OPINION: Bouchier Ban Is A Failure Of The System

The news that Maia Bouchier has been suspended from bowling for an illegal action is a devastating blow for a player who opened the batting and the bowling for Hampshire in the final season of the County Championship last summer. Although she didn’t bowl much in the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy, and had a good season coming in at 3 for the Southern Vipers, scoring 214 runs at an average of 31, her future England claims were considerably bolstered by her allrounder status, which now looks to be in jeopardy unless she can make a substantial correction to her action.

The ECB’s official press release accompanying the announcement reads somewhat sternly:

“The 21-year-old has been advised to undergo remedial work on her bowing action before requesting a re-assessment. Bouchier will remain ineligible to bowl in ECB competitions until she is able to pass an independent re-assessment of her bowling action.”

This puts all the responsibility on the player, but the truth is more concerning. This hasn’t come out of nowhere – Bouchier didn’t wander in to a dressing room in 2020 having spent 21 years in the desert! She’s been on the county scene since she was 14, and has been part of the England Academy setup for over five years, so the real question is how on earth did things get to this stage?

Were her coaches not aware that there was an issue? Did it not occur to someone in the Academy at Loughborough, with all that money and technology at their disposal, that there was potentially a problem which needed fixing years ago?

What’s the point in investing tens of thousands of pounds in a player’s future, as England’s Academy programme has in Bouchier over the years, if they can’t spot and remediate a technical issue like this well before it gets anywhere near an independent assessment panel?

In the space of less than a month, Maia Bouchier has seen the highs and lows of being a professional athlete – from seeing her name in lights in the RHF Trophy, to seeing her name in headlines that read like a rap sheet.

But Maia Bouchier hasn’t failed – the system has failed her, and it needs to take a long hard look at itself while it undergoes remedial work before requesting reassessment.

VIDEO: The CRICKETher Weekly Vodcast – Episode 32

This week Raf & Syd discuss:

  • Ireland v Scotland fixtures in Spain
  • Laura Wolvaardt’s exciting start to WBBL
  • Syd’s undying loyalty to Hobart Hurricanes & why Raf is supporting Perth Scorchers
  • Could Georgia Hennessy and Clare Boycott be among the 15 additional players getting regional contracts?

OPINION: How Should We Build On The Success Of The Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy?

On a scale of 1-10, the summer of 2020 will probably not go down in history as a “Perfect 10”. In fact, a Big Fat Zero would probably be pushing it for most of us, to be fair!

So it is all the more impressive that the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy was such a beacon of light in what was otherwise a pretty dark summer. With regionals being a new “thing” it would have been easy for the ECB to quietly postpone them until 2021; but instead they gave them their full support and they blossomed, with an unprecedented level of coverage and a fantastic final at Edgbaston shown live on Sky.

As the men debate the future of the Bob Willis Trophy, parallel conversations are currently ongoing about next year’s RHF, with some big decisions to be made at ECB Towers.

So what should the ECB be looking to do next year?

What’s In A Name?

That answer is… quite a lot! The name Rachael Heyhoe Flint has been synonymous with women’s cricket for 50 years now – and was once even a little too synonymous for the bigwigs at the Women’s Cricket Association back in the day, who resented the fact that RHF “transcended the genre”.

But now she’s more than a person – she’s a trophy, and in the couple of months that the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy has existed, it has achieved an unprecedented level of brand recognition – in the newspapers, on social media, and on the front page of Cricinfo, which the Women’s County Championship (RIP) never was.

When the competition was first announced, the feeling was that, like the Bob Willis Trophy, it would be temporary – something to tide us over until the “proper” tournament was introduced next year.

But unlike the men, we know we aren’t going back to the County Championship; and having built the brand, throwing it away now would be crazy – so whatever we have next year, it has to still be called the “Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy”.

Flying First Class

Playing the tournament on proper, First Class grounds made a huge difference to the quality of the cricket, compared to the club pitches which were mainly used for the old County Championship. As Emily Windsor put it, you can “trust your shots” playing on decent pitches – something we heard from a number of players.

Could Georgia Adams have scored 150 on a club ground? We’ll never know, but she’s been playing for a while, and it is by far the highest score she’s ever made!

Sticking with First Class grounds won’t be cheap – the “budget” solution will be to revert to club grounds next year; but that would be a pity. As James once put it: “If I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor!” But I’ve seen them now… and I’d kinda like to keep them!

The North-South Divide

This is a difficult one, and there are arguments on both sides; but I like the North-South Groups format – it creates local rivalries, which are always good for business; and makes it easier for “away” fans to attend all their team’s games.

It works across the board in American sports… it works for the men’s T20 Blast… I think it works for the RHF too.

Additionally, it provides a platform for re-introducing multi-day domestic cricket, via North v South matches, with amalgamated teams featuring the “pros” of the North v the “pros” of the South.

Lie Back And (Don’t) Think Of England

This is another tough call, but for me the lack of England players in the RHF was not a bug – it was a feature!

Imagine if England players had been involved all through – the Vipers would have had Danni Wyatt to send down a few overs of off-spin… Charlotte Taylor would never have got that call from Charlotte Edwards… and an aircraft parts salesperson from Hampshire wouldn’t have ever become the story of the summer by taking a 6fer in the final! And it was a similar tale with Diamonds bowler Phoebe Graham, who would probably otherwise have missed out to Katherine Brunt.

Obviously the other side of this coin is that the England players – particularly those on the fringes, who are required “just in case” but don’t actually see much England action – need to be playing these formats in domestic cricket, especially with The Hundred being… well… The Hundred, not a T20 comp.

But if we want to see new stars shine, and new talent come through, those players have to be given a proper chance – that’s how you find your Charlotte Taylors and your Phoebe Grahams. How to square this circle is probably the biggest challenge those reviewing the RHF have, but I think I’d (just) come down on the side of excluding the England squad for at least one of the formats going forwards.

And Finally…

The RHF Final at Edgbaston was a fantastic day, even played behind closed doors – it gave fans and the media an “event” to focus on; and with a crowd, it would have been even better.

In purely sporting terms, it is true that “the league never lies” – the winner of an All v All league will invariably be the best team; whilst a final (particularly if preceded by semis) will occasionally throw up a “winner” who lost half their group matches!

But still, you can’t beat a “Grand Final” for sheer spectacle, so whether or not we keep the North-South Groups, or go with an All v All league, we definitely need a final to crown the winner, hopefully in front of a few thousand fans!

VIDEO: The CRICKETher Weekly Vodcast – Episode 30

Raf & Syd discuss the implications of Australia’s dominant 21-match ODI winning streak for the future of the international game:

  • Will Australia’s dominance eventually kill international cricket?
  • Should the ICC be redistributing funds in order to level the playing field?
  • How long will it take England (& other nations) to catch up with Australia?

OPINION – Actually, The Best Women’s Cricket Team In History Aren’t Killing It

Yesterday, Syd wrote that the success of the current Australian team is “killing the game for everyone else, and fans – eventually even Australian ones – will start to respond by tuning out and turning off.” Others in the mainstream media have expressed similar concerns: Tim Wigmore suggests that: “For all the wonder of Australia’s achievement, there is a certain sadness too” – a sadness, he argues, stemming from the fact that other nations are falling so far behind due to lack of investment.

But while the run of success experienced by Meg Lanning’s side is undoubtedly a concern, I actually think there’s more cause for optimism than Syd thinks.

Firstly, cricket – unlike many other top sports – is played across multiple formats. Lanning & co’s astonishing run of 21 consecutive victories has come in the 50-over format alone. Their recent record in T20 cricket, as I’ve argued before, is actually not that convincing. They lost the last game of the Women’s Ashes last summer to a thoroughly demoralised England; more to the point, in the T20 World Cup earlier this year, they lost to India, almost lost to New Zealand, came within a hair’s breadth of losing their semi-final to South Africa, and only totally managed to overpower their opponents in the final – something I suspect had more to do with the overwhelming nature of the occasion for the Indians than anything else.

If Australia are so far ahead of the rest of the world, wouldn’t we expect them to also be consistently dominant in T20 cricket? They aren’t.

Perhaps that is due to the unpredictable nature of the 20-over format – but that unpredictability is here to stay. And in women’s cricket, as we all know, 20-over cricket is much more significant than ODIs, both in terms of growing the game and in terms of global TV audiences. So maybe we shouldn’t be quite so worried that fans will simply begin to “tune out”?

Similarly, Australia don’t experience the same dominance in multi-day cricket as they do in 50-over cricket. There’s a simple reason for that: they don’t get to play it very often! And nor does any other team in the world. Multi-day cricket provides a level playing field like no other.

At the moment, that’s somewhat irrelevant, but we are hearing positive noises from England and Australia that more Ashes Tests might just be on the cards – both Tom Harrison and Nick Hockley have come out in favour of the longer format in recent weeks. There’s also been some discussion about the possibility of the new domestic regional sides in England (Southern Vipers et al) playing multi-day cricket, now that they will have a bit more time on their hands to do so.

Back in 2014, the BCCI went through a brief period of supporting women’s Test cricket because – at a time when the Indian team were experienced little success elsewhere – they saw it as a format which they could win at. Lo and behold, India beat England at Wormsley, then annihilated South Africa by an innings three months later. Sadly, for whatever reason, it seems to have been a short-lived period of BCCI interest; however, it’s still significant: it shows that if a cricket board wants to be successful, a focus on the longest format is one way of achieving it.

Maybe Australia’s dominance in 50-over cricket can convince the ECB that the regions really DO need to be playing multi-day cricket, as the best possible preparation for the next Women’s Ashes? After all, what better way to pull ahead of Australia than to become dominant in Tests – widely heralded as the premier format in world cricket?

Cricket can work in mysterious ways!

A second point to counter Syd’s pessimism would be this: yes, Australia reign supreme in 50-over cricket at the moment, thanks to a huge amount of investment in their domestic set-up, but will they keep getting exponentially better, forever? It seems unlikely. The biggest leap in standards comes when you allow players to focus on cricket alone – they improve hugely, but there is a ceiling on how far that takes you.

Domestic professionalism is the biggest difference between Australia and elsewhere as it stands, but it won’t be a point of difference for very much longer. England should (fingers crossed) have 40 domestic professionals in place by the end of October, and Clare Connor has said (pre-Covid) that her aspiration is for a fully professional domestic structure by 2024. It might be a few years away, but England are advancing on Australia, and (in my view), we will catch up eventually – even if it takes longer than we’d like.

That doesn’t solve the problem for other countries. But in the same way that a domestic professional structure was unthinkable in England 5 years ago but is now where we are surely headed, I’d like to think that in 5 years time West Indies, South Africa, India and the rest will have reached the same conclusion as the ECB.

In fact, with the dominance of Australia hitting the headlines just a week after West Indies’ miserable 5-0 capitulation to England, is it just possible that for some boards, the contrast between those two news stories might just be the wake-up call they need, spurring them on to action sooner than might otherwise have been the case?

Maybe Australia’s winning streak might actually change women’s cricket for the better?

OPINION – The Best Women’s Cricket Team In History Are Killing It… Literally!

Are Australia’s women’s cricket team the best sports team in history? The question comes to mind because lesser questions are rapidly becoming exhausted by their success. They haven’t lost an ODI for getting on for 3 years now; and during that period they’ve won the Women’s Ashes twice and the T20 World Cup twice. There is little doubt that they are the best women’s cricket team in history; and well on their way to becoming the best cricket team, full stop.

Jarrod Kimber has done a brilliant job summing up why, as he asks the question: ‘Will the Australian women ever lose an ODI?‘  The answer of course is yes, for exactly the reasons Kimber states – someone will eventually produce the performance of a lifetime against them, as Harmanpreet did at Derby in 2017 to knock them out of a World Cup they’d probably have won if they’d reached the final. (Let’s face it, they wouldn’t have mentally disintegrated and thrown away a near-certain victory the way India did at Lords that day.)

But that’s what it will take to beat them these days, at least in the less unpredictable ODI format – as Kimber concludes in his penultimate sentence: “Right now [Australia] aren’t just dominating cricket, they’re almost destroying it.”

I’d go a bit further even: this team are figuratively “killing it”.

But I worry there is a problem: they are also literally “killing it”.

Economic historians describe a problem called the “Tragedy of the Commons“, where a shared collective resource is ultimately destroyed by everyone acting in their individual, rational self-interest.

What we have in macrocosm, is perhaps most neatly described in microcosm with reference to the last Women’s Ashes Test at Taunton. Meg Lanning refused the opportunity to go for a win, because Australia only needed a draw, and going for the win would also have given England an opportunity to win. This was a totally rational decision in the context of the series, but it severely damaged the long-term credibility and viability of Women’s Tests, as the match ground itself out into a mindless bore-draw.

Australia’s recent series versus New Zealand was obviously not a draw, but it was a bore, because there was no contest. New Zealand were never even at the races – we all knew what was going to happen before a ball was bowled, and by the 3rd ODI New Zealand were so thoroughly demoralised they couldn’t even reach 3 figures on a pitch where the Aussies had made over 300.

This is obviously because Meg Lanning and her Australia team are just doing their job – exactly as they were in the Women’s Ashes. None of this is their “fault”; nor is it Cricket Australia’s. Putting in place a world-beating infrastructure, and winning cricket matches off the back of it, is what they are paid to do. But the consequence of this – the “tragedy of the commons – is that this is killing the game for everyone else, and fans – eventually even Australian ones – will start to respond by tuning out and turning off.

Is there a solution? I’m not sure there is. Tim Wigmore has floated the idea of a tax-and-redistribute system, where the ICC fund women’s central contracts across the globe; but even if this was a political starter, the problem with it is that it while it might level everyone up to where England currently are, it doesn’t bring anyone any closer to Australia, who will just pull further ahead as a result.

Kim Garth’s recent defection to Australia to play domestic cricket there, rather than international cricket for Ireland, is potentially where we end up here: with the world’s best players going to Australia full-time, while international cricket slips quietly into irrelevance. At some point Australia effectively stand back, maybe by fielding an Under-19s team at World Cups, leaving international cricket in the same sort of place as international baseball – a part-time, recreational pursuit, while the world’s best players ply their trade professionally in the WBBL “World Series”.

Maybe that would be a good thing; maybe it wouldn’t.

But if we don’t ask ourselves the question now, it’s where we are going to end up regardless.

England v West Indies 5th T20 – The 1st T5

Despite what appeared at times to be the valiant efforts of both teams to get a consolation win on the board for the West Indies, England pulled off a 3 wicket victory with 3 balls to spare, in what we are reliably informed was not just the 5th T20, but also the 1st ever women’s international T5!

England finally gave an outing to Freya Davies – her 9th cap, but her first in England – and with Danni Wyatt absent, had originally planned for Sarah Glenn to open the batting until the weather intervened. I’m not convinced generally about the role of the “pinch hitter” in cricket… and not just because it is another term we’ve borrowed wrongly from baseball! (In baseball, a pinch hitter is a super-sub who comes on late in the game.) And in this case it felt like it was more about who England didn’t want to open, than who they did. (Heather Knight didn’t want to… Nat Sciver didn’t want to… they didn’t want Amy Jones to, so… ah… Sarah Glenn: do we have a “volunteer”?)

Of course, due to the shortened match, Glenn opening didn’t happen anyway – Knight and Sciver ended up doing it – with Tammy Beaumont relegated down the order again, because… no… I don’t really know either! It strikes me that if you are the right batter to open in T20, which TB is, you’re probably the right batter to open in T5 too; but people who know a lot more about cricket than I do would appear to disagree!

England had obviously been told to run like their lives depended on it, which led to 3 run-outs, including two in the final over which should have meant the pressure was really on England; but in the end it was West Indies bowler Shakera Selman who cracked – sending down consecutive no balls to get England over the line.

Thoughts on the T5 format? Overall I can’t agree with Lydia Greenway, who argued on comms that T10 is the ideal format for players to “showcase their skills”. Apart from the fact that she’d barely have faced a ball in her career if she’d been playing T10, for me the real skills in this game are a batter building an innings or a bowler setting ’em up before she knocks ’em down, and there is barely time for that in T20, let alone anything shorter. But as a one-off, T5 was certainly fun, partly because there was some genuine jeopardy for the first time in the series – a game that could have gone either way in the final over.

Reflecting briefly on the series as a whole, there’s obviously huge credit to the ECB for making this, and the RHF, happen. In the face of COVID-19 it would have been so easy to just shrug and let the entire women’s season go. It would have been painful, and we’d have fallen even further behind Australia, who have somewhat lucked-out with the timing of the worst of the global lockdown coming in their off-season, but honestly it would have been difficult to complain if that’s what had happened in the face of the crisis of our lives.

We’ve been lucky with the weather too – every game in the RHF and the international T20 series was completed, albeit it got a tad cold at times… especially for reporters covering the games from outdoor press gazebos! (I know… I know… FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS! The truth is that we were so lucky to have been there, and we really do appreciate that very much!)

England’s next international cricket isn’t until February now, when they travel to New Zealand for what we are officially calling ‘Not The World Cup!’; but a number of players are jetting off to WBBL, including Sarah Glenn. We all know now what Glenn can do with the ball, but it will be interesting to see if she gets much of an opportunity with the bat over in Perth. She batted only 12 times in 26 matches for Loughborough Lightning in the KSL, as she faced the perennial problem for a young player of having to play second-fiddle to the international superstars; but now she is the international superstar, so it would be great to see her have the chance to really polish her credentials as an allrounder, rather than just being chucked in at the deep end to open in a one-off, dead-rubber international.