When I meet Loughborough Lightning coach Salliann Briggs on her home turf at Loughborough University, it is the day after Kia Super League England player allocations have been announced, and her excitement about the competition is palpable – and infectious. While Briggs has already worked at Loughborough for nearly 7 years, as MCCU Cricket Performance Manager and coach of the England Women U15 and U19 squads, Super League presents a new challenge:
“[Previously my role] has been a lot about developing individual cricketers…this is going to be a fairly new experience because results matter. It puts me under completely different pressures, but having access to probably the best domestic [women’s] competition in the world now is a great job for me. I’m really looking forward to it!”
Part of Briggs’s excitement comes from the recent England player allocations. She will have Becky Grundy, Georgia Elwiss, Amy Jones and Beth Langston at her disposal during the competition, and while there have been some suggestions that Loughborough have drawn the short straw in having no “marquee” England player on their team, Briggs says that all four were at the top of her list when making player requests to the ECB. She stresses the importance of having 4 players who are graduates of or current students at the university:
“The university are a standalone organisation, [unlike] some of the other hosts. So it’s a big investment for Loughborough University, and we wanted to make sure that we had players that are linked to Loughborough that have actually enabled us to achieve this host status.”
“It was also important that [they] were living in Loughborough. Because part of this process for me is not just a 3-week competition, or a trophy, it’s about making sure we provide the right support for these girls on a year-round basis. So assigning an England player that has to travel 2 hours for a training session, just wouldn’t make sense.”
She also points out that her 4 allocated players provide the core of a well-balanced side:
“With Beth [Langston] I’ve got an opening bowler. With Grundy I’ve got a left-arm spinner, and [there are] stats about how important left-arm spinners are at the highest level. A keeper and top-order bat, Amy Jones. And then Georgia Elwiss, who’s a genuine batting all-rounder. It’s made my life a lot easier trying to piece everyone else around them.”
Each KSL team will also have 3 overseas players allocated to them – to be announced in due course – and Briggs says she is “looking forward to the challenges [as coach] of working with someone from a different country”. She refuses to be drawn on the persistent rumours linking Aussie superstar Ellyse Perry – whose husband Matt Toomua will be nearby, playing for Leicester Tigers – to the Loughborough franchise, though she does acknowledge that it would be a coup for her side were the rumours to be proved true: “I only wish that we have someone like her!”
She also quashes the suggestion that Loughborough have not yet announced their captain because Perry is to be given the job, saying that it is almost certain that one of the 4 allocated England players – Langston, Jones, Elwiss or Grundy – will be handed the captaincy reins, but that she wanted to wait until the squad returned from the World Twenty20 in order to “have a good discussion with no distractions” with each of the players, and then “make an informed decision” based on those conversations.
Why was Loughborough’s bid successful where others based at first-class counties – notably Edgbaston – failed? Briggs emphasises their history of a strong commitment to the women’s game:
“A legacy of the Graham Dilley era is that we made a commitment that we were going to treat female cricketers exactly the same as male cricketers, and we have always done that…I’d like to say that any female cricketer who’s gone through [Loughborough University] would say, ‘I had everything I needed to fulfil my potential’.”
“The location on campus of the National Cricket Performance Centre and the access the girls will get to that, and the additional conditioning facilities and expertise there, was central to our bid.”
While there’s suddenly a lot more interest in women’s cricket around the country now the ECB have invested £3.5 million in the KSL, the awarding of the franchise to Loughborough is, according to Briggs, an acknowledgement by the ECB of the investment that Loughborough have long made in the women’s game – with at times half of the England team having graduated from the University and her MCCU programme.
Briggs is clearly driven partly by the desire to win the inaugural Super League, which would surely be a feather in her coaching cap. However, she stresses that to her, the competition is about more than just results on the pitch:
“It’s about making sure we provide the right support for these girls on a year-round basis. I want to feel that all 15 players have got access to everything they need…Also, we want to make sure that we’re doing our bit in this local area, in the Midlands, in getting a new wave of spectators and young players that really enjoy women’s cricket.”
Loughborough’s aim, according to Briggs, is to attract between 300 and 700 people at each of their 3 home matches, and they are beginning their games at 4.30pm in order to encourage as many people as possible to come along. While Briggs recognises the criticism Loughborough – as the only host without a first-class county ground – have received, she is quick to point out that their smaller venue size will actually be more conducive to a good atmosphere than some of the other host stadiums. She also emphasises that they are working hard behind the scenes to make the spectator experience as friendly as possible:
“Not playing in a stadium offers us (and ECB) some unique opportunities to try some development initiatives with girl cricketers, and we’ve already talked to the local County Boards about this. We have another large playing area adjacent to the match ground where we can host some small games and coaching clinics/ ‘have a go sessions’ etc for girls, and then they can come across to the matches. It can be a great experience – which is what we’re looking at for the girls.”
“One of our games is on the same day as the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics so we’re doing a Brazilian theme – there’s going to be a carnival outside, and inflatables – as well as the cricket experiences.. I’ve been involved in some of the planning meetings and what I’m hearing is very exciting.”
“I guess the biggest message is, that [compared with] what people have experienced before when coming to watch cricket games at Loughborough, it will be completely different.”
Loughborough Lightning’s aim, in the words of Briggs, is “to be the leading Kia super League host”. If her own sense of purpose and vision can translate into results on and off the pitch, it’s hard to see them failing.