Italian Cricket Spreads its Wings

Italy Women vs Gibraltar Women, February 23rd 2023

Women’s cricket is experiencing a rapid upsurge in support and organisation across the world. For many countries with aspirations of starting associate cricket organisations, the women’s game offers a much more accessible and galvanising pathway for access to higher echelons of competition than the men’s, and the marked grassroots success of various associate national teams: (Thailand, Argentina, the USA with contributions from Sussex’s own Tara Norris), UAE and more besides, reflects that the women’s game is gaining small but steady traction across the world.

Another of Sussex Women’s players, Regina Suddahazai Khan, made a stunning international debut in February of this year. As the holder of an Italian passport from a young age through her Italian mother, Regina is eligible for selection for the Italian national women’s team: when the opportunity arose to participate in an international tournament representing Italy, she jumped at the chance. Italy Women is the latest in a long series of attempts to get cricket off the ground in the country: Wisden notes that affiliate membership had been afforded to the nation as early as 1984, with the first domestic women’s tournament scheduled in 2001. A 2020 revival of the domestic league led to the first broadcast domestic game in Italian women’s history, thanks to the European Cricket Network.

 European Cricket Network (ECN) hosts a series of international tournaments and fixtures between men and women’s associate nations, allowing many associate national teams across Europe to gain the vital experience necessary to make concerted pushes towards the next stage of international competition, such as World Cup qualifiers. The tournament in Gibraltar was a T10 competition between Gibraltar, Sweden, Italy and The Netherlands, held under floodlights and on Astroturf with a commentated livestream of each game. The tournament offered a unique opportunity to women eager for more international playing experience, and for players like Regina, who only debuted for the Sussex Women’s First Eleven last year, all time spent on the pitch is invaluable. The first match for Regina and the Italian side was against the hosts, Gibraltar Women, on February 23. The Gibraltan side was at a moderate disadvantage, having only formed a side a few weeks prior to the tournament, but cricket is a fickle game and nerves were high leading into the match – the thousands watching the livestream and estimated four million fans in India tuned in elevated the tension quite considerably.

Italy’s Opening Salvo

Batting first, Italy took a commanding lead early, with openers Sharon Withanage and Dilaisha Nanayakkara attacking the Gibraltar bowlers early – eighteen runs came off the first over, with the inexperienced Gibraltar fielders letting valuable overthrow boundaries through while Nanayakkara scored a mighty six with a heaved full toss disappearing over the leg-side boundary. The runs flowed quickly with both batters able to cut, pull and drive boundaries all round the pitch: the fifth over was particularly costly, with twenty-nine runs scored by the Italian duo off Helen Mumford’s bowling (adding insult to injury, a plumb lbw was celebrated in error by the Gibraltar team, forgetting it was a free hit and so Nanayakkara was safe from dismissal), leaving Italy 76 for no loss at the halfway point of the innings.

Gibraltar started a spirited comeback in the sixth over  when Withanage walked after feather-edging a delivery by Yanira Blagg to keeper Sally Barton, who also held onto the wicket of Nanayakkara the next over off the bowling of Niamh Robeson. At 92 for two Regina made her way to the crease, partnered with Chathurika Mahamalage, prepared to steady the ship and ensure Italy made a strong total.

Regina’s time at the crease was brief but impactful, building a quick and effective forty run partnership with Mahamalage to see Italy to a commanding 137 in ten overs. Regina’s innings, though brief, showed her pedigree as a well-trained and experienced county player, with good contact off the bat, adapting well to surprising deliveries and conditions and some commanding shots to the boundary. She was easily the most adept batter of the day, scoring all round the ground with aplomb. Gibraltar had a daunting target to chase, but there was plenty to play for with a quick Astroturf outfield to contend with.

Gibraltar Collapses as Regina has a Dream Debut

Gibraltar’s start was inauspicious: eleven runs off the first over but marred by the loss of Elizabeth Ferray off the bowling of Emilia Bartram (who began in the Oxfordshire system), with an inexplicable leave of a full and straight delivery that knocked the stumps over to loud cheers from the Italian fielders. Regina claimed an excellent catch at backward point to dismiss Noelle Laguea for the second wicket, and wickets continued to tumble, leaving Gibraltar reeling at 19 for 5 off only four overs.

Regina took the ball in the fifth over. Her off breaks had an immediate impact, claiming Prabha Raghunath for a golden duck with a deflection into the stumps off a mistimed forward defensive shot. Her next wicket came two balls later, bowling full and straight to Robeson and knocking the stumps over. Her next came a ball faster, with another golden duck claimed by Regina as Burton was rapped on the pads off a missed pull shot. Regina’s over finished with Gibraltar catastrophically behind, eight wickets down and only one extra run on the board. The game was undeniably over at this point, but Gibraltar made a spirited attempt to see out their overs, with Amy Valverde playing cautiously to see off the fast bowling of Nimesha Ekanayake in the sixth over before being caught out by a quick bit of fielding by Bartram to be run out in the seventh.

Regina returned to the attack in the ninth over with the score 27 for 9, on a hat-trick and one good delivery away from a dream debut. Her first delivery was a length delivery aimed at off stump, which Blagg played at and missed, leaving the ball to crash into the wicket and secure Regina a perfect debut. With 28 off 13, five fours at a strike rate of 215.38, as well as bowling figures of 1.1 overs, four wickets for one run and an economy of 0.86, Regina was a clear pick for player of the match. Her decision to join the Italian side seeming to have more than paid off.

Italy’s Prospects

The tournament went well for Italy – although they could not secure the overall win, they were successful in beating the more experienced Netherlands and came second overall. The team has subsequently qualified for the second stage of ICC’s T20 World Cup European Qualifiers, despite a painful loss to Jersey in the initial stages. With nineteen T20Is to their name and a win/loss record of fifteen-to-four, the women from Italy seem well-poised for a breakout performance in the future. Regina continues to play for Italy and Sussex, honing her craft under the direction of Alexia Walker and alongside her peers: with successful seasons for Sussex and Italy under her belt, her future seems bright.

By Simon Edwards

Further reading:

Article on Wisden website, Chance meetings and playing with freedom: Why women’s cricket is on the rise in Italy see Chance Meetings And Playing With Freedom: Why Women’s Cricket Is On The Rise In Italy (