The ICC women's World Cup qualifiers gets underway in South Africa on Monday and by the end of the week two teams will have secured themselves spots in the World Cup in Australia next year. But what about the other six? What will they take back from a tournament where they get to play a maximum of four games, apart from the warm-ups scheduled prior to the qualifiers?
The teams placed third and fourth will get ranked among the top ten countries for the next four years which means their matches are then deemed as official Tests, ODIs and Twenty20 internationals. But that doesn't mean they will automatically play more games every year. What plagues women's cricket the most is how little each team plays, apart from England, Australia and New Zealand. While the World Cup qualifiers cannot ensure more matches per team over the next four years, it can throw up at least two or three quality sides who can then take their game forward by competing more regularly with the top four - Australia, India, New Zealand and England.
So for South Africa, Ireland, Netherlands and Pakistan this is an opportunity to move to the bigger leagues, while for Bermuda, Papua New Guinea, Zimbabwe and Scotland the qualifiers is a tournament to gain experience, play in different conditions and meet new opposition. How different the conditions will be for them is revealed by what Papua New Guinea's captain, Kune Amini, said regarding the pitches they will be playing on.
"We've never played on turf so that will be different for our girls,"
she told the ICC website.
"I think it's too soon to qualify for the World Cup as our standard of play is not similar to other countries as we play on concrete."
As hosts, South Africa may have the best chance of winning the tournament and getting a higher seed at the World Cup. But they will badly miss Johmari Logtenberg and Mignon du Preez. Logtenberg, their star batsman, quit the game last month, while du Preez withdrew from the tournament for personal reasons. There isn't a more emphatic reason to play more often than the danger of losing players. In the last 12 months South Africa played eight ODIs, one Test and two Twenty20 internationals. In the same period Australia have played 16 ODIs, one Twenty20 and a Test. Unless given more opportunities, other players will follow Logtenberg out of cricket to more lucrative sports like golf.
The postponement of the tournament, scheduled for last November in Pakistan, following political unrest in the country gave all the sides a chance to get in some more practice, but injuries and for some, no leave from work, have depleted the squads of their first-choice players. Scotland's Vari Maxwell, part of the original squad, was unable to make it to South Africa because she is a Royal Navy employee and her ship is still at sea. The amateur nature of their game may allow players to pursue interests outside cricket and of course the costs of touring, taking leave from schools, universities, and regular jobs come in the way of most women players turning in to full-time professionals, but their teams won't be taken seriously unless they turn out for matches with competitive squads.
In the end it is the bilateral series - or at the very least quadrangulars - that will allow teams to improve their game. But it is tournaments like the qualifiers that will identify the competition and get talented players noticed. In last year's Asian Cricket Council tournament, Bangladesh's victory, without dropping a game, which included ten-wicket wins against Singapore and UAE, prompted the board to organise a women's cricket league in the country. The national players were given cash awards, a full-time coach and trainer were appointed, and regular training camps were started. The board also promised to provide cricket gear for the women's league as well as for the school girls' division. Runners-up Nepal were also given cash prizes by their association.
That should be enough incentive for the players in South Africa to make a mark at the qualifiers this week. Of course there is the World Cup as well.