Australia: The greatest team in women’s sport?
Claiming a sixth Women's T20 World Cup with a win over hosts South Africa in Cape Town, Australia ensured that every women's trophy in international competition remained in their cabinet and reinforced their case as arguably the most dominant team ever across women’s and men’s cricket.
Coincidentally, the exclamation point of another World Cup victory came six days after what could be called an erroneous snub: Australia were unlucky not to receive a nomination for the Team of the Year at the 2023 Laureus World Sports Awards, with the only women’s team in the listed six being the England women’s football team that claimed a European title in 2022.
Cricket has been present at the awards, underlined by Australia men’s team claiming the Team award in 2002 off the back of a 16th consecutive Test victory, with a number of other teams in the running for honours since the Awards began in 2000.
Australia’s latest Women's T20 World Cup win may have come too late to factor in the nomination process, though after Cricket World Cup and Commonwealth Games success in 2022 adding the T20 World Cup title in early 2023 is a continuation of both cricketing dominance and athletic excellence.
Whilst difficult to compare achievements in different sports, and even considering football’s collective quality in relative terms, Australia’s women’s cricket team can feel hard done by in being overlooked.
Moreover, Australia’s women’s cricket team has a case for not only being the best women’s team in any sport at the present time, but their credentials stack up as being the greatest women’s team in any era across any sport.
Starting in their own generation, few have had to brush off a host of challengers. USA’s women’s basketballers are seldom pushed, while Canada’s ice hockey dynasty have given up too many titles to their one rival in America in a sport many consider to be a two-horse race.
The USA football team do compete in what is arguably a tougher field, and are looking to complete a World Cup three-peat of their own, poetically in Australia (and New Zealand) in 2023. Curiously they have been unable to emulate their success in Olympic football, only claiming a bronze medal across the last two Games.
Comparatively, Australia’s competition in women’s cricket is building towards a similar level. As India and England continually press Meg Lanning’s team, the likes of New Zealand and the West Indies threatened in stretches across the 2010s.
Now, South Africa have emerged as the newest challenger, enjoying strong passages of play in Sunday’s final.
But Australia once again prevailed, showcasing a key ingredient to their success: escaping from precarious match positions.
After a slow start by their standards at 36/1 at the end of the Powerplay and 73/1 at the halfway mark, the side made 34 runs in the final three overs to post 156/6, swinging momentum back their way.
Australia gave up just 22 runs in South Africa’s Powerplay and claimed the wicket of the in-form Tazmin Brits to put the hosts under the cosh, before eventually cruising to a 19-run victory.
Lisa Sthalekar, part of the Australian juggernaut throughout the 2000s and early 2010s, lauded their side for their ability to escape teams pinning them down.
“It’s just their ability to keep turning up on the world stage, and there are games and points in matches where they shouldn’t find a way out, but they do,” the ICC Hall of Famer told Sanjana Ganesan on the Digital Daily after Australia’s win.
“There’s a real self-belief, great experience within this side and they manage to turn it on at the right time.”
“They have a huge legacy, I mean this is their second three-peat.”
Two pairs of three consecutive titles, sandwiched by a tournament where they were pipped by the West Indies in the final over of the final match in 2016.
Alongside three of the last five Cricket World Cups in the 50-over format, there’s not a whole lot more this team can do to underline their quality.
From the outside, it appears it would take something revolutionary to dethrone Australia.
With a cut-throat standard the playing group must perform at or risk being replaced, and the gold standard of player pathways to a national senior team, the machine of Australia women's cricket is in no mood to slow down.
When asked how many more trophies the team has within them, “as many as there is out there,” was Beth Mooney’s response just moments after winning on Sunday.
“Something we speak about as a group is making sure we're always evolving along the way. I think we've seen in this tournament there are teams around the world getting better and better as the years go on and we know that we're being hunted.
“It won't last forever but we'll enjoy it for as long as we can, and hopefully we can keep piling up those trophies and enjoying what's great.”
To achieve constant success, there is a 'next player up' mentality, and as new players are rewarded for their domestic success even the team’s best are put on notice.
Ellyse Perry, who has claims to being the greatest women’s cricketer of all time, had to earn her spot back in the playing XI in the last 12 months.
Coach Shelley Nitschke cited “generational talents” when asked about constants across the 2005 Cricket World Cup-winning team of which she was a player, and the 2023 T20 World Cup team as head coach.
Generational talents don’t grow on trees, but Australian cricket has a farm: a domestic structure continually putting players in high-level, high-pressure situations.
Tahlia McGrath, only a regular Australian member for two-and-a-half years, is already atop the T20I Batting Rankings.
Leg-spinners Georgia Wareham and Alana King are in competition with Jess Jonassen for two spots, while 25-year-old Ash Gardner, unflustered by all challengers and a WPL payday, was a deserving Player of the Tournament.
After becoming just the second Women’s player to make 100+ runs and take at least 10 wickets in a T20 World Cup (after Deandra Dottin in 2018), Gardner (458 rating points) extended her lead on the T20I All-Rounder Rankings to 63 points ahead of West Indies’ Hayley Matthews (395).
And then there is Generation Next.
The 19-year-old Darcie Brown was named in the Team of the Tournament and could well break the 130 kph speed barrier, and young gun Phoebe Litchfield has made 158 runs across her first three ODI innings, dismissed only once thus far.
“I think it's just a testament to probably our pathways and our domestic competition, and having that ability to expose them to some high level cricket,” Nitschke said.
“We were able to expose Phoebe Litchfield through the India tour and the Pakistan tour as well. So I think it's just about finding ways to keep the next generation exposed to a higher level of cricket to make sure that when that time comes, they're ready to go.”
In all of this, the adage that the biggest lessons come from defeat still applies to Australia, whose evolution of being ‘just’ the best cricket team in the world to a sporting tour de force can be best-attributed to their 2017 Cricket World Cup semi-final defeat to India.
Instead of playing down the performance as a one-off failure, the Australians, seething as England beat India to lift the trophy, levelled up.
With then-coach Matthew Mott, the side wrote down four key words as their new values: “fearless”, “team-first”, “informed” and “accountable”.
In no uncertain terms, no one was above Australian cricket, and everyone had a part to play as a potential match-winner on any given day.
In the last five and a half years, few teams in any sport boast a ruthless record to match Australia’s women.
In ODIs since that 2017 heartbreak, the side have won 43 in their past 45 matches, taking back the World Cup title in 2022.
In T20Is, perceived as the more fickle format, Australia have lost just nine games in their past 73.
Australia’s 172-point rating on the ODI team rankings is 53 points better than England and South Africa in equal second, with their 302-point ranking 20 better than England on the T20I team rankings.
The only team perhaps more unrelenting in women’s sport at present in terms of recent record is the USA’s water polo team. In the five years between the Rio and Tokyo Olympics, the team had a 172-5 record, winning 69 consecutive matches from April 2018 to January 2020.
Boasting the last three Olympic titles and three World Cups, they continue their charge in a similar vein to Australia, with their head coach Adam Krikorian facing no challenge in finding motivation.
“I view the beginning of every Olympic cycle as a fresh start,” Krikorian told FINA.org.
“So, in that sense, there is no momentum, just a blank canvas ready for whatever athlete, coach or staff member wants the painting to look like.”
“The success that the team has had and the development of the culture and the skills that have been on display, have come with a lot of time, effort, and attention to detail.”
Moving from assistant to head coach after Mott’s departure for the England men’s white-ball setup in May, Nitschke added her touch to the team and in turn contributed to the evolution.
Nitschke's impact is perhaps summed up best by captain Meg Lanning, just as instrumental in the team’s continued improvement.
“Shelley’s been great. She's brought a couple of new things to the group and freshened it up which I think was really important to keep us moving forward and I think we've settled into that sort of combination of Shelley and myself leading the team.
“It's a good mix of being relaxed but also being a little bit nervous about what we're heading into.”
With the continued thirst to improve, it would take a special performance from another team in the field to edge Australia at the Women's T20 World Cup next year in Bangladesh, or at the Cricket World Cup in 2025 in India.
Considering that, the discussion of the team’s position on a list of the best women’s sporting teams in this era (or any other) should be one thrown around every dinner table, and for the sake of the argument there are a few more dynasties to factor in.
Cuba’s women’s volleyball team went undefeated at Barcelona 1992 to a gold medal, defending their title in Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000. In between Olympic golds, the team also claimed 1994 and 1998 World Championships, and the 1991, 1995 and 1999 World Cups - eight consecutive major titles.
The team known as the The Spectacular Caribbean Girls may be marked down playing in a six-player sport, though for many, an appropriate comparison to cricket would be field hockey, a sport with a similar pool of teams and eleven players on a team.
There are two golden sides of note in women’s field hockey: the Australians who dominated from 1994 to 2000, and the Dutch in the last 15 years in particular.
The Netherlands lay claim to nine of the 15 FIH World Cups and four of the 11 Olympic golds to match Australia’s 13 of 20 competitions, and things have gone up a gear for them in the last 15 years with three of the last four Olympic golds and four of the last five World Championships, much like Australia’s cricketers.
Australia’s players were most likely not comparing drag flicks to cover drives while sitting on the Newlands square late into the night basking in another victory, but do they feel their achievements transcend cricket?
“Yeah, I think those discussions come up just naturally within our group,” Mooney added.
“We obviously want to be inspiring young boys and girls, not just in Australia but around the world, but also helping the global game grow.
“So certainly those conversations sort of happen as we're moving through the different generations within our team, but we know that we're in a very privileged position to be able to be up in lights and producing performances like (Sunday), and getting people talking about women's sport.”
Australia Women's current title-winning run
- 2020 T20 World Cup
- 2022 Cricket World Cup
- 2022 Commonwealth Games
- 2023 T20 World Cup
Australia Women's ICC tournament record
- T20 World Cup champions in six of eight tournaments since it started in 2009
- Cricket World Cup champions in seven of 12 tournaments since it started in 1973
Comparable Women’s teams
- USA basketball team: seven straight Olympic gold medals from 1996 to 2020; last four FIBA World Cups 2010 to 2022
- USA football team: 2012 Olympics gold; 2015 and 2019 FIFA World Cup champions
- USA water polo team: gold last three Olympics; won last three World Cups; won every FINA World Championship title since 2015 (competition held every two years)
- Netherlands field hockey team: 2008, 2012, 2020 Olympic gold; 2006, 2014, 2018, 2022 World Cup winners
- Canada ice hockey team: 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2022 Olympics gold; 2007, 2012, 2021, 2022 World Championship winners (held in every non-Olympic year)
- Cuba volleyball team 1991-2000: 1992, 1996, 2000 Olympics gold; 1994 and 1998 World Championships winners
- Australia field hockey team 1993-2000: two Olympic golds; 1994/1998 World Cup winners