By Richard Clark
Monday sees the climax to the Women’s domestic cricket season, with five momentous matches taking place across the country.
That’s right, five. For whilst KIA Super League Finals Day down on the South Coast will attract all the interest and headlines, attention in Long Melford, Bicester and at Blackfinch New Road, Worcester will be on other matters, with six counties vying for promotion to Division 2 of the Royal London One-Day Cup (the County Championship to some of us) – or in Essex’s case hoping to retain their place there.
At Bicester, Oxfordshire welcome Durham, whilst Long Melford plays host to something of a local derby, as Suffolk welcome the afore-mentioned Essex.
Worcestershire, meanwhile, will entertain Cornwall – provided the visitors can first overcome the notorious Bank Holiday weekend M5 traffic – and whilst the Women’s Rapids home matches are usually played at Kidderminster, it was announced soon after the fixture was confirmed that this one would go ahead at “County HQ”.
It remains relatively rare, of course, for the major county grounds to host women’s county matches. Kent and Northamptonshire have played one home fixture each at Canterbury and Northampton respectively this season, but they are the notable exceptions rather than the rule. County CEOs see the matches as loss-making, and no doubt some groundsmen would have their own views on their workload being added to.
The switch to New Road, though, is not a one-off, and is indicative of an increasingly close relationship between the County and the Cricket Board, with at least one match being played at New Road every year since 2015.
That summer saw a 50-over Championship game against Devon, whilst a “triangular” T20 Cup day (sadly rain-affected) followed in 2016. Those fixtures were competitive, but last season saw only a T20 “friendly” played as a post-script to a men’s T20 Blast fixture, and this summer’s two scheduled T20 “curtain-raisers” to men’s Blast fixtures were both – during our driest summer for many years – wiped out by rain.
Monday, therefore, marks a welcome return to competitive women’s county cricket at New Road, and Womens’ Rapids coach Sam Wyles feels that can only be positive.
“We really appreciate being given this opportunity to play at Blackfinch New Road,” says Wyles, “And our thanks go to everyone at Worcestershire CCC for their support. It’s a relationship we see growing in 2019 and into the future.”
County CEO Matt Rawnsley agrees.
“The relationship between the County and the Women’s rapids is very important to us, and that goes beyond just staging matches now and then. At the moment the County Cricket Club and the Cricket Board operate separately, and in many ways that makes no sense. The link between the men’s and women’s games is something we are working hard on, because we believe it will be beneficial to both sides.”
“Throwing a bit of money at it and thinking that is enough would be an easy option, but there are so many more ways where we can work more closely. Greater use of shared facilities and coaching resources is one area, commercial sponsorship involving both men’s and women’s teams in some way is another.”
“We have to be realistic in our aims, but a lot of things can be done that would be very effective but wouldn’t involve huge cost. There are some exciting things in the pipeline.”
As an example of that “joined-up” approach, the Women’s team already wears the same playing kit as the men’s team, and shares the “Rapids” branding. And both kit and name have been extended this season down through the girls are group squads. It all helps to re-enforce the impression of a single entity.
As for Monday’s match, Wyles believes his team is ready to grasp the opportunity with both hands.
“Preparation hasn’t been ideal, with the two games we had hoped to use as practice both washed out, but the squad is working hard at training and are very focused on Monday.”
“Playing at New Road may be daunting in some ways but a lot of our players have played there before and know the ground, so it’s at least a familiar venue to us. We can treat it as just another game of cricket. Perhaps playing on a bigger stage adds a bit more pressure for Cornwall.”
For the players, meanwhile, the match can’t come soon enough. Rapids’ bowler Jess Humby sums up the mood in the camp ahead of the game.
“As a one-off fixture it’s huge! We talked a lot over the winter about getting into the play-off. That was always our target, but then to be at the County Ground where we really only get the occasional chance to play really adds to the occasion.”
Fast bowler Emily Arlott puts it more succinctly, describing the match as “the biggest certainly of this summer if not for a few years.”
Worcestershire’s season has been a case of taking both the high road and the low road, mixing Division 3 cricket in the 50-over game with a first ever venture into Division 1 of the Vitality T20 Cup, and whilst relegation from the top flight was a blow, their campaign at that level may well stand them in good stead.
“Playing in Division 1 has definitely helped,” says Humby. “We came up against some very good teams and it perhaps took us out of our comfort zone. You learn so much more about yourselves – the importance of bowling good lines, backing our bowlers up in the field, batters hitting the gaps and running hard. You can get away with those little things at a lower level but in Division 1 they really count.”
The vagaries of the calendar mean that these games take place a full three months after the conclusion of the “regular” 50-over season back in late May. As Humby points out, that in itself poses a challenge.
“We haven’t played much cricket together since the T20 campaign finished nearly two months ago. Our luck has been out with the weather and the two T20 wash-outs.”
Wicket-keeper and Vice-Captain Chloe Hill points out that the players haven’t been idle, though.
“Most of us have been playing club cricket which is 40-50 overs, so we’re all still playing the longer form. We should all still be disciplined, and we certainly won’t be coming in cold.”
As far as the opposition is concerned, it’s very much “the Devil you don’t know”! Whereas the professional men’s teams will have video footage and endless analysis to pore over, the Women’s game – of necessity – relies more on teams just playing their own game
“We played them three years ago in the T20 competition, so we have come up against them before,” explains Arlott, “but most counties tend to change personnel a bit year-by-year, so it will be interesting to see how they compare.”
Hill agrees. “When I played for Buckinghamshire we played against Cornwall regularly, but any team can change over time. Our squad has evolved over the three years I’ve been with Worcestershire, so I expect it will be much the same with Cornwall. We can look at the stats from their matches and that might tell us who their key players could be, but that’s as far as it goes.”
“Ultimately, if we all believe in our own game then we know we can do no more.”
For the players of Worcestershire, promotion on Monday may be all they are thinking about, but it would seem that is only one part of a bigger picture in the ongoing development of the bond between “the County” and the Women’s team, with Worcestershire hopefully leading the way for other counties to follow.
Follow Richard Clark on Twitter @glassboy68