In some ways today’s RHF Trophy opener – Stars v Storm – felt like a typical women’s county match: it was held at Beckenham; we brought our own picnic; and as the first ball was bowled, we were the only written press at the match. It was freezing cold and I spent the day in a winter coat and woolly hat. Heather Knight trampled all over the opposition bowling, with Storm winning by 6 wickets. If it was the dawn of a new era, it didn’t feel much like one.
On the other hand, we were both temperature-checked and had to fill in health questionnaires on arrival. (Thanks, COVID.) There was a press tent and Wifi (glorious riches!) and we could hear the buzz of Mark Church doing commentary for the live stream in the next door tent. County cricket never had it so good.
The amount of investment which has gone into this year’s regional competition is impressive. The ECB are funding salaries for both the Regional Directors and Coaches (UK Sport have an advert up at the moment which suggests the annual salary for those head coaches will be £60,000.) The players are all being paid to participate, and by October, 40 of them will be professionals (albeit likely not earning the PCA’s mandated minimum wage).
And of course there is the fact that – as Sunrisers coach Trevor Griffin put it when I spoke to him a couple of weeks ago – “If we go back to March, there was real concern that we wouldn’t see any cricket at all. It’s a real bonus.” Getting this competition off the ground is an impressive achievement in the middle of a global pandemic.
On the other hand, there remains some confusion as to what exactly – aside from a lot of money – is the difference between this and last year’s 8-team Division 1 County Championship. The Stars today batted at a run rate of just over 3 for much of their innings. Rowe aside, they displayed the kind of attritional cricket which we are well used to seeing in the women’s county game.
That is not unexpected – these are players who have grown up playing county, and all the money in the world will not enable them to dispense with old habits overnight. The new set-up is part of a long-term strategy to professionalise the women’s game, which is very welcome. On the other hand, today’s showing does rather beg the question: in exchange for ditching the commercial advantage which comes with being able to align teams with existing men’s county brands, what has women’s cricket gained?
There’s another question, too, which I don’t think anyone has quite figured out the answer to yet. With the England players catapulted in at the last minute, but with rumours also circulating that some players were not selected for the RHF Trophy because they are considered “too old” to fit the bill, what exactly is the purpose of this competition? Is it purely a development competition – designed for 16-year-olds like Alice Capsey to strut her stuff – or is it about pitting the best against the best, to create the kind of high-level cricket which both looks good on live streams and which will provide the stiff competition which the England players need, in order to thrive at international level?
The ECB’s answer to this, I am sure, would be that in non-COVID years it is The Hundred which will be the high-profile competition, the one with all the glitz and the one where players really hone their skills. Perhaps, going forward, the England players will play only a minor role in regionals. Except… do you win a World Cup if at domestic level you are only playing at a high level in a non-World Cup format? Can we really afford for regionals to become “just a development competition”, and dismissed as unimportant accordingly?
At Beckenham today it was Stars’ top-scorer Susie Rowe (38 off 44 balls) who exemplified the development-vs-elite dilemma. At 33 years old, the former England player is unlikely to want one of the new domestic contracts, even if one were offered to her: she has a very good, very secure teaching job where she oversees both hockey and cricket; jacking it in to accept a short-term, not very well-paid regional cricket contract is (you’d think) an unattractive option. She hardly has a place in a “development competition”.
Nonetheless, she lit up today’s match – and you can bet she is a great person to have around when you’re 16 years old, lacking in big-match experience, and need a word in your ear or a clap on your shoulder. In any case, why on earth should players like Rowe be excluded on the basis of age, denied the chance to carry on playing at the highest level they can for as long as they want to do so?
It’s a dilemma that was never quite resolved in the KSL – are we trying to develop the next generation of England players, or are we trying to put on the best display possible? – but with no overseas players in regionals, it seems all the more acute now. As the matches in the RHF unfold over the next few weeks, it will be interesting to see what answers – if any – emerge.