By Richard Clark
I wasn’t always a women’s cricket follower. In fact, for most of my life I can’t say I was aware that such a thing existed.
My father was – and still is – a Worcestershire season ticket holder, and huge swathes of my summers were consumed with the ups and downs of the Schweppes County Championship and John Player League. I was one of those things that apparently doesn’t exist these days – a child with an attention span and a love of cricket. But it was exclusively played by the male of the species, and the possibility that the other half of the population might ever pick up bats and balls rarely crossed my mind.
I say rarely – I know I was aware of the existence of somebody called Rachael Heyhoe-Flint who played the game (on her own presumably, bowling to herself ad infinitum…?), and I recall too that we sat down in front of the telly one afternoon to watch bits of the 1993 World Cup Final on Sunday Grandstand. Not that the day’s events had any great effect on me, or us. We were pleased that England won – ours was the sort of household that would happily watch and support England against Johnny or Jenny Foreigner, whatever the sport – but it had no real long-term impact on my “cricket life”. As far as I was concerned the England Women’s cricket team appeared on the box one day and then ceased to exist again the next.
It was twelve more years before Holly Colvin gave me another little nudge in the direction of the women’s game, when her selection to play for England in the 2005 Women’s Ashes at the age of 15 attracted media attention, and I followed the two-Test Women’s Ashes series from afar with mild curiosity. Not enough curiosity, mind you, to haul myself the short distance to New Road for the second and deciding match of the series. It was another little drip of the tap, perhaps even a slight trickle, but not yet was it a gush…
Like a few people, I would imagine, 2009 was the year that opened my eyes wide enough to want to know more, and to see for myself. Despite it taking place in the middle of the night, I was listening as England defeated New Zealand in that winter’s Women’s World Cup Final – once more the habit of jumping on every England-shaped bandwagon coming to the fore. I decided I needed to know more about a team that had achieved something (and I hesitate to say this because I dislike such trite comparisons, but here goes anyway…) our men had never managed.
The inaugural Women’s World T20, to be held in England that summer, provided the opportunity, and at Taunton on Sunday 14th June 2009 I watched not only my first women’s cricket match, but my second too. The double-header format of the group stages meant two for the price of one, and after Australia had dealt relatively easily with the West Indies, to the tune of 8 wickets, England did likewise with Sri Lanka by the comfortable margin of 71 runs.
By the standards England have set themselves in recent years, and even with due allowance for the subsequent strides made since the advent of full-time professionalism at the top level, it perhaps wasn’t vintage stuff. The classy Claire Taylor (75 of 54 balls) apart, England were a shade pedestrian in reaching 140 for 7 with the bat, but their fielding from ball one was a cut above the other three teams, Australia included. There was a buzz about them that made this first-time spectator really sit up and take notice. The batting may have been a touch below par, but this was a serious team I was watching, even without the injured Katherine Brunt, a player I had been especially keen to see.
Having “dipped my toe” I kept an eye on the tournament’s progress, but with the semi-finals and final televised – thanks to a slightly different double-header arrangement which saw both women’s and men’s knock-out stages run side-by-side on the same days at the same venues, which allowed for Sky to cover the women’s matches at limited additional expense – I could watch from the comfort of my armchair as England repeated their 50-over triumph of a few months earlier.
The semi-final of that tournament was a genuine epic – a distinct “staging post” not just in my appreciation of the game, but in the development of women’s cricket in this country. After putting tournament favourites Australia in to bat, Charlotte Edwards must have been wondering whether she’d done the right thing as the Aussies ran up 163 for 5 in their 20 overs. That actually represented a good outcome for England after Australia had been 138 for 2 with more than three overs left.
Solely on the basis of the Sri Lanka match I feared for Edwards’ team. Claire Taylor apart, I couldn’t see where the necessary “oomph” would come from, even with the shortened (but not by too much) Oval boundaries, and by the time Sarah Taylor and then Edwards both departed England needed another 121 off 13 overs.
There followed a masterclass, not just from Claire Taylor, but from Beth Morgan too. Their composure was remarkable, picking off singles, running hard for twos and threes, taking the bad ball when it came along. You see plenty of innovation these days in women’s T20 matches in particular, but back then the game was yet to fully evolve to that extent. Taylor and Morgan simply played good cricket shots, that’s all there was to it. And twelve overs and three balls later, England had won. Taylor (75 not out) and Morgan (46 not out) had made the Australians look something they most definitely weren’t – ordinary.
We can all point to the unlikely run chases we have witnessed, matches that were pulled from the fire by some Herculean slogging, or where victory was gained inch by inch, single by single, as the balls ticked down and the last wicket pair clung on. This was neither. It was clinical, it was methodical, it was proper cricket.
It deserved a bigger crowd, and a bigger TV audience, and it also deserves seeing again – there is no hint of it on YouTube, and I’ve never seen it repeated on Sky. It exists only on the pages of Cricinfo, and in my mind’s eye, which is a pity because it was an outstanding chase.
Later that same summer, England met Australia again, this time in a one-off Test match to decide the Women’s Ashes. With the match being played just down the road from me at Worcester, it would have been rude not to pop my head around the door, so Day 3 of the match saw my first experience of “long-form” Women’s cricket.
Test cricket is a strange format in the Women’s game, something of an anomaly even. The domestic game, both here and in Australia, is strictly limited overs, meaning the longer version is only experienced in Ashes Test matches themselves (England and Australia are the only two countries who still entertain the notion of playing Women’s Tests), or occasional warm-up fixtures. There is an element of learning on the hoof for all involved, and in that context I went along to watch with the feeling that maybe it wasn’t necessarily fair to expect too much. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure exactly what I DID expect…
Australia had started poorly on day one (28 for 5 at one point) but had recovered to 271 for 7 by the close, and eventually reached 309 all out the next morning. England then mirrored their opponents to an extent, slipping to 28 for 4 and then 59 for 5 before Morgan and Jenny Gunn steadied the ship on 116 for 5 at the close of the second day. Only 154 runs had been scored from 68 overs during a rain-shortened day, England hanging on defiantly late on as the Aussies looked to tighten their grip.
With the home side needing only a draw to retain the Trophy they had won four years previously and then retained down under in 2006/07, the onus was on the visitors to winkle the English batters out on day three. Morgan occupied the crease for what seemed an eternity, with Gunn, then Brunt and then Nicky Shaw all providing support for a while, but when Morgan went for 58 with England exactly 100 behind, it looked like Australia were in complete control.
Morgan’s runs had come off 262 balls and took more than five hours. In those five hours she found the boundary just four times. A grind? Perhaps, but she was the main reason why England were not in deeper trouble. I’m sure some people would decry it as “boring” but to me it was gripping cricket. No fireworks, no twists and turns, just a batter giving her all to defy the bowlers at the other end.
Nobody at New Road knew it when Morgan departed, but this was to be a day when tenth-wicket partnerships would frustrate and infuriate those in the baggy green caps. While Jimmy and Monty were defying Ricky Ponting and his troops at Cardiff, Colvin and Laura Marsh batted together here for even longer – more than 20 overs – putting on 59 runs, and in that time they probably saved England from defeat. Much like that T20 partnership at the Oval that took England to Lord’s, they did it with a mixture of common sense and proper cricket, defence and attack – eight boundaries between them.
There was time for Australia to reach 128 for 1 by the close, a not insubstantial lead of 169, but it was difficult to see how they could win the game barring an England collapse.
I enjoyed the day. Despite free admission the crowd was sparse, reflecting the minimal publicity afforded to the women’s game at that time. To this callow observer it seemed hard to avoid the impression that the ECB were almost embarrassed to shout about the game, as if they felt there was no point as nobody would turn up anyway.
Yet the cricket had been good, compelling even, and if spectators had been subdued for much of the day as Australia squeezed England’s batting, they had come to life a little when Marsh and Colvin began to get into their stride. In many ways, it was no different from watching a County Championship match. I certainly didn’t feel I’d been watching anything “second rate.”
England gained their draw, unseen by me, the following day. Going for quick runs, Australia were bowled out for 231, which they may not have seen as a bad thing, but England negotiated the necessary 53 overs with little alarm and retained their Ashes trophy to complete a triumphant year.
I now considered myself a supporter of this team, and yet, so enthralled was I that I went another four years without attending a single women’s match. It was 2013 before I dabbled again, when the next Ashes series came around. This time we headed for Lord’s for a One Day International forming part of the newly-instigated multi-format Women’s Ashes series. But first (and bearing in mind I said “we”, not “I”), let’s rewind a little…
In the Autumn of 2012 my daughter – then just turned 10 – came home from school with a form that her games teacher had handed to her. “Em, you’re good at rounders, why don’t you have a look at this?”
“This” was an invitation to any girls interested in cricket to attend trials for Worcestershire’s girls age group squads. My daughter loved, and still loves, sport; she was already playing netball and hockey at school, as well as netball for a club, and had been captivated by the London Olympics that summer, Jess Ennis in particular. Yet for some reason it had never occurred to this cricket-loving Dad – now very much aware that the female of the species could play the game and play it well – that his sport-loving daughter might be able to… erm… play cricket.
So trials it was, and despite never having held a bat or bowled a ball in her life she was accepted into the Under 11s squad. Now, I like to think that she dazzled the selectors with her instant knack for the game, but I’ll be honest with you – they all got in. We’re talking about a time when girls’ cricket was not as popular as it is now. If a girl who essentially knew nothing about the game could get through County trials it suggests to me that talent was thin on the ground, but still…
The summer of 2011 saw her first games of cricket both for the local club she had joined and for the County squad, and cricket became even more a part of our lives in a way that we certainly hadn’t expected. Six years later she’s about to embark on her first season at Under 17s level (success at trials permitting). It’s been a journey and a half – some good seasons, some not so good – but either way it’s been tremendously enjoyable. We’ve been to Cornwall and Cumbria, and numerous points in between, and the group of girls she plays with (and their parents) have become great friends.
There have been highlights of the cricketing variety – did I mention she once took five wickets in an over, and then hit the winning run in a one-wicket victory, all in the same match? No? Strange – I’ve mentioned it to everybody else!! And highlights of the non-cricketing variety – the World Tour of Dorset and Cornwall in 2016 will live long in the memory, although never was truer the adage that “What happens on tour, stays on tour”!
We’ve also seen the team bowled out for 20 (nine runs from the bat, six scoring shots…), which wouldn’t have been quite so bad were we not chasing the small matter of 243 for 3. Hey ho…
More pertinent to the story is that her involvement in the game made me more determined that we would follow and support women’s cricket at every opportunity, partly because I already had that interest, but also because I wanted her to see what she might be able to achieve, and to have role-models within the game.
Back to Lord’s… for me a return to the venue where I saw Worcestershire lift the Benson & Hedges Cup in 1991, but for the rest of our family their first “big” cricket match (the odd men’s T20 at New Road notwithstanding). It didn’t go well – England lost, in fairly limp style. But it was to be their only defeat to the Aussies that summer, and with all limited overs matches televised we got used to watching England’s women as routine for the first time.
Again, a hiatus, until another Ashes tour two years later in 2015 (remember that, when they were coming along like buses for a few years?). This time we had an ODI scheduled on our doorstep at New Road, only for persistent rain to scupper the day – or to be more precise, it scuppered the cricket.
Despite the apocalyptic forecast we went along anyway, and it proved to be a very good decision, as photographs with, and autographs from, the entire England squad and a good few of the tourists, were collected in the Pavilion. The players of both teams were exemplary on what must have been a very frustrating day, giving their time freely, always with smiles, and chatting to anybody and everybody.
It’s something I see at every women’s match – players willing to give their time after the close of play to meet particularly the youngsters who have come to see their idols. It’s an area where women’s cricket, through its relative lack of a big following when compared to the men’s game, actually has an advantage. Youngsters have that opportunity to get close to the players, and the players genuinely understand and appreciate the influence they can have.
It wasn’t just snaps and signatures, either. Late in the afternoon, we were entertained by the somewhat bizarre sight of Brunt and Sarah Taylor clearing a space in the bar, corralling a group of slightly bewildered girls and boys, and playing an impromptu game with a couple of rolled up socks. It emphasised to me the importance and the power of these players interacting with the next generation.
There is a saying that has been prominent in women’s sport in recent years – you can’t do what you can’t see. Girls need access to their role models, they need to be able to see the footsteps they are following. When my sister and I were young, the only women’s sport I can remember seeing on the TV was the Olympics and Commonwealth Games, and Wimbledon, all – significantly – events where women’s sport co-existed alongside (let’s not say “piggybacked on”) men’s sport. Actually going to watch a “stand-alone” women’s sporting event was not, to all intents and purposes, “a thing”. My sister was never especially into sport, but then why would she be? Essentially it belonged to men and boys.
The explosion (relatively speaking) in the coverage of women’s sport in recent seasons has been phenomenal in more senses than one. For my daughter – and my son too, come to that – women playing sport is genuinely normal. It happens, it’s on the TV, it’s in the papers, and more pertinently it’s on Instagram and Snapchat. I asked my lad one night to name his three favourite cricketers – his answers, Tammy Beaumont, Katherine Brunt and Fran Wilson, and then as an afterthought he chucked in the name of Joe Root.
Because we take them to women’s matches – not just cricket, but football too occasionally – they see it as perfectly normal, nothing out of the ordinary, more of which in a bit…
Up to now, the one gap in my experience of watching the women’s game had been domestic stuff. I’d come to consider myself fairly knowledgeable as far as England were concerned, but what about the County game that produced these players? Despite being a life-long Worcestershire supporter, and having my daughter in the “pathway” I didn’t really know much about the County’s women’s team, beyond the odd occasion when their training sessions crossed paths with my daughter’s age group training.
Late in the summer of 2015, a little slice of history took place at New Road. Nothing too noteworthy in the scheme of things, but significant nevertheless for those involved – the first domestic women’s cricket match to take place at County HQ. The women’s team took on Devon in a 50-over Division 2 Championship match, ostensibly as part of the County’s 150th Anniversary celebrations, so I made that my (our) first experience of the Women’s County Championship.
Worcestershire won the game, in front of a smallish crowd, and a cracking day’s cricket it was. Chasing the home side’s score of 236 for 6, Devon made decent headway, whilst Worcestershire chipped away at the wickets column. For most of the chase the match was well-poised, and with ten overs to go a tight finish looked in prospect. In the end Devon ran out of wickets and steam as their lower order struggled, and Worcestershire were eventually winners by 35 runs, a more comfortable margin than had seemed likely for much of the afternoon.
Once again, I enjoyed it, and had found the standard a little better than I perhaps expected for a second tier fixture. There were half-centurions on both sides, and a number of players looked very easy on the eye with bat in hand, whilst the bowling and fielding was good.
It may just be me, but I find myself wrestling with my praise and criticism of the women’s game, and this match was a good illustration of that. How good were the players, how good was the game I had watched? Was I over-praising because I wanted it to be good stuff, or because I was “making allowances” for the part-time status of the players, the big (ish) stage that most probably weren’t used to, or simply the fact that they were women? Or was I judging on merit? A good shot is a good shot, after all, whether played by a man, a woman or a child.
I try to be honest in my critique, whilst – yes – making what I think is reasonable allowance for all factors. If a fielder lets a simple ball through his or her legs, that’s rank bad fielding whether the player concerned is professional, amateur or junior, but if it’s a 30-yard run and a full-length dive on the boundary to prevent a four, then I think it’s entirely reasonable to differentiate between a full-time professional and someone who trains intermittently when the commitments of their day job and regular life allow.
In areas of physical strength and conditioning, why would anybody sensibly expect the same standards? In much the same vein, the idea that women play a “less worthy” game because they don’t bowl as fast or hit the ball as far is surely spurious. The physical differences between the average man and the average woman are self-evident, and in professional athletes are exaggerated even further.
But in questions of technique, there is no reason why a woman – given the same training and playing time – can’t cover drive the ball as elegantly as any man. And I’ve seen it. I’ve seen Heather Knight drive the ball through the off-side in a manner that could not be bettered, and I’ve seen Anya Shrubsole swing a white ball that many male bowlers can’t move off the straight. And we haven’t talked about Sarah Taylor’s keeping yet…
Too many people fail to understand – or don’t want to understand, because it’s doesn’t suit their blinkered view – that professional women’s cricket is still in its infancy. Full-time women cricketers only became “a thing” less than five years ago. And yes, as a result of that we should expect – and are seeing – higher standards, but that can only ever be a gradual thing. Nobody gets exponentially better at anything overnight, and certainly not just because you pay them more or allow them to give up the day job. Improvement will come quicker than it might have done otherwise, but it still comes in incremental steps.
And making somebody full time doesn’t change their back story either. Players like Jenny Gunn and Katherine Brunt have been full-time since the ECB introduced professional contracts, but they’ve been England players for much longer than that. Both made their debuts in 2004, a full ten years before full-time cricket came along. How do you make up for the lost years of practice, training, physiotherapy, rest? You can’t. Those players are as good as they are despite their backgrounds.
And what about the money? For years England’s women had to pay their way, literally. It cost them money to play the game, whether through unpaid time off work, funding foreign tours, or the need for new kit. And if that has changed now on the International scene then it certainly hasn’t lower down the ranks.
So when I watched Worcestershire and Devon that afternoon, I saw two things – firstly, cricketers playing for the love of the game, not for any kind of fame or reward; but secondly, players taking themselves and the contest utterly seriously. The standards they set themselves were no lower than professional players might set, the pride in their performance no less. It mattered.
If a catch was dropped or a poor shot played then nobody would be more critical than the culprit herself, so when it comes to those of us watching on, should we “make allowances”? The complicated answer – to me – is yes and no.
Yes, because that’s how the players want it. If you want to improve your game, whatever level you play at, then you have to be honest with yourself about the areas where you fall short. If spectators adopt an approach that says, “never mind, you did your best” (or words to that effect) then that is selling the players short on what is expected of them, and ends up encouraging an attitude that excuses sloppiness.
And no, because when all that is said and done, we live in the Real World. If full-time professional players can drop a catch or play all around a straight one then why expect a part-timer to be perfect?
A side-note to the match at New Road was that the minor historical nature of the occasion prompted me to make my first contribution to CRICKETher, a blog I had begun following some months previously. It’s something I’ve continued to do from time to time, and I’m grateful to Syd and Raf for indulging my half-baked ramblings. There are still not all that many places online to discuss women’s cricket but theirs is the leader in a fledgling field.
The summer of 2016 brought Pakistan to England for ODI and T20 series, in some ways a calm before the anticipated World Cup storm to follow in 2017. Although there was a match scheduled for New Road, being a midweek date meant I was unable to attend due to work commitments. The match was not without controversy, however, and watching highlights later it was easy to see why. England coach Mark Robinson had requested that the boundaries be brought in to the minimum permitted distance, making the playing area look incongruously small.
The idea behind it was to encourage England’s batters to go for their shots, and aim to hit sixes, a facet of the game that hasn’t always been England’s strongest area. It was, essentially, a means to an end. With Tammy Beaumont and Lauren Winfield both hitting centuries, and Nat Sciver a whirlwind 80 off 33 balls, England ran up a massive 378 for 6.
In some eyes it demeaned the women’s game, but that was just too simplistic a view – it was about more than just scoring easy runs as a one-off. Robinson wanted to change the mindset of a team that had virtually strangled itself to death in the World T20 earlier that year, hitting just six sixes in five matches and stagnating in a welter of nudged singles. He wanted to encourage them to think more expansively.
And it worked. From that day on, whatever the boundary size, England have been a different team, with a different mentality, a classic example of what can be achieved when the shackles and the mental blocks are removed. That match, although largely unheralded, and in some ways dismissed as an embarrassing misjudgement, was anything but. It was the catalyst for the great leap forward.
Unable to be at Worcester that day, I wasn’t going to miss out altogether, so I settled on a trip down the M5 for a T20 fixture at Bristol. “New” England dominated this game too, running up what was at the time their highest T20 total of 187 for 5, with both Beaumont and Winfield hitting 50s, but a Pakistan side that struggled all tour to mount a serious challenge to the home team put up a reasonable show of defiance with the bat despite falling well short on 119 for 7.
There was a distinct gap between the teams, though, one that had been evident all tour from what I saw of the televised games. The far less experienced visitors lacked penetration with their bowling, were often shoddy in the field (albeit much improved that day in Bristol, despite England’s record score) and paled in comparison to England’s power with the bat.
None of that was surprising, given the disparity in resources. Pakistan’s players remain amateur and come from a culture where, shall we say, the women’s game has not been nurtured with the enthusiasm it has here. Hopefully with time and investment that will change, as the game needs more countries to drag themselves up towards the standard set by the top two or three, rather than seeing those better sides pulling further clear.
And so to 2017…
This was to be the summer that women’s cricket made its biggest mark yet, certainly in the UK. The first Women’s World Cup to be held in England since that 1993 tournament, and the first global women’s competition here since 2009, would take the game to places it had not been before – the front page of many national newspapers for a start!
Frustratingly, my World Cup consisted of a mere two matches, not through any lack of interest, but thanks to a combination of work and other commitments – the clash between England and pre-tournament favourites Australia at Bristol, for instance, was red-inked in my diary the moment the schedule was announced, only for it to be usurped in those pages by my daughter’s County Under 15 commitment away to Herefordshire. The Under 15s lost that match, but England had a more successful afternoon and listening to the commentary as we made our way home proved to be hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck stuff, culminating in the relief of the final ball just as we were coming through Bromyard.
The highlights of the game backed up the sense of atmosphere that had come across on radio, with a crowd that approached raucousness in its support. England’s players have since referenced that game as the day their cricket “got real”, with the crowd “getting stuck into the Aussies” (I believe that was the phrase Heather Knight used). One particular moment stays with me – near the end Katherine Brunt caught Ash Gardner on the boundary – a crucial catch on the run, and not an easy one – and the roar as she took it and turned to the crowd, arms outstretched, came from the guts of the throng behind her. There was nothing second-rate or inferior about that moment.
A week previously we were at Taunton for a slightly more gentle afternoon watching the hosts play Sri Lanka. England gained the anticipated straightforward win, knocking off the 206 for 3 they needed to win with plenty of overs to spare, a workmanlike bowling and fielding display followed by a clinical century partnership between Knight and Sarah Taylor. Knight’s innings was superb, Taylor’s something else. A player who came into the tournament having been through her own personal struggles, and had begun with a couple of low scores, just came out and played. And it was beautiful.
When Taylor bats with freedom there is nothing to touch her in the women’s game. Meg Lanning is a machine, Sciver, Gardner, Lizelle Lee, Deandra Dottin and others can hit the ball a long way, but Taylor is a Picasso of a batter. Three days later she peppered the Bristol boundary to the tun of 147, and in partnership with Beaumont they turned a much-vaunted South African attack to dust. Even watching on Cricinfo it was gorgeous to behold.
We went to that Taunton game with a group of girls and parents from my daughter’s County squad – 23 of us altogether, I think. An early start allowed time for a proper breakfast in “Stragglers” at the ground, and the sun shone all day.
It is said by some that “nobody cares” about women’s sport. Tell that to the crowd at Taunton, who enjoyed that day no less than any men’s match on that ground. Tell it to my daughter and her friends who supported England every bit as fervently as any boy watching the men’s team, especially when Fran Wilson measured her length on the turf in taking a stunning diving catch right in front of us, and became an instant legend!
The grown-up female sports fan of today didn’t have that when they were young. Where were women’s team sports in the 1970s? Cricket, football, rugby? Nowhere, invisible, non-existent. Hockey in the Olympics, perhaps, but that’s a couple of weeks every four years. If women’s team sports don’t (yet) have the pull then right there is at least part of the reason. It takes time, but hopefully when my daughter’s generation (both as mums and dads) start to bring up their children they will have that experience from their own childhood that they will want to instill.
It comes back again to that process of normalisation. For the vast majority of the population, watching women’s sport – team sport in particular – is still “not normal.” That’s not the same as saying that it’s “abnormal”, not the same at all, but even five years ago there was very little women’s team sport televised or written about in the newspapers. We all grew up with no knowledge or interest in it because it was never part of our lives. You only have to go back and re-read the first few paragraphs of this to illustrate that.
So when people attack women’s sport, when they say it’s boring, or rubbish, or that nobody cares, this is only a product of innate ignorance (in the literal sense), and it will take time and the passing of a generation or two to overcome that. Of course, we want it quicker, we want it now, and we can all do our bit to accelerate the process, but we must temper that with a mixture of realism and patience.
England scraped their way to the Final courtesy of a 2-wicket semi-final win over the same South Africans, almost tying themselves in knots in a nerve-shredding chase. The only problem was we didn’t have tickets for what was now announced as a sell-out. There followed the best part of 36 hours virtually camped out on the ICC website, hoping that “four together” would come available – and they did. Compton Upper, £50 the lot. Lovely job!
There isn’t a lot to be said about this particular cricket match that hasn’t already been said or written. However, what I will say is that it will take some usurping as the best day’s sport I have had the pleasure to be at, not just for the sport itself but for the occasion and the atmosphere.
Lord’s that day was different – the match was watched, dare I say, properly. Everybody wanted their team to win, but not too much. Everybody was out to have a good time, but not too much. It was a World Cup Final, it mattered, but not too much. I’ve been in full houses at men’s matches in all sorts of sports. They aren’t always conducive to actually watching the match – whether it be excessive drink, a hostile atmosphere (in whatever sense), the procession of people disturbing you to make their way to the bar or the loo, or any number of things. This was a completely different, and enriching, experience.
Over many years of watching sport, most of it played by men, I’ve grown tired of its importance being overplayed. The media hype, the win-at-all-costs attitude and cheating from players, the scapegoating of officials, the aggression (and worse) from crowds, and – yes – the money involved in all sorts of ways (admission prices, TV subscriptions, players wages, gambling, and more). They all point to sport being, in Bill Shankley’s adage, more important than life and death. Well, it isn’t.
All that turns me off. I want to care about the result, I want my team to win, but not to the point that it makes or breaks my weekend if they don’t. I want to see my team strain ever sinew to beat the other lot, to leave nothing out there, as they say, but if that isn’t enough and if the opposition is just too good, too strong, then so be it, that is what sport boils down to – there isn’t always a winner and a loser, but I’ve yet to see a match where both teams won.
Much of men’s sport has gone too far in that respect, in my opinion. The essence of competition has been lost in some sort of mad arms race, and it permeates everything.
Here’s another myth to bust. Women’s cricket isn’t as good as men’s cricket. Why not? How are you even framing that question? Because if it’s the quality of the contest, or the closeness of the finish, then let’s compare this Women’s World Cup with the Men’s Champions Trophy also held in England last summer.
The Women’s tournament boasted at least three matches that outdid any of the men’s games for sheer drama at the death – England’s group game against Australia, their semi-final victory over South Africa, and of course the Final itself. That’s just one example, of course. It “proves” nothing. But it certainly gives the lie to any simplistic theories of what is “better” or “worse”.
My kids were shaking with nerves and excitement when Anya Shrubsole rattled Rajeshwari Gayakwad’s stumps. Who am I kidding? So was I! I don’t care how long I live, nothing will ever top that – equal it, perhaps, but never top it.
And over the last few years, the most gripping sport I have watched, either in the flesh or on television, has involved women. The Olympic Hockey Final of 2016, that cricket World Cup Final, and the Commonwealth Games Netball Final earlier this year. All three have been utterly compelling. That’s all you need to know about how good women’s sport can be. The best sport is just sport – gender is irrelevant.
2018 has been quieter in some ways (how DO you follow a victorious World Cup on home soil?) but at the same time I watched more women’s cricket than ever. One-day Internationals for England against South Africa at New Road – where Katherine Brunt played one of the best innings I’ve seen in a losing cause, gradually and defiantly dragging her team from a hopeless position up to a defendable target almost by sheer force of personality alone – and then New Zealand at Headingley were all we could manage on the International front, but that persistent itch brought on in 2015 by watching Worcestershire women’s first match at New Road has at last been scratched a bit.
Back in May I had been planning a rare day out watching Worcestershire’s men at New Road with my Dad, not something we get to do together very often these days. But then I got word that one of my daughter’s County team-mates had been called up to the women’s squad, a “first” for her age group, so a quick change of plan saw me heading for Cropston, just north of Leicester, instead.
A good choice, too! Leicestershire made 137 all out, which was considerably under par from 77 for 1, but Worcestershire looked bound for defeat when they slumped to 87 for 7. It took a captain’s innings from Lauren Rowles and some staunch resistance at the other end for the visitors to squeeze home at 139 for 8. I’ll be honest, not all of the cricket played that day was of the very highest quality, but not all of it wasn’t either. There were a couple of truly outstanding catches, impressive innings from batters on both sides, and the guts shown by Worcestershire’s tail deserved the reward of a victory. A day well spent.
It’s been enough to pique my interest further, and I’ve seen subsequent games against Shropshire (a big win), a T20 away to Warwickshire (a narrow loss), and then at the end of the season a winner-takes-all promotion play-off against Cornwall, once more back at New Road. Another excellent day’s cricket saw the Rapids (in a positive move, the team shares the men’s branding) gain promotion with a 97-run win. As it panned out, not necessarily the most exciting game in as much as the result was never in serious doubt, but a proper day’s cricket played by players giving their all and watched by spectators there for the love of the game.
Over the course of the summer, I’ve also become a little more involved in helping to publicise the women’s team, writing a couple of pieces for CRICKETher. In turn that led to a conversation with one of the players, as a result of which I’ve ended up contributing articles to both the County Board and Worcestershire CCC websites. It’s something I hope to be able to carry on doing and even expand on, if they’ll put up with me!
Around the same time, we did our first Kia Super League match, combining a weekend in London with a trip to the Oval to watch Surrey Stars and Western Storm. With no team on our doorstep (Loughborough and Bristol are both a decent trek) it’s a shame that we haven’t been able to support the KSL more, and it’s a shame also that the tournament is going after next summer because from what I have seen the intensity of the competition has advanced the women’s game in a way that the County system cannot.
Whether the Hundred will continue that good work, or whether it will be “lost” in the wash of the men’s competition, remains to be seen, and that is regardless of any fundamental doubts I may have (for the record, plenty) about the format. My thoughts about the whole thing are too complex to go into here – suffice to say that I want whatever the future brings to drive the women’s game forward in this country as an entity in its own right, not to “keep it in its place” as an adjunct to the men’s game.
So here we are, nearly ten years on. I started watching women’s cricket wondering how it would match up to the men’s game, because that was my only reference point, but I’ve grown to love it just for being “more cricket”. And that’s the thing, isn’t it? We call ourselves “cricket lovers” for a reason. I wasn’t always a women’s cricket follower, and I’m still not now. I’m a cricket lover. It’s all just cricket, at the end of the day.
Follow Richard Clark on Twitter @glassboy68