Kate Cross would have to play for 300 years to earn as many international caps as James Anderson

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England seamer Kate Cross pondered one question upon watching one of James Anderson’s most recent Test appearances. "It’s when I saw that Jimmy had played 160-odd Test matches that I thought, how long would I have had to have played to get that amount?"

Anderson became England’s most capped men’s Test player in history last weekend with his 162nd appearance. He has played more Test matches than the total number of women’s Tests staged. Ever. It would take Cross more than 300 years to reach anywhere close to Anderson’s tally.

As England women’s team prepare to take on India in their first Test since 2019, and India’s first for almost seven years, the next question becomes whether women’s Test cricket is alive, dead, or hovering somewhere in between? And what of its future. The players’ response is bullish: of course women’s Test cricket should exist.

"I’ve grown up watching Test cricket," England captain Heather Knight, one of the few current players to have cemented her reputation through Test cricket, hitting 157 against Australia in just her second stab at the format, said. "And I’ve been constantly drip-fed that it’s the pinnacle of the game. So not being able to play it would make me very sad. And I think it would reinforce the view of women’s cricket as being ‘second class’ if we didn’t play it at all."

There are more reasons to support more women’s Tests beyond just the players’ satisfaction. For a bowler like Cross, it provides a freedom to bowl without constraint; in no other format does a seamer have the opportunity to bowl uninhibited without the fear of wides. Do not underestimate the impact that this can have on the burgeoning fast bowler.

It also forces a different approach to the game, tactically, technically and mentally. "It’s something that we’ve spoken a lot about this week, the mental side of the game," says Cross, who played her first of three Tests back in 2014. "Because we don’t play it, or practice it, you don’t really have batters that will just go and have a three-hour net, or for us to spend a whole day in the field. And what really fascinates me is that this is when you really get to see the ebb and flow of the game. You don’t get that in the other formats."

That romanticism and intrigue, the games-within-games in any given passage of play – this is what has kept so many mesmerised by this weird and wonderful sport. And to lose that aspiration altogether for the many more women and girls now playing cricket would be a cruel blow, and detrimental to the efforts already made to attract them. Because if Twenty20 is the gateway drug, Test cricket is its heroin. No less for women.

Dwindling number of Test matches from leading nations

The problem is, and it’s a good problem in a way, that Twenty20 cricket has been such an effective gateway drug for women that the ICC has made it abundantly clear that this is the vehicle with which to promote and develop the women’s game. There’s an irony at play here, that the mode of cricket chosen to market the women’s game is the one which relies the most on power, explosiveness and speed, all characteristics in which men are naturally more dominant. Test cricket emphasises an entirely different skillset, likely one more suited to women. Increasingly, we are seeing more women outcompete their male peers in endurance events; what’s to suggest that this might not apply to Test cricket?

Yet the ICC’s approach has worked. From a packed out T20 World Cup final last year, to widening the game to those beyond the traditional former Commonwealth of Nations. Like Thailand, Argentina, China even. It’s the format for next year’s Commonwealth Games and who knows, perhaps the Olympics next. T20 cricket works.

But it has come at high individual cost. Players like New Zealand’s Suzie Bates, for the last decade one of the best, have constructed whole careers without having had the opportunity to play a single Test. The former Australian all-rounder Lisa Sthalekar mused recently that this perhaps was the trade-off. That this generation were the sacrificial lambs, playing the flashier, shorter format to "get the game to a point where there’s enough money coming in and there’s enough appetite that people will want to see women play the hardest format in the game."

And maybe, just maybe, we’ve arrived at that point. The three top nations of England, India and Australia will each play two Tests this year, unprecedented these days. That two of these nations, England and Australia, have developed professional domestic structures as well means that there is more opportunity to play the longer format below international level too. 

As women’s professional cricketers face the inverse challenge to their male counterparts – they don’t play enough cricket, as compared to too much – this bodes well for developing the calibre of Test cricket too. The challenge ahead is to ensure that this format does not further grow the divide between the nations that can afford to play it and the rest.

Nevertheless, the demise of Test cricket has been a topic of conversation since the format was first invented. It should be no surprise therefore that this sentiment applies to the women just as it does the men. Wednesday’s Test is a welcome one but one which should not be judged in isolation; instead, with a bit of luck, this might just be the start of something far more rewarding.

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