With the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy now well underway, we spoke to ECB Director of Women’s Cricket Jonathan Finch about regional selection policies, the relationship between the ECB and the 8 regions, how the regions fit in with The Hundred (Women’s Competition) when it launches next season, and lots more besides. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: From the ECB’s perspective, what is the purpose and the role of the new regional teams?
A: We look at it from a number of different angles. From a competition perspective, the purpose is to try and get the best players playing against each other at the best possible grounds, on the best possible pitches, with the best possible coaches with the infrastructure to support that. So you’re exposing players to good, hard, competitive cricket. That is one element – exposing players to the various scenarios that they might later come up against in international cricket.
And then obviously, there is a big push to try and increase the number of players that can make a living out of the game, and we hope the number of professional players and the amount they earn continues to increase as we move forward. But if we can start to increase the number of players that are professional and get to focus on their cricket 12 months a year – that’s the most exciting bit for me: getting players exposed to good quality coaching from full time head coaches, over a prolonged period of time.
Q: Would you describe the RHF Trophy and whatever replaces it as a “development competition”?
A: Certainly not. It is our top end domestic competition, that will hopefully be played across 50 and 20 over formats moving forward.
Q: If we were looking at it as a hierarchy, do you see it as sitting on a par with The Hundred?
A: What you get with The Hundred is three overseas players. You get an opportunity then for our current international players and our future international players to learn pro ways and understand how to compete with those players. There is no doubt that in the period of time that The Hundred is taking place, that that would be our premier competition. There is a difference in that the regional structure is in place to support players 12 months of the year whereas The Hundred has a short sharp focus of attention during the season.
But from my position I see them as on a par. They’re both helping us develop cricketers to play for England, and helping us develop a plausible way to increase the number of females that make a living out of playing the game, but also developing the number of roles, coaches and support staff that are involved in the women’s game to help drive what we do forward.
Q: Will there be overseas players in next year’s regional teams?
A: Each region has the opportunity to bring one non-England qualified player in to play, whether that be for the 50-over or the T20 competition. That is very much up to the eight regions – is it going to add value for them? Is it going to add value to their environment and what they do?
Q: If the regions are intended to develop England players, was it a surprise that two Scotland players got regional retainers?
A: That’s a regional decision to make. We do have discussions, and there is that veto from the ECB if we needed to do that. However, one of the key things that we’ve got to develop is a level of collaboration and trust. And trust in those regions that they are making decisions a) based on what we as the ECB want to achieve from the competition, but also b) based on setting up a team in the way they want to set it up, based on seeing something in certain individuals. Some teams may identify key characteristics within individual players that will help develop others within the squad and therefore that player is deemed the right fit for that team.
We don’t want it to be ECB versus the eight regions – it’s about us working together as a team of nine to do what’s better for us. If we start going in and dictating decisions, based around those kinds of regulations, it becomes a bit Big Brother, and we don’t want to do that. We trust Lightning to make that decision for the betterment of English cricket, because that’s what they’ve signed up to do as being one of the regions.
There is no doubt that Kathryn and Sarah Bryce have added a lot to Lightning and the competition as a whole, and that in itself helps develop both their teammates and the opposition who come up against them.
Q: What were the selection criteria given from the ECB to regional directors, when choosing their squads?
A: There were three “steers”:
1. Is this player identified as high potential to go on and play for England?
2. Is there the perception that if this player is exposed to development for 12 months of the year, then they’ve got high potential to go on and play for England?
3. Is this individual going to add real value to the competition? Are they going to perform to a certain level that raises the standard of not only their peers, but the opposition that they play against?
We didn’t put a hierarchy on those three. We asked the regional teams to consider them in their selection.
Q: So there was no age criteria?
A: No, there was no age criteria.
Q: Were those selection criteria perhaps inconsistently applied, given that some players were explicitly not selected based on being “too old”?
A: Each region will have their principles of selection and what they’re trying to do, whether that be put a squad together for the here and now to try and win the competition in the next couple of years, because they think that gives them profile in the local area and then helps them build a brand or connection to that region – or whether someone’s taken a longer term view of, actually we’ll select a team that we think is going to be successful in four or five years.
That decision has to be led by the regions.
Q: What would your advice be to the players who were not selected based on being “too old”?
A: This is high level, high performance sport, and not everyone agrees all the time. After the first year of the competition, Regional Directors and Head Coaches will start looking at different options that are available out there on the market, and you are likely to see a migration of players from different parts of the country into different teams.
That is exciting – we’ve now got an opportunity where there are retainer contracts and pay-as-you-play contracts, at eight different regions. So my direct advice is, try and continue in county cricket – performances are the currency of selection – and if for whatever reason that isn’t the right region for that individual then there are always seven others.
Q: Will women’s county cricket continue in 2021 and beyond? Will there be a T20 Cup for example?
A: That decision is yet to be made. There’s arguments for and against. Those discussions will be part of a wider end of season review. We will get feedback from the Regional Directors, from the Head Coaches and from the players about the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Competition this year. And that feedback inevitably will involve the role of [senior] county cricket and what that means for the set-up as a whole.
Q: Is it still the plan that the remaining 40 pro domestic contracts will be awarded in October, and if so, how much say does the ECB get in who gets those?
A: Yes, our intention is to do that.
The process will be similar to the process for awarding the current regional retainer contracts. The regions spoke to us about certain players, in order to gain insight into those that are on our pathway or from our scouting in the past. It wasn’t “have a think about this player”, it was, how do we help you create a better picture of that player because you’re going to invest in this player for the next 12 months. It was a general discussion, to help out some of those regional directors that have come from either outside the game or come from different parts of the game.
Q: The amount that players are paid has been set centrally by the ECB. Let’s say the Vipers win the RHF Trophy and they want to give their players a bonus, or pay them more next year, would they be allowed to do that?
A: That will be part of the review. One of the reasons to try and get a uniform approach initially, certainly with a young startup competition, is that you don’t want too many things complicating things early doors. So at least you know that if a player is involved in this, they’re going to get recompense, they’re going to get their expenses, and that’s a good step.
It would be a good step if the regions are able to offer different things that gives that region competitive advantages over others, whether that be salary or something else. What you want is people to start to come up with new ideas, and be quite enterprising in and around that.
Q: Has the RHF got more exposure because of The Hundred not happening, and will there be as much exposure next season? Will we still see live streams next year?
A: It’s a great question that we’ll never know the answer to!
To be able to watch the live streams is amazing. If we can continue to hold the matches at those types of venues, the capability to stream is quite easy because the infrastructure is there. I would love it that we continue to be able to provide that as a service, not only for people following the game, but the intricacies it brings to us as a coaching team centrally, being able to watch the game live and have live conversations about it.
There’s no doubt that if we don’t continue with what we’ve done, it would be a backward step. The coverage on the first weekend, we had the ECB Reporters Network out there reporting on it, we had really good paper coverage and online coverage. And that in itself is a really positive thing for the players playing the game. So it’s important that we try and continue to do that.
Obviously we’ve got The Hundred coming on board next year, but they’re not mutually exclusive in the fact that a thriving domestic competition is going to help The Hundred, and a thriving Hundred is going to help the regional set-up. So I think working hand in hand around that type of stuff is important.
Q: Does the move away from the traditional county identities to new regional brands concern you, in that it makes building a fanbase harder?
A: You’re always going to have a battle between protecting a current brand and trying to build something new. But there’s a very strong argument, performance wise, as to why we’ve gone to eight regions. I think what it does do is bring counties together in that region, to make decisions that are for the betterment of women’s cricket, and the players within the pathway. And you’re pooling resources, insight, knowledge and understanding of the women’s game. That’s a real positive.