OPINION: Response to ‘Will The Super League Succeed Where The County Championship Has Failed?’

In a piece which was originally published on www.womenscricket.net, women’s cricket legend and Sussex WCA Chairman Don Miles responds to CRICKETher Editor Raf Nicholson’s recent piece on the Super League, ‘Will The Super League Succeed Where The County Championship Has Failed?’, with his own thoughts on that question.

Will The Super League Succeed Where the County Championship has failed?

There are several parts to that question, one, the obvious one, of whether England players will emerge more readily when the Super League is up and running, but there are also built in assumptions.

The first is that County Cricket has been the forgotten area in the women’s game in the UK, unlike the situation in Australia (so we are told anyway) where financial support for the players at State level exists, to cover long flights and hotels. County Cricket has, the title claims, failed to deliver players to the higher level… True the article also states some of the reasons why it believes that to be true.

I would argue strongly that that is not the case. In relatively recent times England have won World Cups in both formats of the game and I relish the memories of the 2009 50-over Cup down under and the T20 match at the Oval where Claire Taylor and Beth Morgan set the crowd alight with one of the finest partnerships ever witnessed in a women’s T20. If not winning England have been there or thereabouts in both 50-over and T20 international competitions. Supporters of all teams in any sport have to get used to the fact there will be good times and lean times, times when the squad plays well and times when… well, it doesn’t.

All this does not mean, of course, that England couldn’t do better. As other blogs have remarked the choice of players – who is in the squad – who could be called in – is one that can occupy hours of discussion and no two people are likely to agree very readily. In fact it has amused me to have a ‘Law’ (‘Don’s Law’) named after me by others typing in this field. I have in recent times claimed that ‘my’ England side has never lost – the simple reason being it has never played. I can’t be the first to have said that however. I claim no  knowledge superior to anyone else (except perhaps some who write in the papers and watch perhaps one women’s game a year) but there is one point I wish to make forcefully.

2017 is getting very close. A decision must be made before Christmas and the choice quite simply is do we go into the 2017 World Cup with the current squad or do we need to blood new players – yes – play them in England shirts in South Africa in the winter and against Pakistan this coming summer.  Don’t ask them in simply to carry drinks! The end of the tour to South Africa will be too late to give any new faces a chance to settle. Players deserve a ‘run’ – a series of matches – in which to show what they can do. In one game, out for two, maybe back in for one game again, does no one’s confidence any good and frankly it is grossly unfair to judge any player on their performances if that’s the opportunity (or I’d say lack of opportunity) they are given.

And for the County set-up currently…

The cash available to a county to support (in the case of Sussex, for instance, last season) seven teams means that players have to put their hand in their pockets not just for kit as you might expect but also for petrol, training sessions, meals out when away from home, and I’m sure there’s more. County Cricket is available to those who not only have the dedication to turn up but also afford the expense (or whose parents can afford the expense). Is this different from any other sport? For instance if your daughter became wild about tennis or golf would the situation be any different? Possibly not, but I do not feel that is any kind of excuse for County Cricket becoming the poor cousin of any Super League (hereafter S/L).

Which, of course, brings me to another assumption within the title of the article. Can we find six sponsors with the necessary cash (approx £400,000 over three/four years if rumours are true)? With a number of the conditions of running this tournament not easy to reconcile with what coaches and players would normally expect; it’s an open question. I can only speculate, having no inside knowledge of anyone’s thoughts who might have that kind of cash lying around. Will it fly(?) it’s a question I hear increasingly around the boundary rope. We must wait and see I guess.

Anyone remember the Super 4s? I have written on this tournament before but it bears repeating. No one was ever really sure the purpose of it. I enjoyed watching the games – don’t get me wrong – but was it an England trial or maybe a chance for established players to make plenty of runs ahead of an international series? When some players were brought in to simply act as fielders, canon fodder for England players whose talents the ECB were well aware of, it seemed the latter. With four teams approximately 48 players were involved. Talk of the S/L suggests 55 players from this country will be required and it would not necessarily be unfair to suggest the S/L will be a diluted form of the S4s. Yes – I know it has been suggested there could be two overseas internationals in every squad but again it’s a question of will there? The WBBL in Australia seems to be getting there slowly but it has not been straightforward. So much of this is “wait and see” which is why I typed on a previous page that things were both ‘exciting and worrying’ in equal measure.

And where will the S/L sit in the player pathway? One would assume beneath the Academy, or is it the England U-19s, or is it…? A purpose other than simply a higher level of competition needs to be sorted out. As already noted, there is an argument the S4s was a higher level, but it suffered from  “what is it all about?” The S/L could go the same way if its purpose and position on the pathway is not clear.

Much is made of these “Player Pathways” in the modern jargon of most sports and cricket is no exception. Essentially you have a pyramid shape with an indication to players at the bottom how they might climb the ladder to the next stage, and ultimately to the top. In our case ‘England’ is at the tip of the pyramid. As the ancient Egyptians knew full well pyramids don’t work too well unless they have a very strong foundation. In women’s cricket, where do most people start playing the game? Well maybe at school but there are few who encourage girls to form their own teams although a particularly talented pupil might find themselves playing for one of the boy’s XIs. It’s more likely to be at club level. This is where the major problems lie it seems to me. There are a few strong clubs and a number of much weaker ones.

This is not a problem in itself as surely the object should simply be to get as many of the female persuasion as possible playing the sport, whether they have any desire or not to climb the pyramid. My feeling is the ECB has a responsibility (and ultimately it will be in ‘England’s’ interest) to encourage participation at the base of this pyramid. This seems somewhat lacking. Let’s take a specific example. You may be aware if you visited the home page recently that I drove to Kibworth to watch four teams fight it out for the National Club Championship. Chatting to the coach of one team I discovered that seven of his players didn’t feel strongly enough about club cricket, even though it was the final and a chance of some silverware, to turn up. While there may have been legitimate reasons for one or two it seems unlikely there would be for seven. One, indeed, chose instead to play for a men’s team that day. I should add a footnote here that the four U-13s and the two U-15s who replaced the regulars fielded valiantly during their match against Bath, despite an onslaught from an in-form Sophie Luff, and no criticism should be levelled at them for the inevitable defeat!

If this is indicative, and it seems likely, of the value players themselves place on the bottom of the pyramid there could be problems aplenty for England in a few years time when current top players decide their day is done.  And there’s plenty of volunteers working at club and county level, as well as Cricket Board support that is highly variable around the country.

To sum up, and I guess I should before you all drop off, I don’t feel, and never have, that County Cricket has failed anyone. It has done its best despite grave financial stringencies and has provided winning England teams in the past. I feel sure it could do so again. If I may dare to offer advice to those in higher places, make sure the pyramid is supported at the bottom, at club and then county, or there is always the risk of the entire edifice falling down.  And let’s not take the ‘trickle down’ excuse. It has never worked in economics so I can’t see why it should here. All that trickles down is the feeling a few are being supported at the expense of the many.

Despite the obvious pit-falls, let’s hope 2016 is exciting and not worrying. Whichever, I can’t wait to get back to that boundary rope again.

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NEWS: Shrubsole Wins PCA Award

England and Somerset fast bowler Anya Shrubsole has been named the Professional Cricketer’s Association Player of the Summer 2015.

Shrubsole was England’s leading wicket-taker in this year’s Women’s Ashes with 13 wickets; and was the only bowler on either side to record a series economy rate of under 3*.

Anya was also a key player for Somerset in winning Division 2 of the Women’s County Championship, taking 14 wickets and additionally chipping-in with the bat, averaging 29 including one fifty.

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* Minimum 10 overs bowled in the series.

NEWS: Shaw To Continue Through December But Academy Coach On Hold

With yesterday’s departure of England Women’s Performance Director Paul Shaw, following so soon after the resignation of Academy coach Lisa Keightley, both of the two most important coaching roles in English women’s cricket are now in-play, raising the question of just exactly who is in charge now? And with England central contracts due to be renewed over the next 3 months, this is a bit more than an academic issue!

Sources at the ECB have told CRICKETher that Paul Shaw will continue to play an in-post active role through December, and is very-much involved in the ongoing process of contract renewals.

Meanwhile, the ECB’s priority is to name his successor by January, prior to the South Africa tour in February; and with the calibre of candidate they are seeking this is likely to take some time, so for the moment we are told that the Academy role is basically on hold and the ECB will not be seeking candidates until after the new Head Coach is appointed – i.e. early next year.

Reading between the tea-leaves, another reason may be that this will also potentially allow the incoming Head Coach to have some input into who is appointed to the Academy, because although the jobs are not formally linked, in practice they will need to work very closely together at Loughborough, where the Academy share the facilities with the top-tier “Performance” squad.

OPINION: New Coach Will Have The Talent; But Will They Have The Time?

In a move that we’ll admit perhaps surprised CRICKETher more than it should have done, Clare Connor reached for the shotgun yesterday; and with it despatched England “Performance Director” and Chief Selector Paul Shaw back to the obscurity from which he came.

CRICKETher has had little real interaction with Shaw over the years, but the customary nod and a smile with which he always greeted us around the circuit bear witness to something which we’ve heard time and again: he was (is!) a thoroughly bloody nice bloke.

But we can not allow this to distract ourselves from the fact that under his leadership, the England team have gone backwards – falling into the pack while the Australians hurtle ahead.

The twin Ashes triumphs of 2013/14 were the highlights of his reign; but even as giant strides towards professionalism were being made off the field, victories on the pitch merely papered over cracks that were in retrospect already all too apparent by the 2013 World Cup in India – brittle batting; over-reliance on the Brunt/ Shrubsole bowling axis; and a chaotic selection process on the fringes of the team that quite literally drove players away from the game.

The current England squad is very-much of Shaw’s making, bearing in mind that his previous role was heading-up the Academy. There’s a lot of potential, but there are too many players that England struggle to get the best out of – the Danni Wyatts… the Amy Joneses… even the Heather Knights and the Sarah Taylors.

That’s the challenge for the new coach, whoever he (or, sadly less likely, she) is – they will come into the role knowing they have some serious talent at their disposal, but they will nevertheless have their work cut out to turn things around in time for the World Cup, which in sporting terms really is just around the corner in 2017.

BREAKING: Shaw Resigns – England To Appoint Head Coach Instead

The ECB have announced that England Women’s Head of Performance and Chief Selector Paul Shaw is stepping down from his post and that his role will be replaced by a more traditional “Head Coach”.

Shaw will remain in-place for the remainder of this year, but England are hoping to have made a new appointment by the time they head to South Africa in February.

In her official statement Clare Connor paid tribute Shaw’s contribution; but reading between the lines, she basically acknowledges that with his age-group/ academy background he didn’t have the necessary experience to continue to take the team forward, suggesting that a key criteria for his replacement is someone who has already actually played and/ or coached the game at the very highest levels:

“The decision to move back to a more traditional coaching structure, led by one overarching head coach, ideally with first class or international playing or coaching experience, is what we believe is now needed to take the players to the next level in their development as professional cricketers.”

NEWS: Aussies Frustrated As ECB Stand Firm On WBBL Finals

As CRICKETher reported back in July, England stars travelling to Australia for the winter have been warned by the ECB that they are expected to be back in Blighty by mid-January to prepare for their international tour to South Africa, meaning that they will miss the semi-finals and final of the WBBL, which is set to be the biggest domestic event ever in the history of women’s cricket.

Word is that Cricket Australia were bitterly disappointed by this – the finals are set to be broadcast on national TV, so they are a massive showcase at a critical juncture in the development of the women’s game and they desperately need all the star-power they can get. Hence the past couple of months have seen intense lobbying from Cricket Australia for a change of heart at the ECB, pointing out that there are two whole weeks between the WBBL final and England’s first match in South Africa.

But with several of the England players due to fly out this week, whispers now reach us from Australia that despite everything the ECB have refused to back down: the players are primarily contracted to them and that’s that – the closest Charlotte Edwards and Co. will come to the WBBL final is watching it on TV back in Loughborough.

Of course, the ECB are quite within their rights; but one day they’ll want a favour from Cricket Australia… perhaps as soon as next summer’s Super League… and one wonders quite how cooperative the Aussies will then feel like being?

Breakthrough Bell Tipped for the Top

When 14-year-old Lauren Bell made her Division 1 County Championship debut for Berkshire in May, the county’s coaches were keen to stress that this was a one-off due to unavailabilities, and maybe the only game she’d play this season.

It was smart management, reducing the pressure on the player; but in retrospect they needn’t have worried: Bell took to county cricket like a kite to the breeze, going on to make 8 1st XI appearances in 2015, taking 7 wickets at 29 and leaving little doubt that she has a bright future ahead of her.

Blessed with preternatural height, Bell has been christened The Shard by her teammates, so it is no surprise to learn that she is a fast bowler by trade – an obvious comparison among current stars would be Australia’s Holly Ferling.

But whilst Ferling often has to be hidden away in the deep, Bell – a talented footballer – shows impressive grace and athleticism in the field, with long arms that enable her to swoop upon a travelling ball and deliver a deadly throw in a single movement, reminiscent of no less than Lydia Greenway.

Bell’s county skipper Heather Knight believes that she can go a long way in the game:

“I’ve been massively impressed with Lauren this season. She’s got natural pace and bounce and if she can harness that and become more consistent she has a lot of potential.”

And her attitude on the field also comes in for praise from the England vice-captain:

“She always plays with a massive smile on her face which is great to see!”

Meanwhile, Berkshire manager John Dickinson has vowed to treasure Bell’s prodigious talent, promising CRICKETher: “We’ll nurse her and bring her on.”

The great American baseball player Yogi Berra, who died just last week, once said that you should never make predictions, especially about the future!

But just for once, to hell with it: CRICKETher have seen cricket future… and its name is Lauren Bell.

OPINION: With Great Power Must Come SOME Accountability

The Loughborough power grab which has seen Paul Shaw assume sole responsibility for England team selection is far from unprecedented in the world of sport.

In football as we know, the manager invariably acts as a sporting dictator in on-field matters; and this arrangement generally works pretty well – the players know who is in charge… and so do the fans, the media and the board when the team’s performance doesn’t live up to expectations! Indeed it is this which provides a degree of accountability within the system – if England Rovers lose The Ashes Cup, the crowds chant, the press pillory… and the chairman loads the shotgun!

So whilst this may not be the way we’ve traditionally done things in cricket, preferring the more collegiate approach of a selection panel, the football-style “managerial” system now in place for England Women isn’t necessarily wrong.

However, it can only work if it is accompanied by the kind of checks and balances provided by the robust (if mostly informal) structures which are in place in football; and this is where things potentially start to get problematic.

Thus far, Paul Shaw seems to have largely avoided any degree of accountability. He managed to drift through the summer without anyone actually knowing he was in charge of selection; and the one time he sort-of-agreed to speak to the press after the defeat at Worcester, we were told this was only on the condition that we softballed him. (Such agreement was not collectively forthcoming; and it didn’t happen!)

And since The Ashes, mainstream media interest has waned to a whisper, with even the couple of ill-informed calls for resignations that we did hear focusing on the captain instead of the admiral.

Of course there is always the shotgun, which was used on Mark Lane a couple of years ago, but Clare Connor has a lot on her plate right now, with the Super League, contract renewals, World Cup planning… you name it – the last thing she wants is to have to spend valuable time looking for a new head coach against the wishes of her skipper!

In short, Paul Shaw is largely unanswerable in practice right now. Going forwards, this needs to change. Shaw needs to be made available to the press at the very least at the end of each series, and he must accept, if the team’s performance justifies it, that hard questions will be asked. Will he enjoy it? Of course not! But he has all the power now… along with it, he has to accept some accountability.

NEWS: Ireland / Scotland Players To Get WBBL Opportunity

Players from at least three “associate” nations will have the prospect of spending time in Australia this December/ January, attached to a WBBL team under the just-launched “Associate Rookie” program.

The rookies will be selected from the teams that attend the World T20 Qualifiers in Thailand this November – so Ireland and Scotland players will be hoping to impress Aussie legend Cathryn Fitzpatrick, who will be making the selections following the tournament.

Players from Netherlands, Bangladesh, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, China and Zimbabwe will also have the chance to seize this amazing opportunity.

Team coaches, including Women’s Cricket Scotland boss Kari Carswell, will have the tough job of nominating up to three players to go forward for one of the 8 places up for grabs – one at each WBBL franchise.

Once selected, the players will spend two weeks at WBBL, training alongside the “pros”, with the possibility that they could even get a game if an injury crisis hits their team.

With so many talented players to choose from, it will be interesting to see if Fitzpatrick goes by potential – which could favour youngsters like Ireland’s Elena Tice and Scotland’s Kirstie Gordon – or by current ability, which might make Ireland’s Izzy and Cecelia Joyce likely picks.

NEWS: Counties Getting Cold Feet On Super League?

Although the ECB received a massive 27 “Expressions of Interest” in acquiring one of the 6 teams which will participate in next summer’s inaugural Women’s Cricket Super League, it has been suggested that they may struggle to translate these into actual bids when the deadline comes around at the end of this year.

Almost all of the submitted Expressions of Interest were led by existing First Class counties, who are the only ones with access to the one thing you need above all else to host a team: a ground!

(Notwithstanding the fact that educational institutions have been repeatedly posited as potential hosts, Clare Connor made it clear at the launch event that even Loughborough’s ground would not meet the required standards!)

Clearly then, the counties hold the keys to the kingdom – they have the grounds; not to mention the coaches, the indoor schools… and the actual experience of running a professional cricket team, which should not be underestimated!

However, the word around the game reveals a worrying picture of cold feet at county board level, echoing what Lizzy Ammon has written here:

“Privately some county chief executives have said to me that they are concerned about the realities of being a host team.”

Unsurprisingly, when you start to dig a little bit deeper, a lot of this seems to come down to money. With a couple of notable exceptions, the First Class counties aren’t exactly swimming in it, and Super League looks at best like a break-even exercise.

Yes, the ECB have talked big money… and to be fair, it is a lot more than the women’s county sides currently get… but it still isn’t lottery winnings, by the time you’ve annualised it and divided it around 6 teams. Back of an envelope calculations carried out by CRICKETher suggest that the Aussies are investing almost twice as much in WBBL.

Super League is also a risk, the kind of which the counties feel very nervous about pursuing in the current climate; with the suggestion being that if they could be sure they’d break even, they might go ahead; but given the impact even a fairly small loss could make upon their overall bottom lines, there are serious concerns.

None of this is insurmountable of course; and the likelihood has to be that with 27 frogs to kiss, the ECB will still find their 6 princes… but they just might have to sign a couple of pre-nups first!