Women’s cricket buoyant through coronavirus storm

With England’s women set to take on West Indies in their first matches of the summer starting today, Ollie Godden reflects on how the game has found solace after a difficult few months.

It was supposed to be the start of an era; £20million pledged to the women and girls’ pillar of a new England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) strategy. From that pot, 40 full-time domestic contracts would be created, spread across eight newly created regions. Not only career changing, but life changing for those players who were working full-time jobs while they pursued lucrative central contracts with their national side. A watershed moment for women’s cricket. Then, coronavirus came along. 

The prospect of women’s domestic contracts seemed unlikely following a squeeze on the national governing bodies’ funding (ECB Chief Executive Tom Harrison told Parliament that the pandemic could cost the organisation £380m) and ECB Director of Women’s Cricket Clare Connor revealed we may see a summer with no women’s cricket at all, following the postponement of the inaugural The Hundred competition.

It seemed as though women’s cricket was back to square one. Particularly disheartening considering the swell of interest created by the hugely successful Women’s T20 World Cup in Australia earlier in the year, a tournament which showcased the platform given to women’s sports down under. The move to professionalise the women’s game in England and Wales marked an effort to catch up with the Aussies, who for some time have led the international pack when it came to producing a deep pool of talent and providing the game with exposure. 

Yet, out of the embers of the coronavirus pandemic, there was good news.

On June 25th, the ECB announced that 25 players, who would otherwise have been given a full-time domestic contract, would be given monthly retainers. 

Invariably, it would be some pay cut from what they would have received, but it was a sign of intent from the governing body, that they were not merely paying lip service to the development of the women’s game.

Lancashire spinner Alex Hartley was included in the list of players set to receive a retainer. For Hartley, who won the World Cup with England in 2017 before being told her central contract would not be renewed, the prospect of a domestic contract provided a lifeline, and Connor knew it. 

“As the effects of Covid-19 on the rest of the summer and beyond become more apparent, we will continue to support our players to the best of our ability” Connor said.

“We promise them that our drive for a more gender-balanced sport remains vitally important.”

“We know that in order for the women’s game to continue to grow, we need a strong and thriving domestic set-up and girls need to see visible role models. It is another significant step forward for our sport.”

Though the initial contract plans had been derailed, it was an important signal of intent. 

Then came the news that the eight regional hubs, who had expected not to play any cricket through the summer, would be competing in the one off 50-over Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy, culminating in a final broadcast live on Sky Sports on September 27th. 

Heyhoe Flint captained England to the first ever World Cup title in 1973 and fought tirelessly for equality off the field. The Women’s Cricketer of the Year award was created and named after Heyhoe Flint in 2017 as a tribute to her following her death, aged 77, that year. Appropriately, the tournament has re-energised the growth of the women’s game, a process Hayhoe Flint began more than 35 years ago.

Beyond those who are domestically or centrally contracted, players are paid to play. What’s more, with an increased number of teams compared to the previous domestic competition, the Kia Super League, more opportunities have been created for aspiring female cricketers, and there has been exposure for many who would have missed out had the tournament not taken place.

Uncapped Southern Vipers’ captain Georgia Adams has grabbed the chance with both hands, scoring 379 in the first five group stage matches to send her side through to the Edgbaston final with a game to spare, while 22-year-old Scotland captain Kathryn Bryce has taken 11 wickets at an average shy of 15. 

This had all been music to the ears of those championing and following the women’s game, yet further good news came when West Indies, whose men’s team agreed to travel to England for a bio-secure pilot Test series, announced they would be touring England for a five-match IT20 series later this month. 

Director of West Indies Cricket Jimmy Adams said: “CWI is pleased to be restarting its international women’s program with a tour to England, where the standard of women’s cricket has grown tremendously.

“We thank the ECB for their invitation and the added opportunity to travel with a larger squad affords us the chance to introduce a few younger players to this level of the game and fast track their development.

“With so much uncertainty surrounding cricket scheduling currently, this is a timely opportunity for our women to resume competitive cricket at the highest level.”

The series will be played behind closed doors in a bio-secure environment at the Incora County Ground, Derby and is a major coup for women’s cricket after India and South Africa were unable to fulfil scheduled series due to the virus.

Despite the challenges, Harrison made it clear England women needed a platform this summer given their last appearance came at a rain abandoned World Cup semi-final.

“Protecting the momentum of the women’s game was one of our four stated aims at the beginning of the pandemic and I’m delighted that, despite the enormous difficulties that Covid-19 has created, we’ll see England Women in action this summer”, the CEO said. 

Importantly, the third IT20 will be simulcast on the BBC and Sky Sports, the first time women’s cricket has been shown free-to-air since 1993, providing important exposure particularly ahead of The Hundred next year. 

With a domestic pay-out and tournament, and international cricket back on the scene, women’s cricket has reemerged well placed to avoid a stunting of progress which appeared likely at the outset of the pandemic. The ECB have delivered on their promise to grow the game, and are investing money, energy and time, to make sure it happens.

“I’ve never felt more confident than this summer about the growing importance of the women’s game and its standing to be treated equally,” says Connor. “The standards of delivery, medical protocols, even the fact we’ll be chartering flights for any opposition teams who come over to play – that’s a multimillion-pound investment.”

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