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Siren Sport / By Mrinal Asija

The future of Australian women's cricket looks bright as Meg Lanning leads top young talent

The Australian women's cricket team has started the year with a bang, despite a flury of movement. (Cricket Australia via Getty Images: Brett Hemmings)

It's been a convincing start to the year for the Australian women's cricket team, with T20 and ODI series wins over Pakistan.

Captain Meg Lanning roared back onto the international stage after a short break and youngster Phoebe Litchfield had a memorable debut, scoring back-to-back half-centuries in her first two ODIs.

The last time the Australians played at home, they whitewashed England to retain the Ashes, and the year since then has been nothing short of eventful.

While 2022 was another highly successful year for the team, which won back the 50-over World Cup trophy and the first-ever Commonwealth Games women's T20 cricket gold medal, what was unusual was how the team ended the year.

With key players retired, unavailable for selection or injured for the December T20I series in India, they were forced to make a few changes, something they'd avoided in the last few years.

Now they face their biggest test yet — defending their Women's T20 World Cup title in South Africa, starting tomorrow.  

A plan for the future

When Rachael Haynes announced in September that she would end her playing career with the 2022 season of the WBBL, the overwhelming response was surprise. Only a few weeks earlier, she'd said she would happily captain the Australian team.

Losing Haynes was like losing a safety net. She was someone the team could always rely upon, and her retirement could not have come at a more precarious time for Australia, with the team also missing skipper Lanning.

Without their longstanding captain and vice-captain, the Australians faced the challenge of coming up with a new game plan.

The team's coaching set-up was also going through a transition. Head coach Matthew Mott departed the camp in May.

In his seven-year tenure, Mott had guided the team to three World Cup wins and a record 26-match winning streak in ODIs.

Mott's assistant Shelley Nitschke took over as interim coach and was at the helm for the Commonwealth Games gold medal win. The former Australian all-rounder's position has now been made permanent.

Under Mott, the team had adopted the strategy of packing the side with all-rounders and sticking to its core players.

Although the average age of the team that won Commonwealth gold in August was 27.4 years, several of its key players are either over 30 or close to it.

Nitschke acknowledged this while addressing the media after her announcement as head coach.

"Whether it's now or in one or two years' time, there are going to be some changes," she said.

Nitschke added she was excited to take up the challenge of developing new players.

As it turned out, Nitschke and her team were left with no option but to make changes aplenty in the very next assignment — the five-match T20I series in India in December last year.

Debutants deliver through a barrage of challenges

Left-hander Georgia Redmayne was widely expected to replace Haynes in the middle order for the India tour. The Brisbane Heat and Queensland Fire player had enjoyed a great run at the domestic level in the past couple of years and had earned the call-up to the Australian squad for the home series against India in 2021.

Georgia Redmayne earned a call-up to the Australian squad after a successful stint in domestic cricket. (Getty Images: Chris Hyde)

She was sitting on top of the run-scorers ladder during the 2022-23 WBBL season before she was hit by a hamstring injury. The doubt over her complete fitness kept her out of the Australian squad for the tour of India.

It was instead Haynes's 19-year-old Sydney Thunder teammate Phoebe Litchfield who received the selectors' nod.

The left-handed teenager has been touted as the next big thing in Australian cricket ever since she had a sensational debut WBBL season back in 2019.

Carrying on from her call-up in the T20I side, Litchfield made an impressive ODI debut against Pakistan in January, reminding everyone why she has leapfrogged many to make it to the world-champion Australian side.

Made to open the batting to fill-in for Alyssa Healy, she followed her 78 not out in the first game with a 67 not out. The first two games saw her build memorable partnerships with Lanning and Beth Mooney, two greats of Australian cricket.

Meg Lanning and Phoebe Litchfield enjoyed a solid partnership during January's ODI series. (Getty Images: Bradley Kanaris)

While some fans on social media remarked that Litchfield's stroke play reminded them of Haynes, former Australia leg-spinner and ABC cricket commentator Kristen Beams saw a resemblance between the youngster and captain Lanning.

"Having played with Meg when she was the same age as Phoebe, I think there's that steely determination, and what you see visually from a batting point of view is real ease around the timing of the ball and looking really comfortable at the crease," Beams told ABC Sport Daily.

"Ellyse Perry, Meg Lanning are once-in-a-generation players. You don't see players like that come often and I definitely put Phoebe Litchfield in that category."

Along with Litchfield, fast-bowling all-rounders Kim Garth, a former Irish international, and Heather Graham were handed their maiden Australian caps during the India tour.

The string of debuts was partially necessitated by the unavailability of Darcie Brown and Grace Harris, due to illness in the initial matches, and the loss of Jess Jonassen to injury.

Even though Beth Mooney piled up runs in the series, she also struggled with a stomach bug early in the tour, and stand-in captain Alyssa Healy was ruled out midway through the series with a calf injury.

Having to defend a total in four out of the five games in conditions that favoured the chasing side, the loud support for the opposition didn't make things any easier for the Australians.

In the end, Australia won the series 4-1 and have kept their winning ways rolling in 2023 with the Pakistan ODI series.

The future is looking bright

Darcie Brown dazzled in Australia's 19-wicket win over Pakistan in the second ODI in Brisbane. (Getty Images: Albert Perez/Cricket Australia)

There were concerns about how Haynes's retirement and Lanning's break would shake the balance of the team at a crucial juncture. But in hindsight, this test could not have come at a better time.

As the side goes into the upcoming T20 World Cup and the Ashes later in the year, it will carry the confidence – in its depth, its strategies, and its future – that it must have taken out of this success.

The return of Lanning and Ellyse Perry's great touch of form would only boost the morale further.

The beginning of the Nitschke era

The series against India also allowed coach Nitschke to come out from the shadow of Matthew Mott.

From benching Ellyse Perry in the Commonwealth Games to embracing the changes in team combinations in India, Nitschke has shown she is not afraid of doing things differently, without compromising on the hunger to win.

The T20 World Cup in South Africa is Nitschke’s first as the head coach of the Australia team and it is the beginning of a new journey for her.

“My time as the assistant coach of the side has put me in good stead for taking up this role, but I’m seeing this as a new beginning and I’m really excited about the tournament,” she said on the eve of the World Cup.

The future of Australian cricket is in safe hands with Meg Lanning and Shelley Nitschke leading the way. (Cricket Australia via Getty Images: Brett Hemmings)

The team announced for the tournament is an indication that we should start expecting a few more surprises. But not when it comes to the results.

With a new coaching set-up and a strong pool of talent to pick from, the team culture that has been ingrained in the Lanning-Haynes-Mott leadership era, the attitude of backing oneself and never giving up, and the spirit to fight back from any situation will guide this team forward for years to come, but most importantly now, as it transitions into its next phase.

ABC Sport is partnering with Siren Sport to elevate the coverage of Australian women in sport.

Mrinal Asija is a student at the University of Melbourne. She has previously written for Siren Sport and is currently associated with Women's CricZone as a content executive for the ICC U19 T20 World and Women's T20 World Cup. 

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