When the ECB first mooted the possibility of abolishing the Women’s County Championship last year, the Eastern Counties provided some of the loudest opposition to the plan – telling CRICKETher that: “Removing county cricket doesn’t make any sense when we are trying to grow the women’s game.”
Now, with the national County Championship consigned to history by the ECB, those same counties – Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Huntingdonshire and Norfolk – have come together to launch their own East of England Women’s County Championship.
The competition has been conceived in response to a local demand to retain competitive 50 over Women’s County Cricket in the region, which has seen a resurgence in the last few years.
“With all 4 Counties, the players have a real passion to represent their County and look forward to the County season every year,” Phil Lewis, Women & Girls Development Officer for Huntingdonshire, told CRICKETher. “Not just the playing standard, but the matches we have played in the East have been good hard fought encounters – rarely do you see one-sided games.”
“The standard is getting better and better all the time – players in these sides have now gone through the entire CAG system of their representative counties – 5 or 10 years ago that wasn’t the case. Players in these women’s sides have longstanding rivalries with opposing players right from U11s.”
“I have known the guys at Norfolk and Hertfordshire for years now. We spent a lot of time in each others company during last season and had many a conversation about the impact [of abolishing the County Championship] on the Women’s game, and vowed there and then to do all we could to keep things going.”
The initiative resembles the new London Championship, which will see Surrey, Middlesex, Kent and Essex taking part in a similar 50-over competition, in spite of the ECB’s insistence that all 50-over cricket would as of the 2020 season rest with their 8 new “Centres of Excellence”.
However, an article by George Dobell on Cricinfo suggests that the ECB has “endorsed” the London Championship; by contrast, the East Championship is an entirely independent initiative. “The last word we as counties had received at one of the consultancy events last year was that it was up to individual counties if they did something, but there wouldn’t be any funding for it – which is why we have tried to approach it a little more commercially to help support the tremendous backing from the Counties,” Lewis says.
The Championship is receiving no financial support from the ECB; instead, it is being funded through the support of the representative county boards of Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Buckinghamshire, as well as Huntingdonshire CCC. They have also received backing from some independent sponsors, including Soroptomist International (specifically the Hertfordshire branch), who are providing a Championship Trophy and end of season awards for the teams and players. The trophy is likely to be named after former England player and Chairman of the Women’s Cricket Association 1983-1994 Audrey Collins, who passed away in 2010.
The ECB’s rationale for abolishing the Women’s County Championship last season was that county cricket was providing a “participation experience” for players, which needed to transfer down to local clubs. However, Lewis says that the weakness of club cricket in the East of England means that this is simply not a realistic option for the players he works with.
“Our competition is a clear statement that the removal of competitive county cricket by the ECB in the region is hugely damaging to a great number of women in the area who have very little to fall back on,” he told CRICKETher. “Women’s club cricket is not even remotely close to being an adequate substitute in the area.”
“The standard is very poor, and there are no genuine league options of any kind of standard. A good quality, competitive Women’s league is at least 5 if not 10 years away, depending on the efforts of the local boards.”
The aim, says Lewis, is to utilise the new Championship to help enhance club cricket, rather than act in competition with it.
“The Championship is not there to be a substitute for Women’s Club Cricket and our fixture planning was all about scheduling outside of Women’s Club Sundays – inevitably there may be some clashes now [given the shortened season] but we are here to work with clubs and hopefully help enhance the club competition, not work against it.”
While there is now much uncertainty surrounding the cricket season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the organisers of the new Championship have agreed a contingency set of fixture dates. As it stands, 50-over fixtures will take place on 16th, 23rd and 30th August, and 13th, 20th and 27th September, with a T20 Cup Festival on 6th September. “There is a great deal of determination to make sure the competition happens,” says Lewis.
What of the future? Currently the Championship may be small-scale, but the hopes for its growth are big. “As a group we hope to bring other long adversaries into the fold to resume battle against, including Suffolk and Lincolnshire – it would also be awesome if we could somehow attract entries from Europe in time as I am sure the Netherlands will be hugely impacted,” says Lewis.
“We absolutely see this competition as a long term thing. No question.”