The Cricket Monthly: Keeping up with the Aussies

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England were once the gold standard in women’s cricket. No more

“Where were we exactly 10 yrs ago today?” tweeted Clare Connor to her old team-mates the day before the second T20 of the women’s Ashes last year. The former England captain, now head of women’s cricket at the ECB, was alluding to the day England women, after 42 barren years, regained the Ashes in 2005.

That day marked the start of a trailblazing era for England women’s cricket, the pinnacle of which saw them win the ODI and T20 World Cups alongside the Ashes in 2009. Off the field they became the first team to go semi-professional, and then professional. This was followed by stand-alone sponsorship contracts and unrivalled global status and media coverage. England make a bold claim as pioneers of contemporary women’s cricket.

The day after Connor’s tweet, England failed to chase down Australia’s paltry total of 107 in Hove as the hosts lost the second T20 of the series, and with it the Ashes for the first time on home soil since 2001. It marked the end of an era.

In reality, while off-field activity has improved markedly, England have been losing grasp of their on-field superiority over Australia for the better part of five years. Since 2010, Australia have won all three of the Women’s World T20s and the sole 50-over World Cup. The only thing that had eluded them was an Ashes on foreign soil. Last August, that achievement was secured. Australia now hold every trophy in which they contest.

We are now on the cusp of the 2016 Women’s World T20. Since the last ICC tournament in 2014, the first set of female cricketers have been able to call themselves full-time professional athletes. A new, all-encompassing ranking system has been introduced by the ICC. The first domestic franchise T20 tournament with big names and unprecedented investment has taken place. Among the plethora of firsts, however, this World T20 will also be the last one staged alongside the men’s.

County training sessions are sparse and often at awkward times in remote sports halls. Access to grass wickets is unheard of

After a decade of progress and a reshuffling of the status quo, the 2016 tournament is set to be the springboard for the next stage of development for women’s cricket. It will be a litmus test of how far the game has come – on the field, off the field, where it sits with spectators and how it is perceived by investors and media outlets. Leading into the tournament, however, there’s one team that sits well above the rest.

“Australia,” says Ebony-Jewel Rainford-Brent, former England batsman turned BBC cricket pundit. “At the moment it’s definitely got to be Australia.”

“Absolutely. Australia have a good record in India,” observes Melanie Jones, once a prolific allrounder for Australia and now too a cricket commentator.

“Well, they are ranked No. 1,” concedes Natalie Sciver, England’s hard-hitting, strike-bowling allrounder.

“Head and shoulders above everyone is Australia,” says Iain O’Brien, a former New Zealand pace bowler who has commentated on both men’s and women’s cricket. There’s a good word for a possibly resurgent England – “new coach, new structure” – and he is complimentary about his native New Zealand – “they’re a chance, as ever” – but the current champions rise above. “Stacked full of genuine match-winners, players with an X-factor and a mix of level heads”: O’Brien believes Australia have it all. It’s a sentiment in vogue. Searching for someone with an alternative view appears impossible.

Joy at Hove: in 2015, Australia took the women's Ashes in England for the first time since 2001

Joy at Hove: in 2015, Australia took the women’s Ashes in England for the first time since 2001 © PA Photos

“Australia,” confirms Daniel Norcross, a BBC commentator. “They impressively mastered alien conditions in England, and with the launch of the Women’s Big Bash League [WBBL], they’re just adding experience to an already strong squad.”

The search ends in vain.

Australia, it would seem, appear to have got a lot of things right over the last few years. They have a state competition heralded by England captain Charlotte Edwards as being “as close to international cricket as I’ve played in a domestic set-up”, a comment made even before the WBBL was launched. Just as with the men’s side, Australia were unafraid to appoint an inexperienced but intuitive captain in the form of Meg Lanning. They have a coach, Matthew Mott, whose experience in men’s cricket has fit seamlessly into their no-prisoners approach.

The visibility of the England women’s cricket team is probably greater than any other country’s, and perhaps greater than any other women’s team sport in England

As for their selection policy, Australia have shown a willingness to rotate and experiment. Their current T20 squad is an example of strong domestic performances being rewarded – performances that more often than not have translated onto the international stage. If you are looking for an analogy with the men’s game, it’s all very late-1990s Steve Waugh-esque, and we all know what that particular generation of one-day cricketers could do.

England’s 21-strong performance squad for 2015-16, by comparison, had just the one change from the previous year – an omission. Their 16-member T20 squad to tour South Africa in 2016 contained 11 players from the 2012 World T20. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

“Stuck in a time warp,” quipped one high-profile Australian coach of England’s recent T20 squad announcement. Perhaps so. The appointment of Mark Robinson, the experienced Sussex coach, as the new England coach brought with it hope of a new, post-Ashes era. His background in men’s cricket, after all, makes him similar to Mott, who has settled in comfortably with Australia. Comments by Robinson in a recent interview, however, appear to show that he has made some selections based almost entirely on his long-standing captain’s opinions.

Meg Lanning has impressed with her intuitive captaincy, leading Australia to the 2014 World T20 title

Meg Lanning has impressed with her intuitive captaincy, leading Australia to the 2014 World T20 title © Getty Images

Edwards is without doubt one of the best judges of talent around. In any institution, though, it’s unhealthy for one voice to be so dominant. Whereas Australia have given an international run to freshly unearthed gems like the explosive allrounder Grace Harris(who would go on to become the first woman to score a ton in the WBBL, off just 53 balls), England have done no such thing. Nor, heaven forbid, have they dared give anyone outside the chosen few a shot in international cricket. The bubble-wrap effect is causing more damage than any risk of premature exposure.

Only three of the England men’s 2012 World T20 squad were in their most recent T20 squad in South Africa. The turnover is quick and ruthless and the competition for spots incessant – and their recent success is no doubt in part a result of this. For England women, the luxury of such a large and dynamic pool of players constantly jostling for positions appears a long way off. Instead theirs is an air of comfortable complacency. Take nothing away from the players who hold contracts – they are a talented and driven group with some world-class players – but without external pressure the extra drive is gone, regardless of how much fight any individual has.

In England’s defence, the pool of women playing cricket the world over is far smaller than of men – as in most sport (tennis, netball and some athletics disciplines are anomalies). “A big issue facing women’s cricket is attracting the best female athletes to the game,” remarked the Sun‘s cricket correspondent John Etheridge earlier this year. “At the moment, they favour other sports.”

Do you wait for women’s cricket to reach the on-field levels you want before investing, or do you invest in the players with the expectation that performances will rise?

It’s difficult to measure how accurate these comments are. How do you compare, for example, the standard of women’s football to women’s cricket? Does the former sport contain the superior athletes? Cricket is one of the fastest growing team sports for girls in England. The ECB’s Chance to Shine programme has involved more than a million girls in over 7000 state schools since 2005. The visibility of the England women’s cricket team is probably greater than that of any other country, and perhaps greater than that of any other women’s team sport in England. Grass-roots outreach is thriving, and there are many arguments to counter Etheridge’s sentiments. What is lacking perhaps, is the stage between the grass roots and the elite: the domestic set-up.

A lot has been made about the comparison of women’s wages to men’s in international cricket. What isn’t so obvious, perhaps, is that each member of England’s 18-strong performance squad is earning 100% more than any other English cricketer, regardless of how close they may be in playing terms. To most playing county cricket with aspirations of playing for the country, the value of an England contract is almost arbitrary – what matters is that these women can train all day every day, and with constant access to state-of-the-art coaches, facilities, advice and healthcare.

An oft-quoted fact about Edwards is that she had to pay for her own England blazer when she first started. Many playing first-division county cricket in England still pay for their kit. It may be compulsory to have a county training shirt, polo, shorts and tracksuit bottoms in order to look like some sort of representative unit, but that sets a player back £150 each.

Postcard from Sydney: 2014 began on a happy note for England, winning the Ashes in Australia

Postcard from Sydney: 2014 began on a happy note for England, winning the Ashes in Australia © Getty Images

Training sessions are sparse (sometimes just one a week, or fortnight, or none at all) and often at awkward times in remote sports halls. Anything else is at a player’s own behest. Access to grass wickets is unheard of. If there’s an away trip to a far-flung county, overnight accommodation and perhaps breakfast will be covered – that’s it. It is up to the players themselves to organise and pay for transport, dinner, and any other associated costs. Team manager? Almost always a voluntary role.

Most decisions made by a first-class county in relation to its women’s teams start and end with a tightly regulated chequebook. Want an overseas player? It’s up to those in the team and that player in question to organise and pay for flights, accommodation, and living expenses. And don’t forget the county kit.

The difference in the treatment of England’s 18-strong performance squad and other cricketers in the country is akin to falling off a sheer cliff-face. No wonder the difference in performance is too.

Australian state cricket, and now franchise cricket with the WBBL, is a world apart from England women’s county cricket. The launch of the ECB’s Women’s Cricket Super League (WCSL), announced swiftly after Cricket Australia’s WBBL announcement, is a huge step towards rectifying this gap.

An oft-quoted fact about Charlotte Edwards is that she had to pay for her own England blazer when she first started. Many playing first-division county cricket in England still pay for their kit

While the inaugural WBBL was a massive success in Australia with venue attendances (in their tens of thousands for some matches), television viewing figures (peaking around 500,000) and national awareness beyond anything the national governing body could have dreamed for, those in England are understandably apprehensive about how successful their tournament will be. Unlike the WBBL, which had the men’s Big Bash League for a model, England’s Super League will be out on a limb, starting from scratch. In many ways this is an exciting prospect: the men’s T20 Blast already has problems of its own and this is an opportunity for women’s cricket to lead the way, to pioneer a course that the men may later follow.

Kerry Packer once said, “I don’t want to be left behind. In fact, I want to be here before the action starts.” Packer’s own business endeavours in the cricket world were a gamble, as is the WCSL. Success isn’t assured but it’s a timely and exciting move for English women’s cricket.

There is a lot of the chicken-and-egg factor in women’s sport. Do you wait for women’s cricket to, slowly, reach the on-field levels you want before investing, or do you invest in the players with the expectation that performances will rise as a result of the support, with further financial and media interest duly following?

The WCSL announcement, despite a guarantee of a £3 million investment over four years, made no mention of player payment. Perhaps it should. Investment in Australian domestic cricket now sees female players representing their state and WBBL franchise earning a minimum of A$10,000 (approximately US$7040). This may be nothing like a proper salary but it’s A$10,000 more than a county player can expect.

Nevertheless, there is a World T20 coming up, and anything can happen. Especially in tournament cricket. And especially in T20s. England will turn to their history with the old enemy for comfort – of the last 14 T20 encounters with Australia they have won nine. They will also take encouragement from their T20 form towards the back end of the Ashes.

The inaugural WBBL was a massive success in Australia both in terms of venue attendances and television viewing figures

The inaugural WBBL was a massive success in Australia both in terms of venue attendances and television viewing figures © Getty Images

“Australia obviously have the upper hand over us at the minute in World Cup finals, but in the summer we managed to win the T20 series 2-1,” says Sciver. “That will give us enough confidence. Yes, they’ve won three finals in a row, but on the day it’s just another game of cricket, isn’t it?”

Jones is less convinced by England’s summer offerings. “The Ashes was a completely different scenario,” she says. “The T20s were coming in on the back end of a long tour, the girls were tired and remember the last match was a dead rubber in terms of retaining the Ashes. The World Cup is a completely different tournament and Australia have a good record in India. I think the conditions will also suit Australia more so than the ones in England. Australia like those pitches and they know what to expect.”

Rainford-Brent agrees that conditions suit Australia, and with a record of 36 wins across 43 ODIs and T20Is in India, the stats back her up. She also alludes to the age-old problem that blights any and every English sporting team: their failure to deliver at World Cups. Be it football, cricket, rugby or anything else, England’s recent history isn’t kind.

Then there is England’s inability to hit big. It was a well-documented fact that at the last Women’s World T20, they failed to hit a single six throughout the tournament. Take this stat with a pinch of salt, however; women’s cricket generally has a better balance of bat versus ball and the big hitting that dominates men’s cricket isn’t so prevalent in the women’s game, where innovation and tactical awareness are key. England still made it to the last final.

Sciver, who holds a more encouraging record – of being the first woman to hit a six in the WBBL – nervously laughs off the question of whether her team will be able to clear the boundaries.

“We’d love to!” she says. “Obviously that’s something that has been brought up a few times since the last few World Cups, so yes, we are taking notes of all the chat around sixes! We’re always trying to push ourselves in pressure situations and obviously it’s hard to recreate a game scenario indoors in Loughborough [the location of the National Cricket Performance Centre] or even outdoors in the tent, which is part of our training.”

Sciver’s comments throw up another difficulty for England. The Women’s World T20 is during their off season. This disadvantage is mitigated by a mini-series in South Africa preceding the tournament, as well as the fact that the majority of the likely starting line-up played in the WBBL. Yet Australia had not only their whole starting line-up but also the fringe players, “potentials” and future stars participating.

Female cricketers the world over face plenty of hardships, and in countries like New Zealand continue to perform against the odds on the world stage despite minimal investment. England, who for so long led the way in women’s cricket on and off the field, find themselves very much in second place. The danger of having been at the top for so long is having no next level to strive for, and England appear to have succumbed to this malaise. Now there’s a new standard in play, and it’s got an Australian stamp on it.

Isabelle Westbury is a freelance cricket and politics writer and broadcaster. She has worked for the Telegraph, the Independent and the BBC. She is also the captain of Middlesex CCC


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