As the final of the Women’s Big Bash League rolled into town in Perth, there were no shortage of narratives at the ready. There was the Adelaide Strikers’ 26-year-old first year captain in Tahlia McGrath up against the Perth Scorchers’ 32-year-old battle-hardened captain in Sophie Devine. The momentum of the Strikers, who had won back-to-back games during the week to qualify for the final, against the well-rested Scorchers who skipped playing semi-finals altogether. The dynamic of South African internationals and married couple Marizanne Kapp and Dane van Niekerk ready to face up against each other. Two teams who had never taken out the WBBL before, both primed and ready to seal their first premiership.
After one of the most intriguing seasons of the WBBL so far, the first two finals matches had fallen a little flat. The Strikers cruised through with incredible bowling performances and simple run chases. There were plenty of skills on show – not least Amanda-Jade Wellington’s sensational bowling spell of 5-8 in Thursday’s challenger final. But in terms of memorable finishes neither game ranked up with the nail-biting semi-finals of the 2018-19 season. This only built the anticipation more, as it felt we were owed a big match.
The intimidating Scorchers’ opening partnership of Beth Mooney and Sophie Devine looked ready for anything and it seemed the even match-up everyone had been waiting for had arrived. When Mooney (19 off 25) and Devine (33 off 35) departed, the Strikers appeared to have the upper hand – exposing a middle order which has not faced a lot of balls due to the dominance of their openers. But they rallied and put on a strong total of 146-5 thanks to Kapp’s steadying hand and Alana King’s late hitting. And here it was, a game that had the potential to go down to the wire, something to spark conversations in Monday morning’s Zoom meetings.
Yet when the Strikers came out to bat it seemed as if neither team had read the script. The Scorchers were as fiery as their name suggests and dismissed the Strikers’ key batter Katie Mack early, before sending her opening partner van Nierkerk back to the dugout soon after. But again the momentum swung, a partnership between Strikers captain Tahlia McGrath and South African international Laura Wolvaardt kept their fingertips in the crumbling foundations of their potential premiership.
Eventually the momentum of the match outran the Strikers and it was the Scorchers who prevailed by 12 runs in front of their home crowd. The best efforts of Strikers No 6 Maddie Penna pushed the game into the final over, but with 22 runs required and the economical Taneale Peschel bowling, there was too much to do.
It was the exciting finish the season deserved, but the more prosaic matches leading up to it did raise some questions about the finals format. The previous system was thought to not provide enough advantage to the team that finished first after the regular season. With such an even competition, simply playing the fourth-placed team was not seen as enough of a reward for the top-placed team. But this new set-up perhaps swung too far the other way – sending a team straight through to the grand final without playing any other finals matches raised a few eyebrows, particularly considering how closely matched the top four teams were. By adding an extra finals match and adopting the Page playoff system, which is used by the Indian Premier League and the Suncorp Super Netball, there is the potential to create more excitement throughout the entire finals series in the coming years.
And then there was the pandemic, which once again cast its shadow across this season, with teams on the road for most of the campaign and the second-placed Melbourne Renegades in the unenviable position of playing their ‘home’ challenger final against the Adelaide Strikers at Adelaide Oval. As the competition continues to grow and gain momentum, home games will become increasingly necessary to allow teams to build their supporter bases. The home crowds in Adelaide and Perth across the three finals games proved the importance of fired-up spectators in creating a high-energy atmosphere at the ground.
But while players and teams will no doubt continue to push the WBBL forward on the field, there remains an important step Cricket Australia could take off it, one which would demonstrate their faith in the world’s premier domestic women’s competition. That is to position its two flagship competitions the way it does its national teams, and name the two leagues the Women’s Big Bash League and the Men’s Big Bash League. Although the WBBL was launched four years later, there is now simply no reason the men’s competition should be considered the default. The skill and excitement on show in the 2021 season and the international stars the competition attracts – even in the face of so much adversity – has demonstrated the time has come to make the change.