A Ramble on Women's Cricket
Choking? Many probably are...
A recent contributor to CRICKETher suggested that this article on the BBC had made him/her choke on his/her breakfast. They suggest the ECB has sat on its laurels since 2005 and hoped all would go well in spite of the lack of support for grass roots cricket. I might have set the date later than this but I can see the contributor's point. As Clare Connor's remarks are reported, she feels more support must be given to grassroots cricket. I have no complaint about that at all - indeed it's an idea that I have been bending ears about for about as long as I can recall. The problem becomes in defining the 'grass roots'. With all the cash being thrown at the WCSL (I choose my verbs carefully) it would be easy to believe that County cricket and Club cricket are due for a period of greater neglect as the ECB spends what it is prepared to offer the women's game, somewhere other than the grass roots. But not so says the Head of Women's Cricket at the ECB.
Now we have all heard stories about the huge number of players playing cricket. Indeed the BBC article suggests 1.3 million and the number of clubs up by 600%.
Anyone who watches as much club and County cricket as I do will know these figures are just fanciful. Only earlier this season I watched a game which involved one of the more senior clubs in one of the most successful counties in the country. Out on the field were two mothers and even one hockey player, who, I was told, had never played a game in her life but had driven several hundred miles in order to don whites and not let a friend down. This is not a picture of a flourishing club situation!
The situation at County level is only marginally better, and, with the neglect of clubs, will only get worse. Players still need to spend considerable sums of money in order to play the sport. There may be no inherent problem with that in the sense that if you take up golf or tennis the same will apply. Providing even a small amount of extra cash could raise the standards and the efforts of club and county to a higher level. Just think what £3 million would do - something I'll return to later.
Indeed, my feeling is that the introduction of the WCSL will make matters much more difficult, and not just in the matter of cash as I have already mentioned. Firstly, and possibly foremost, you have the loss of your best players to this new league, (or maybe you don't?). All that assumes that fixtures are not carefully planned. If you can assure me they will be then I'll breathe a huge sigh of relief. More than one coach, both of whom obviously don't expect this to be the case, have already said to me "why do I do all this work on bringing on players only to know that they will then never play for me again!" No doubt those left behind in club and county sides would feel much the same. If in the past, playing with the greats in the game provided an incentive to 'be like them', and I believe it did, as indeed does Clare Connor it seems then they should be playing club and county as well and if they were as fit as they have claimed to be in the past, playing a lot more cricket should pose no problems at all. But what if you do not see those faces in your team, only from the boundary at matches you aspire to play in but which now look further away than ever. Other countries have managed to run a SL and State cricket, and indeed club, together. Therefore, there seems no reason it shouldn't happen here in the UK, other than lack of commitment on the part of the powers that be..
So if the ECB has further cash to 'throw' elsewhere, where should it go? Well, rather obviously you can't abandon County cricket or the gap between the standards at the level below (club), and the level above (Super League) become so wide they are essentially unbridgeable. Any club cricketer taking that leap would be so far out of their depth that an immediate move to another sport might be the most likely outcome, or their confidence is so shaken you ruin whatever chances they had to get on. And confidence is a huge part of any sport...
So were I in the top job at the ECB, what would I do now? It's easy to say, I wouldn't be where we are now, and I'll return to that in a moment too. If grassroots is what needs nurturing, or the bottom of the pyramid needs support - whichever metaphor you prefer - then I would spend equally on club and county. Both are, in my view, essential steps on the way to the top for those who wish to take them, and, just as importantly in my view, provide a sporting outlet for those who simply want to play the greatest of games but have either no desire, or know they have no aptitude, to 'go all the way'. Is that what the ECB will do to follow Clare's idea of support for the grass roots - oh, dear, I can hear that dreaded phrase coming on - once again we'll have to wait and see?
So why don't I feel this is where we perhaps should be? Before I start down this path, perhaps I should say that I wish the Super League every success even if some of the following may sounds like I do not. In fact I have been trying to decide how we measure that success. Is it 'bums on seats' or something else? Something to return to later perhaps. However, do not assume that I do not support what is to be, even if I might have done it differently! Having got that out of the way, what is my utopia?
Had cash become suddenly available - new money as they say in political circles - in fact about £3 million's worth of it - would I have introduced a further layer between County and England's Academy/EWDP programmes? Or is the SL somewhere between EWA/EWDP and England - I have to admit I don't know. I find this a hard matter to consider.
Firstly, as regular readers will know, I can easily demonstrate that County cricket has provided enormously successful England sides for a couple of decades, and Clare's statement backs me up here, with England normally winning (see 2009 as an example) or coming close in almost every international tournament. The idea that losing a semi-final is a failure is puzzling to me. It places you 3rd or 4th in the world where dozens of countries have international teams. It simply makes no sense. True 'we' would like to win everything we ever enter but one thing sport teaches you - or should teach you - is that the world simply isn't like that. Cricket should be teaching every 11-year old and upward who plays this game that how to lose is part of sport and you'd better get used to it as it's part of life too. As Sana Mir (ex-Pakistan captain) put it so well recently "I don’t fear losing. I fear playing bad cricket". Indeed it was this comment that set me out on this bout of thumping my keyboard. So if County cricket has done so well, and the clubs have until recently managed to feed the counties, why try fixing something that isn't broken? Hopefully the ECB won't. They will provide extra support for both parts of the foundation of this sport.
Now I intimated - well stated rather more directly than that - that, in the words of the guy giving directions "if I wanted to go there, I wouldn't start from here". I think two possible scenarios would have had me thinking.
Firstly - maybe, yes - we do need a competition between County and England. If I came down on that side of the argument how would I do it? Quite simply I'd have taken the top six counties and spent a large slice (half?) on them including the introduction of a couple of overseas players to each squad. Three would I reckon be too many and cut too many possible future England players out of a chance to play at this 'County-Plus' (or dare I say a true 'Super League' or 'Premiership' level). This is one less than the SL . In fact, maybe one would do. If you chose the players most likely to provide good coaching for the rest of the team, and make it part of their contract that they do, players would learn from the best currently playing rather than many retired male players who have no experience of the women's game. I have progressed in a number of businesses during my working life and the best training I ever obtained was not from academics (or academic books) but from people actually doing the job, or recently retired from doing the job. The emphasis I would place here is doing THE job, not a slightly different job. That's not to say some men won't pick things up quickly and be versatile to spot the differences - and there are quite a few of those. However, I would like to see the coaching staff predominantly recently retired England women players. Maybe there's simply not enough to go round anyway wanting the job. I simply don't know.
In most employment stories we hear about in life, women claim (maybe with justification) that they have to be better than a man to get the same job. Here's a case in my view where it should be the other way round.
The other half of the cash I would use to prop up Counties further down the table, possibly helping them to also introduce overseas players to play and coach. The money should also be spent on ensuring there was much more cricket! The days of five matches at Cambridge and that was it, are well in the past, and as enjoyable as those days were, more cricket is essentially necessary to move forward. No one ever learned cricket in the gym or even in the nets. Those girls at Cambridge played five 50-over matches in five days as Clare Connor will well remember. Could many of the current players at any level do that today? I doubt it and it would be my contention that too much gym time and too little cricket time is the reason, as an article on CricInfo recently has also suggested.
And secondly? Let's suppose the idea of another level of cricket wasn't the best road to travel. After all the Super-4s - great games to watch - simply established that Lottie could score hundreds almost at will - that others took wickets with relative ease once the top players had departed - and that some county youngsters knew how to field but we learned little else about them. It was deemed, from the national sides' point of view, not a great success. The problem with the S4s always seemed to be knowing what it was for. If anyone knew they certainly never told me in spite of my frequently asking. If you've heard this argument here a few times before, my apologies, but it seems relevant in view of the fact that a souped-up S4s is essentially what the super league is unless you have a definitive plan about its purpose.
So how else would you spend the cash?
I would say more regional training for those in the EWA and EWDP programmes. Asking someone to drive for three or more hours (as is often the case - a recent case suggested 10 hours in the one day) or asking their parents for that matter, and then expecting the best from them in concentration and application is just ... well I'll let you fill in the blank as I don't use expletives on this site. Place the best coaches (preferably as I say those experienced who have played the sport (the sport being women's cricket remember) in regional centres with the hope that everyone worth considering in the development programmes has an hour's car time as a maximum, two at a real push. The teams get together ONLY to play, and they do that with greater frequency. One gym is much like another - and you should spend less time in them anyway - and there are plenty of strength and conditioning people around to fill in the odd hour a week which is all you should need. Most of that work, like my wife's current physio exercises, can even be done at home after expert advice.
My preferred option? County-Plus. I am biased, of course, enjoying the higher standard of cricket this would bring, but I would also feel I could be watching England players in the making, rather than a system in which developing the next generation has little or no part to play. If you find that an extraordinary statement just add up the overseas players in the super league with those who we all know will never play for England and see what's left. Sure it may help those already in the pipeline (EW, EWA etc), but development is required at the foot of this pyramid - not near the top...
However, am I downhearted? No! I am much encouraged by this quote from the Head of Women's Cricket at the ECB referring to County cricket...
“It is from this strong base that the England women’s team will continue to progress and perform well on the international stage, as younger players can progress through their county age-group systems to play alongside and against the likes of Charlotte Edwards, Sarah Taylor and Heather Knight.”
Wit that assurance it's great to know I can continue wearing my Sussex WCA cap and watch the best that Sussex can, and have, produced, sporting the martlets on their shirts, including those temporarily putting aside their England and/or their super league shirts too...
Next Page : A Tribute to one of the Great Cricketing Careers - that of Charlotte Edwards