The inaugural edition of the ICC Women's Championship starts Thursday, and the opening round sees Australia host Pakistan and England take on India in the multi-year, bilateral qualifying competition to the pinnacle event in women's cricket, the ICC Women's World Cup England 2017.
On 21 August, reigning World Cup champion Australia will face Pakistan in a three One-Day International (ODI) series in Brisbane, while three-time winner England will play host to India for its three-match series at Scarborough and Lord's. The hosts of the Australian-Pakistan and England-India series will livestream matches via their respective websites.
The concept, proposed by the ICC Women's Committee and approved by the ICC Board in the January 2014 meeting, is aimed at creating more extensive and meaningful bilateral playing programme for women's cricket. Other competing countries include New Zealand, South Africa, Sri Lanka and West Indies.
The tournament structure will see each team will play each other in one home or away series that will include three ODIs over a two and a half year period. As such, each side is guaranteed at least 21 ODIs over the tournament period. Two points will be awarded for a win, while points will be shared in case of a tie or a no-result. At the conclusion of the seven rounds, the top four sides will gain automatic qualification to the ICC Women's World Cup England 2017, while the bottom four sides will get a final chance of qualification through the ICC Women's World Cup Qualifier in 2017.
Looking ahead to the start of the series, Australia captain Meg Lanning said: "We can't wait to kick off our campaign towards the ICC Women's World Cup England 2017 when we take on Pakistan this month as part of the ICC Women's Championship.
"As the reigning champions, we feel honoured that our first ODI will mark the official launch of the inaugural Championship."
Lanning, who led her side to victory in this year's ICC Women's World Twenty20 2014, added: "The structure of the new Championship has provided us with a great opportunity to face a world-class team in Pakistan on home soil in a bilateral series. We have enjoyed some competitive matches against Pakistan in recent ICC events and I have no doubt that this series will be just as exciting."
The 22-year-old skipper sits in fourth place in the Reliance ICC Women's Player Rankings for ODI Batters list, which also includes three other Australians – ICC Women's World Cup 2013 player of the final, Jessica Cameron (seventh), Alex Blackwell (ninth), and all-rounder Ellyse Perry (17th) – inside the top 20 list. Pakistan's highest-ranked batter is Bismah Maroof in 15th position. The top-ranked Australia bowlers in the Reliance ICC Women's Player Rankings for ODI Bowlers are Erin Osborne (sixth) and Perry (seventh), while in the Pakistan camp, captain Sana Mir is in 10th place.
Speaking ahead of Thursday's opener at Peter Burge Oval, Pakistan captain Sana Mir added: "This is our first bilateral series against Australia. Before this series, we have only played them in ICC Women's World Cups. This is a wonderful opportunity for us to express our potential as cricketers; achieving our targets against the world champions will be pretty good."
England and India will meet in Scarborough in the first ODI on Thursday. They will then play in Scarborough on 23rd August before facing each other in the third ODI at Lord's on 26th August.
England captain Charlotte Edwards is excited to be leading her team in one of the first fixtures of the new tournament. "As players, the new ICC Women's Championship is a fantastic concept," she said, adding: "It gives us real structure leading into the ICC Women's World Cup in England in 2017, and makes every ODI series that we play between now and then significant. Whenever I step out to play for England I want to win, but now more than ever before, every result really does matter. I cannot wait to lead the England women's team against India in our first round of matches in the ICC Women's Championship this summer."
Edwards is currently ranked seventh in the batter rankings and is one of four England batters in the top 20 who are expected to appear in the first round fixtures, with Sarah Taylor (second), Lydia Greenway (11th) and Heather Knight (14th) also anticipated to appear. The England bowling attack will be led by veterans Katherine Brunt and Jenny Gunn, who are currently in second and fourth places, respectively. Other England bowlers inside the top 20 are Holly Colvin (ninth), Danielle Hazell (15th) and Laura Marsh (19th).
Looking ahead of the start of the ICC Women's Championship, India captain Mithali Raj, who leads the women's ODI batting rankings, said: "The India team and management is really excited to be playing in this inaugural competition and we are extremely focused and determined to kick off the series well in Scarborough. It is a new and exciting development for women's cricket and it is great that the ICC is supporting a stronger structure for the game leading into the ICC Women's World Cup England 2017. Historically, England has been an outstanding team in ODI cricket and they will be tough opponents on home soil. They have some excellent players and we know about their strength in depth. But we have a young and enthusiastic team and our players will take a lot of confidence from our win in last week's Test match. If we can go up another level and look to improve the key areas of the game, then I know that we can be competitive."
For India, Harmanpreet Kaur in sixth position is the other batter inside the top 10, while Jhulan Goswami (third) is the highest-ranked bowler.
In September, West Indies will host New Zealand for their three-ODI series, while Sri Lanka will host South Africa in October.
Australia (from): Meg Lanning (captain), Kristen Beams, Alex Blackwell, Nicole Bolton, Jess Cameron, Sarah Coyte, Rene Farrell, Alyssa Healy (wkt), Julie Hunter, Jess Jonassen, Erin Osborne, Ellyse Perry, Megan Schutt
Pakistan (from): Sana Mir (captain), Aliya Riaz, Anam Amin, Asmavia Iqbal Khokhar, Bismah Maroof, Javeria Khan, Maham Tariq, Marina Iqbal, Nain Abidi, Nida Dar, Qanita Jalil, Sadia Yousaf, Sania Khan, Sidra Nawaz (wkt)
England (from): Charlotte Edwards (captain), Tammy Beaumont, Katherine Brunt, Kathryn Cross, Lydia Greenway, Jenny Gunn, Danielle Hazell, Amy Jones, Heather Knight, Sonia Odedra, Natalie Sciver, Anya Shrubsole, Sarah Taylor (wkt), Lauren Winfield
India (from): Mithali Raj (captain), Ekta Bisht, Rajeshwari Gayakwad, Jhulan Goswami, Karuna Jain (wkt), Thurush Kamini, Harmanpreet Kaur, Smriti Mandhana, Nagarajan Niranjana, Shikha Pandey, Swagatika Rath, Poonam Raut, Shubhlakshmi Sharma, Vellaswamy Vanitha, Sushma Verma, Poonam Yadav
Australia v Pakistan
21 August - First ODI, Brisbane
23 August – Second ODI, Brisbane
26 August – Third ODI, Brisbane
England v India
21 August – First ODI, Scarborough
23 August – Second ODI, Scarborough
25 August – Third ODI, Lord's
The West Indies-New Zealand series will take place in St. Kitts on September 12, 14 and 17 while the Sri Lanka-South Africa fixtures in Colombo will be announced in due course.