BOOK REVIEW: The Secret Game by Jake Perry

The Secret Game by Jake Perry (occasionally of this parish) is not the first book to be published on the history of Scottish Cricket. But when David Drummond Bone published his Fifty Years’ Reminiscences of Scottish Cricket back in 1898, little can he have imagined that it would take not just another fifty, nor even one hundred, but more than 120 years for a second volume to join it on what must be one of the shorter bookshelves in cricket’s library.

This is partly because, as the title – The Secret Game – hints, cricket has largely remained outside of the mainstream media discourse in a country where football has long been the alpha and the omega. (It is no coincidence that for all of England’s supposed obsession with football, it was Scotland’s Hampden Park which was for a while the largest football stadium in the world, and for many more years by far the largest ground in Britain, with a capacity between the wars of 150,000 – considerably more than any modern stadium anywhere.)

Although it is a book about history, The Secret Game is not a “history book” as such. Though it is presented in chronological order it is more like a medieval bestiary, with each of its 14 chapters focusing on an individual (or in some cases, a family) who had a particular impact on the development of the sport in their time and place.

It begins with the Lillywhites (yes, those Lillywhites, whose name still remains synonymous with sporting goods) playing a game which was (as Arthur Dent might have put it) almost, but not entirely, unlike cricket at Kelso on the Scottish borders in the 1850s; and ends with brother-and-sister internationals Gordon and Annette Drummond in the 21st Century.

Along the way it takes in Bodyline “Bad Guy” Douglas Jardine (English Captain, Scottish Heart) and his great rival, “The Don” Bradman (From The Ashes), and Scotland’s greatest ever woman player, Kari Carswell (Pushing The Boundaries).

Some may say that Carswell is “Scotland’s Rachael Heyhoe Flint”. But to those who really know, it is more that RHF was merely as close as anyone south of the border has ever come to being “England’s Kari Carswell”. Player, captain, coach, manager and administrator – Carswell was at some stage each of those… and occasionally almost all of them at once!

It is to Carswell’s chapter that those of us who love the women’s game may well turn first, and The Secret Game is definitely a book you can dip in and out of. But if you should do so, you should not omit to return later and cover the rest of the ground Perry rolls out – a voyage in vignettes, from the lochs to the lowlands, taking in the landscape of a game which is not quite so “secret” any more.

VIDEO: The CRICKETher Vodcast – Social Isolation Edition – Episode 6

Raf & Syd discuss this week’s ECB board meeting; the possible rescheduling of the Women’s World Cup; and the retirement of Pakistan legend Sana Mir.

Plus… thanks again to the magic of green-screen, we’re out and about; but where and (for bonus points!) when are we?

OPINION: Women’s Cricket Risks Being Forgotten As Men’s Game Fights For Survival

Over on ESPNCricinfo, Senior correspondent George Dobell yesterday laid out the dilemmas facing the ECB board as they meet today with cricket facing an unprecedented crisis due to Coronavirus.

There are question marks over all aspects of the men’s game – Tests, ODIs, the County Championship, The Hundred, The Blast… the list goes on! Men’s cricket is in desperate, desperate trouble. Although it has emerged that the ECB has some insurance against the impact of a global pandemic, this is limited and unlikely to pay out for months, if at all – with the insurance industry itself staring down the barrel of a smoking volcano.

The men’s counties meanwhile are… to put it politely… absolutely stuffed. Most of them live year-to-year with few reserves, and none of them are in any position to meet their obligations without the ongoing income from a combination of TV, gate receipts and hospitality. If the season were to be totally cancelled, several would likely go bust, with the ECB looking on helplessly from the sidelines.

Given this situation, it is understandable that the priorities at the forefront of people’s minds are to try to get some men’s cricket – any men’s cricket – played this summer, with talk of “biosecure” internationals and domestic cricket being live-streamed from behind closed doors.

But while the men desperately debate science-fiction solutions, the women’s game risks being totally forgotten.

Yes, technically, The Hundred is women’s cricket; but while all the talk has been about male players potentially losing their lucrative big-money contracts, no one seems to have quite clocked that for the majority of female players, The Hundred was going to be their only source of cricketing income this year – without it, they will be back to their pre-KSL status – 100% amateur.

The problem is magnified when you remember that the Centres of Excellence, which were supposed to offer full-time professional domestic contracts to an additional 40 non-England players, have essentially been put “on hold”. Although no contracts had been signed, several players were led to believe they would be getting one of these deals, and so not unreasonably put off other life decisions on that understanding. While the long-term investment is secure, as far as the players are concerned they now look set to get a big, fat cheque for absolutely nothing until next year at least.

Even what remains of national level women’s county cricket – the T20 Cup – has been pretty much ignored. We assume it counts as “recreational” and has therefore been effectively cancelled on that basis, but as far as we are aware no one has officially come out on the record and said so, and the fixtures are still listed on Play Cricket, the competition’s official web site.

In the fight to keep the men’s game alive, the women’s game is clearly not the main priority for many of those who have any influence on this situation. But nonetheless we’re still here – we still exist, we still matter… and we won’t be forgotten.

NEWS: England Go ‘On The Lamb’ As Lancs Emma Awarded Rookie Contract

Lancashire batting allrounder Emma Lamb has been awarded an England Rookie Contract, following her graduation last year from Edge Hill University.

Lamb was a key member of the Lancashire side which won the county double in 2017, scoring 333 runs and taking 13 wickets. The following season she bettered that, scoring 497 runs at an average of over 40, and taking 11 wickets with her off-spin.

She also made 30 appearances for Lancashire Thunder in the KSL, scoring 329 runs at a Strike Rate of 99, and taking 21 wickets with a best of 4-17.

Lamb, who has been a member of the Academy squad since she was a teenager, attended the Professional Cricketers Association’s 2020 “Rookie Camp” in February alongside Kirstie Gordon, and told the PCA’s in-house magazine Beyond The Boundaries:

“I don’t think you can underestimate how difficult it can be to balance university studies with training. It’s quite hard to focus on just the cricket.”

“After completing my Sports and Exercise Science degree at Edge Hill University, I’ve earned my contract so [cricket’s] now my main focus where it wasn’t before.”

Although women’s Rookie Contracts are by themselves not a full-time living wage, they allow a player who might otherwise have had to go out and look for a regular job to continue within the system; and Lamb will also be able to supplement her England contract with her earnings from playing for the Werther’s Manchester Originals in The Hundred, assuming that goes ahead in August.

BOOK REVIEW: Cricket 2.0 – A Vision Of Women’s Cricket’s Future?

Last week Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde’s Cricket 2.0: Inside the T20 Revolution was deservedly named Wisden’s Book of the Year. The book provides a forensic examination of the multiple ways in which T20 has changed cricket, both for the better and for the worse, and features interviews with more than fifty players and coaches in the men’s game.

I began reading it while out in Australia for the T20 World Cup, and almost immediately happened upon the following, in the Authors’ Note: “This book is solely on men’s T20 cricket. T20 has transformed women’s cricket too – quite possibly even more so – but that story deserves its own full telling, and there are others better qualified than us to do it justice.”

That quickly became the lens through which I consumed the rest of the book. How far can Wigmore and Wilde’s analysis be extended to the women’s game? Is men’s T20 cricket a vision for our future?

I’ve noted some of my musings below. I’d be interested to hear your own views in the comments.

  • Increased use of data is at the heart of this book, and is one aspect of what Wilde and Wigmore label a “paradigm shift” in cricket in the past 10 years (see especially ch.2). Here is one area where women’s cricket is lagging behind. Matthew Mott is the first coach I’ve heard who regularly uses the term “match-ups” in press conferences; Australia are the first international side who actually have the resources at their disposal (i.e. analysts) to use data to the extent that it’s been used in men’s cricket. This was much discussed during the recent T20 World Cup, when Australia came under the spotlight for becoming obsessed with a numbers-based approach to questions like whether Ash Gardner or Meg Lanning should bat at 3. Overall, use of data is one area where I’d suggest women’s T20 cricket will begin to look much more “Cricket 2.0” in the next few years, as teams become better resourced around the world.
  • Commercial forces have shaped men’s T20 cricket to a much greater extent than in the women’s game. Men’s T20 franchise leagues have created a free market whereby mercenaries like Chris Gayle (ch.3) can make millions of dollars without wearing their national shirt. No one chooses the freelance life in women’s cricket: it’s hard work – see for example Rachel Priest, who snapped up a New Zealand contract as soon as she could, after moonlighting in the KSL and WBBL for a couple of years.
  • That means that some of the positives which T20 cricket has brought to the men’s game, like the “democratisation” process amongst players from non-Test playing nations (ch.13), have not yet arrived in women’s cricket. On the other hand, you might argue that the players remain much less motivated by money – they are grateful for the chance to make a living playing cricket, but they don’t turn into the kind of person who gives themselves the nickname “Universe Boss”, which is a plus point as far as I’m concerned.
  • Men’s T20 cricket has brought spin bowling to the fore (ch.4) – an interesting contrast with the women’s game, where spinners have generally been more dominant. I might even hesitantly say that, in a reversal of the trend Wilde and Wigmore identify, T20 cricket has made pace bowling more important in women’s cricket. If the best T20 pace bowling is about mastering variations (ch.7), might that gives seamers in women’s cricket an advantage, because variations (not sheer pace) have traditionally been the tools of their trade?
  • In chapter 8, Wilde and Wigmore outline the gradual unravelling of the ECB’s initial opposition to the IPL from 2015 onwards, which they attribute to England Men’s poor performance in the 2015 World Cup. I am intrigued by this timeline. It was in June 2015 that Clare Connor first unveiled plans for a new women’s “Super League”, which was to be a franchise T20 tournament – the first of its kind in England. Perhaps the success of the KSL, as it became, helped erode the ECB’s opposition to these kind of leagues?
  • Something we have seen a lot less of in women’s T20 cricket is the struggle for peaceful co-existence between domestic T20 leagues and international cricket (ch.9). WBBL and KSL have both been part-funded and fully supported by their national boards. Nonetheless, an integral part of the story of the WBBL’s origins is the rebel-league-that-wasn’t, Shaun Martyn’s Women’s International Cricket League (WICL). This initiative pushed Cricket Australia, who were terrified that they might lose control of their players, into launching WBBL – and the rest, as they say, is history. It’s going to be interesting to see if the launch of a Women’s IPL eventually takes us to another showdown between the boards and the franchises.
  • Chapter 12, “Why CSK Win and Why RCB Lose”, could equally well be entitled “Why Western Storm Win and Why Lancashire Thunder Lose”. Western Storm, the only team to feature in all 4 KSL Finals Days, realised early on (as did CSK in the men’s IPL) that a strong core of domestic players was the way to achieve success.
  • However, one key difference between women’s and men’s T20 franchise leagues has been the lack of a player draft in the women’s game. There is no “science of a good auction” (ch.2) in women’s T20 cricket – in the KSL, England players were “allocated” centrally by the ECB, while for the overseas players, all the negotiations were done behind the scenes. These negotiations, which have generally been top-secret, would certainly be a fascinating process to research!
  • On that note, Wigmore and Wilde’s “Epilogue” is devoted to 32 Predictions For The Future Of T20 Cricket. (Many of these provide a compelling vision for the future of the women’s game, which is one reason why I’d recommend this book to Cher readers.) One prediction is that: “The system of drafts and auctions will evolve”, with at least some of the allocation process moving to direct negotiations with players, in order to create more continuity in teams and eliminate the upheaval currently experienced in the men’s IPL when contracts come up for renewal. I wonder whether women’s cricket might learn from the men’s game and actually bypass the draft system completely, given its many disadvantages?

A final point: Wigmore and Wilde’s “Author’s Note” might well be interpreted as a “call to arms” for some future author to write their own version of this book, but centring on the women’s game. My feeling is that it would be a very different book. The forensic level of statistical analysis which Wilde and Wigmore adopt, based on extensive use of CricVizz’s stats database, would be much harder to achieve – there is no equivalently sized database for the women’s game (as far as I’m aware). As it stands, an author would have to rely far more heavily on anecdotal information provided at a team level.

I’d still read it, though!

NEWS: Loughborough University Confirmed As Host For New Regional Centre Of Excellence

Loughborough University are set to play host to one of 8 new Regional Centres of Excellence which are due to replace 50-over county cricket as of this season, according to a job advert which appeared online on Thursday.

The advert, which is for Regional Director of Women’s Cricket for the East Midlands Region, states that the new Director will be based at the Sports Development Centre at Loughborough University.

The East Midlands region will consist of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Loughborough, with the new Director – according to the advert – expected to “establish and lead a senior team and an academy for the East Midlands and work with all the counties to further develop women’s cricket at all levels”.

While Clare Connor had strongly hinted at the launch of the ECB’s new “Inspiring Generations” strategy last October that Loughborough might become host to the East Midlands Centre, the regional hosts have yet to be announced officially by the ECB.

However, Loughborough’s success as host to Loughborough Lightning in the Kia Super League appear to have convinced those involved in the new structure that they deserve to continue to have hosting rights for the new CoE competition.

The news will be welcome to fans of the KSL: not only does it seem almost certain that the Loughborough Lightning brand will continue to exist within women’s cricket, it looks likely that the remaining CoEs will take up the names and branding used during the Super League, albeit in slightly amended form – just as CRICKETher predicted back in October.

While plans for the new Centres of Excellence are largely on hold for the moment, 6 of the 8 Regional Directors of Women’s Cricket are now in place – including Lisa Pagett for South West & Wales, Adam Carty for South Central, Laura Macleod for West Midlands, Richard Bedbrook for London & South East, and David Thorley for North West – with Loughborough set to hold interviews for the above post on 28 or 29 April via Skype.

NEWS: Middlesex Women and Jersey Cricket Form New Strategic Partnership

Middlesex CCC and Jersey Cricket have agreed the terms of a long-term strategic partnership to increase opportunities for their talented female cricketers. Jersey are associate members of the ICC, and are currently placed 37th in the women’s international T20 rankings.

Plans for Jersey to tour in England in late May, to train with the Middlesex Women’s side and play three T20 matches at Mill Hill School, have unfortunately been put on-hold due to the ongoing Coronavirus crisis, but the hope is that new arrangements can be made once the current situation has been resolved.

Danni Warren, Head of Women’s Cricket at Middlesex said:

“It is really exciting to be working with Jersey Cricket.”

“Having discussed our respective visions in depth, it was obvious that we share a lot of common aspirations, making this partnership the natural next step.”

“Despite [the tour] being postponed due to the current COVID-19 situation we are committed to facilitating similar opportunities for both of our playing groups going forward.”

Lee Meloy, Jersey Women’s Head Coach, echoed Warren’s disappointment at the tour’s cancellation, but reflected:

“Looking at the bigger picture; it’s a very exciting time for Women’s cricket. To be able to work closely with such a well-established organisation will undoubtedly leave a legacy for our female cricketers.”

NEWS: ECB To Re-Assess Calendar for Centres of Excellence But Investment Remains Secure

Plans for the 8 new regional Centres of Excellence – the structures that were intended to replace women’s county cricket as of September 2020 – have been placed on hold, as the ECB seeks to assess whether it will be feasible to launch the new Centres in a season likely to be severely disrupted by the Coronavirus outbreak.

However, an ECB spokesperson assured CRICKETher that the £20 million investment in women’s and girls’ cricket promised in the new Inspiring Generation strategy is secure, saying: “The ECB remains committed to the transforming women’s and girls’ cricket action plan, despite the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

While 6 of the 8 Regional Directors of Women’s Cricket for the CoEs are now in place – including Lisa Pagett for South West & Wales, Adam Carty for South Central, Laura Macleod for West Midlands, Richard Bedbrook for London & South East, and David Thorley for North West – no further staff or coaching appointments are being made until more is known about the shape of the coming season.

This is in line with the ECB’s own total freeze on recruitment in 2020, which was announced by the Board last week.

The player allocation process for the Centres was due to commence shortly, but is also being placed on hold for the moment. Additionally, it looks likely that the 40 new professional contracts for domestic players (5 per Centre of Excellence) – originally scheduled to begin in June – will now be delayed until the back end of the season, or even postponed until 2021, given that the recipients would be unable to train together for the foreseeable future.

This delay would come as a blow to a number of players, in particular those recently released from England central contracts such as Alex Hartley and Tash Farrant, who might well have been holding off from seeking other employment on the basis of an expected paid full-time future in cricket. While the PCA were able to negotiate with the ECB on behalf of the centrally contracted players, who have agreed a pay cut, the Association only represent existing professional players in England – meaning that female domestic players have no one to speak for their interests.

However, it is important to emphasise that plans for both the Centres and the new domestic contracts are on hold only. While there has been speculation in the media that the ECB’s £20 million investment in the women’s and girls’ game as part of their new strategy, Inspiring Generations, could be at risk due to cost-cutting measures, the ECB have assured CRICKETher that they remain fully committed to this area of investment.

“The Board’s initial two-year investment into this long-term plan remains unaffected and close discussions with our Regional Hosts will continue as the situation becomes clearer,” the ECB spokesperson said.

With the CoE fixtures not scheduled to take place until September, it remains possible that the 50-over regional competition could still go ahead as planned, and a range of scenarios are still being discussed with the Regional Hosts.

“We are currently collaborating closely with our Regional Hosts and modelling a range of alternative scenarios, including a later start to the season and a reduced season,” an ECB spokesperson told CRICKETher. “Although it is not yet on the agenda, a postponement of the first year of elite domestic structure fixtures is also a scenario that may need to come under consideration.”