INTERVIEW: South East Regional Director Richard Bedbrook – “We’ve got to make this domestic structure as good as it possibly can be”

So far, Richard Bedbrook’s new job hasn’t exactly gone to plan. Appointed as Regional Director of Women’s Cricket for the new London & the South East Region back in March, he had been in role less than a month before full lockdown was imposed across the UK. By now he should have been overseeing a full squad of players, and a full complement of coaching & support staff on top of that.

Instead, recruitment is on hold, and much uncertainty lies ahead for the 8 new Regions, which had been due to supersede women’s county cricket as the pinnacle of the domestic player pathway in England from 2020 onwards. No one knows for sure whether the September inter-regional fixtures will go ahead as planned, or what the route back to training and squad selection looks like from here.

Nonetheless, for Bedbrook – who has been head coach of Surrey’s county side since 2017, and seen first-hand the struggles which county players face when trying to juggle cricket with work and study – the overwhelming feeling remains one of excitement in being involved in a new era for the women’s game in England.

“The level of the game’s got to be taken forwards,” he says. “We don’t want that jump for players from domestic cricket into the internationals to be still too far apart. We’ve got to make this domestic structure as good as it possibly can be.”

Despite the delay to the 40 full-time professional domestic contracts, which were originally due to begin in April, there has been one important development: the ECB last week confirmed the allocation of 20 place-holder “retainer” contracts, split between the 8 regions. These represent the first step towards domestic professionalism in England. Representing London & the South East in the list are Tash Farrant, Alice Davidson-Richards, Sophia Dunkley and Bryony Smith (the latter three are all current holders of England “Rookie” contracts).

Bedbrook, who was in charge of the selection process, describes them as “the standout four players from our region”:

“Tash [Farrant] is a Kent girl at heart. When we initially chatted and there was a desire for her to come back this way,” (she has lived in Loughborough for the past 5 years), “it was a no brainer then that she’d be part of that group.”

“Alice [Davidson-Richards] and Bryony [Smith], being home grown girls from their respective two counties and on the rookie scheme at the moment, those players were nailed on as first choice because of that reason. They’ve both got ambitions to progress out of that Rookie system into the England setup.”

“There’s been a relationship between Surrey and Sophia [Dunkley] for a couple of years through the KSL. We’ve got to know each other as coach and player, and then when she joined Surrey this year, it was a fairly obvious question to ask, would she be interested in coming to this region? Again, it’s another player in the Rookie system who’s got big England ambitions.”

While the official line from the ECB was that retainers should be allocated on the basis of future potential to play for England, the Regional Directors have clearly been given the scope to mould the core of their new squads according to their own preference. Bedbrook is clear how he sees his role:

“We’re having to work through that right from the outset, what is the aim of this regional programme? And I think probably one of the bigger drivers is the player development aspect. The winning of the competition is actually probably a secondary aim behind that.”

One of the difficulties going forward will be juggling the needs of the professionals in the squad with those of their teammates, who will remain largely amateur, though they will have the capacity to earn match fees of circa £200 for each regional fixture they are selected for. Bedbrook acknowledges this will be a challenge, but argues that the new professional domestic contracts will play a positive role in increasing the drive and motivation of players to showcase their skills in the domestic set-up.

“The players who aren’t professionals are going to want one of those [paid] spots,” he says. “Offering them the ability to train as much as they can, within the programmes that we can set up, will clearly show those that are massively keen to make the next step, out of that amateur status into semi professional / professional.”

“Those players are going to have to really, really take a step forwards with their outlook to cricket, their outlook to their own training. Because when you’ve got players such as these four [Farrant, ADR, Smith and Dunkley] who have got high standards, who have got ambition to be better, they don’t want to be held back by others.”

He is also keen to emphasise that the 5 professional contracts per region are only the first step on a path to full domestic professionalism: “I think we’re going to be a little bit led by by how the programme itself can develop in time – i.e. how long are we only going to have five professionals within each region? When potentially is the stage when it can increase?”

He emphasises, too, that in this new era for the women’s game, his role is not only to support those with England ambitions. “It’s really important for us to set our stall out – we want to help players make the next step up, realise the ambitions that they might have, which might be to play for England, but equally it might be to be a professional cricketer for as long as they can.”

Last week the London & South East Region announced that their team name would be the “South East Stars”, a clear carry-over from the KSL, confirming CRICKETher’s theory that the regional sides represent the KSL Mark Two. The decision, says Bedbrook (who coached Surrey Stars in all 4 seasons of the KSL), was made back in January by a joint Surrey-Kent Working Group, who felt it was right to “keep that brand going”.

“I think there’s elements to it clearly that are going to have been ear marked in the KSL,” he adds. “But I think the biggest link from the visibility of the KSL will be to The Hundred – that’s going to be a game changer for women’s cricket.”

Is the main marketing focus going to be on The Hundred, rather than promoting the regional Centres of Excellence, in that case? “Primarily at the moment the marketing is being pushed into The Hundred. But we clearly want to have people coming to watch [the regional competition], and we clearly want to make it visible where we can”, says Bedbrook.

“Ultimately, there is still that strap line of, ‘you need to see it to be it’. And that’s hugely relevant for the women’s game at this point still. We’ve obviously seen some massive strides taken over the last few years, not just with our domestic competition, but obviously the KSL. And then clearly, we’ve just had the Women’s World Cup, which put it into a new realm. And that’s why it’s so disappointing that this pandemic’s come at the worst possible time, I think.”

“But that’s not to say that that momentum will be lost – that momentum’s just paused. And we’ve got to make sure that we do make these players on the call now visible to young girls in the region and nationally. We want to make these four, but all the other players involved, as visible to as many people as possible.”

Now all they need is the chance to get out there on the field and play some cricket.