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.