi-finals for the first time.
New Zealand, who can still count on the considerable batting and bowling talents of all-rounder Suzie Bates, are the other title contenders in Group A, which also includes Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
England, world champions in the 50-overs format, will be confident of reaching the semi-finals by finishing in the top two in the weaker Group B, which also includes West Indies, South Africa, Thailand and Pakistan.
With a new coach in Australian Lisa Keightley -- the first full-timer in the role -- the English will be desperate to top the group and so potentially avoid the hosts, who hammered them in last year's Ashes series, until the final.
West Indies, champions in 2016, arrived in Australia on a nine-match losing streak but will look to the explosive batting of skipper Stafanie Taylor as they try to turn things around. Thailand's collection of transfers from softball, hockey and sepak takraw are the only team from outside cricket's heartlands and will bring something different -- if only in their post-match ritual of bowing to the crowd.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)