Fair game: New T20 league shining a light on rising talents

In 2013, when the idea for what is now the FairBreak Invitational was first conceived, Lisa Sthalekar’s annual earnings of $15,000 made her the highest paid female cricketer in the world.

This month, after almost a decade of false starts, struggles and external resistance, the FairBreak Invitational T20 tournament finally launched, with players earning up to US$20,000 for two weeks of work.

It’s the latest measure of the seismic change women’s cricket has undergone in the past decade, which is a story that has been well told. But the inaugural FairBreak event, featuring players from a staggering 35 countries, could well become one of the sport’s most significant developments.

Certainly, FairBreak’s aim to become “the biggest tournament in the world”, as outlined this week by its patron, Australian Business Council CEO Jennifer Westacott, is highly ambitious.

The brainchild of Sthelaker and fellow Australian, Shaun Martyn, almost a decade ago, the inaugural FairBreak tournament will conclude in Dubai this weekend, the culmination of 19 games that have been broadcast to a global audience – including in Australia on Foxtel and Kayo Sports – across 10 days.

Featuring some of the best women’s cricketers in the world as well as players from nations as diverse as Germany, Brazil and Bhutan, the FairBreak Invitational is part of a three-year agreement with Cricket Hong Kong, where it’s hoped the 2023 and 2024 events will be played after COVID-19 restrictions forced this year’s tournament to be shifted to the UAE.

The first edition of the world’s first privately-funded T20 competition for women comes as the BCCI announced they had again delayed the launch of a full women’s IPL until 2023, with a scaled-back three-team, four-match ‘Women’s T20 Challenge’ to be played instead at the end of this month.

Having only recently shaken off accusations amongst established cricket boards that his tournament is a rebel league, Martyn wasn’t drawn for his frank opinion on the continued absence of a major T20 women’s competition in the world’s biggest and wealthiest cricket nation.

Shaun Martyn (right) with England captain Heather Knight

Now fully sanctioned by the ICC and with the hard-earned support of national boards, he insists FairBreak exists to complement, not challenge, the world order.

“The BCCI run their own agenda,” he tells cricket.com.au. “I don’t have any ax to grind with them.

“I hope there’s a women’s IPL, just like there’s the Hundred and the WBBL.

“They are domestic tournaments and if you want to grow cricket in your country, you have to have those domestic tournaments. We’re not a domestic tournament, so we’re not competing against these people.

“It’s OK to talk about all of these other potential domestic leagues occurring. The fact is, we’re here doing it now. What that ends up looking like over time, I don’t know. But there’s always a first-mover advantage .”

Nineteen-year-old Rwandan Henriette Ishimwe celebrates dismissing Australian Nicola Carey
Nineteen-year-old Rwandan Henriette Ishimwe celebrates dismissing Australian Nicola Carey

But in a world where numerous privately-funded men’s leagues have gone bust and left players and officials trying to recoup unpaid wages, where some administrators still squabble about the commercial viability of women’s sport, where India are yet to start a fully-fledged women’s T20 league, how can a tournament that is being privately funded by a for-profit company possibly survive?

Martyn acknowledges and understands the cynicism, but with player payments being held in a fund that Cricket Hong Kong has oversight on, he says the concerns are unfounded.

“There’s been a lot of skepticism and you’re very right to be skeptical,” he says. “I’m still owed money from the IPL franchise I worked for. I know all about this.

“Lots of people have been skeptical but now that they’re seeing it, they’re going, ‘Oh – you’re really doing it’. We’re not running a dog and pony show.

“It’s a bit of a ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy.”

Certainly, when asked if his tournament and women’s cricket broadly can thrive commercially, Martyn is unequivocal.

Players from 35 countries are playing at FairBreak
Players from 35 countries are playing at FairBreak

“Absolutely,” he says. “If 126 million people watch a World Cup final (in 2017), how much advertising revenue is that?

“It’s incredibly commercially viable. What people haven’t had an opportunity to see is enough of it.

“We have people who are really starting to gravitate to what we’re doing. We’ve got lots of interest certainly going forward from this because now they’ve seen the pictures and they’ve seen the quality of the play.”

With the likes of Geoff Lawson and Alex Blackwell heavily involved, FairBreak’s point of difference is not only the diversity of personalities on show, with 50 of the 90 players hailing from Associate nations.

The tournament is founded on a philosophy of promoting equality and advancing opportunities for women, so Martyn and his team have chosen their commercial partners carefully.

“We don’t accept money from betting or gambling, we don’t accept it from alcohol or tobacco,” he says. “They’re all intrinsically linked with domestic violence.”

The uniforms of the eight teams, which are made from recycled materials, have seen shirt numbers scrapped in favor of a player’s national flag to highlight the connection with some lesser-known cricketing nations.

Pakistan's Diana Baig celebrates a wicket
Pakistan’s Diana Baig celebrates a wicket

The quality of players on display, undeniably, has been world-class; five of the eight captains from the recent World Cup – Heather Knight, Sophie Devine, Stafanie Taylor, Sune Luus and Bismah Maroof – are taking part alongside global stars like Suzie Bates, Laura Wolvaardt, Hayley Matthews, Danni Wyatt, Marizanne Kapp, Shabnim Ismail and Sophie Ecclestone.

The leading Australian and Indian players, however, have been conspicuous in their absence. The likes of Harmanpreet Kaur, Deepti Sharma and Jemimah Rodrigues had been due to play before the BCCI blocked their participation due to a clash with India’s domestic competition, while Australian stars like Meg Lanning and Alyssa Healy have opted for a deserved break after their Ashes and World Cup Triumph. The fact Australia’s centrally contracted players are well paid compared to the leading players from other countries also makes the financial incentives on offer at FairBreak far less enticing.

Australia has still been well represented, though, with national team allrounder Nicola Carey, WBBL stars Elyse Villani, Georgia Redmayne and Grace Harris – who took a hat-trick on Tuesday night – as well as young Sydney Sixers leg-spinner Jade Allen all involved .

But the main feature of the tournament has been the players from Associate nations, who have more than held their own against the best in the world.

In the group stage, players from the Netherlands, Malaysia, Japan, Ireland and Thailand have won the player-of-the-match award and one of the moments of the tournament came when Henriette Ishimwe, a 19-year-old Rwandan, produced a delightful inswinging yorker with her very first ball to clean bowl Carey.

Having shown that the gap between Associates and the more established cricketing nations may not be as big as some suspect, Martyn says simply giving these passionate amateurs, who are being paid to play for the very first time, an opportunity is a core part of FairBreak’s mission.

“It has a massive effect on these people, and we feel that,” he says, telling of how the father of one Associate player was moved to tears in the stands as he watched his daughter play.

Malaysia's Winifred Duraisingam celebrates her player of the match award
Malaysia’s Winifred Duraisingam celebrates her player of the match award

“It’s not a small thing. They’re very, very, very good players without recognition.

“I hope the ICC … now sees us as a complementary piece in the development of the game. If we’re growing the strength of those countries, that’s only a good thing for world cricket.

“If there’s 16 men’s teams playing in a World Cup, I want to see 16 women’s teams. Then you can talk about equality.

“They are the things that drive us.”

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