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By A Roving Reporter
In men’s cricket, success at U19 level is no guarantee of subsequent success at county, franchise or national level, yet under the current structure any female player who hasn’t secured a place in a regional squad by their early twenties (or even their late teens) will have little realistic prospect of subsequently playing at the highest level.
This is not to detract from the tremendous progress of recent years, whereby a cohort of professional players, fringe squad players and Regional Development Centre (RDC) Academy players enjoy unprecedented support, great coaching and plenty of high quality match practice. Nor is this to suggest that those players don’t deserve their success.
However, what’s also been created is a self-fulfilling cycle whereby future stars will be drawn from a pool whose membership is decided at a incredibly early stage in most player’s development; ruling out the late developers, the players whose skills weren’t spotted, those who prioritised their academic studies during their teens, individuals whose parents couldn’t afford the time or money to get their child to training, the players who took longer to understand their game or didn’t seize their early opportunities, the players who responded to their coach’s plea to play ‘bold cricket’ and failed, only to see their more cautious colleagues rewarded. (Every cricketer understands that numerous failures underpin the experience to know how and when to play risky shots. Would a new Tammy Beaumont or Danni Wyatt be supported through several seasons of modest results over less exciting, but dependable players?)
What, too, are the prospects for what will become a rapidly-expanding group of talented RDC Academy players who find themselves unable to secure professional contracts in competition with the incumbent beneficiaries of early contracts (who may aspire to 5, or perhaps 10, year careers)? What of franchise players who enjoy brief success but then find themselves released?
For all these players their future is club cricket with little coaching, no backroom support and mixed ability training and matches. And even if they perform well, who in the professional set-up will pay attention to their stats or watch these games? How many of these players, who were willing to make 4 to 5 hour return trips for junior county or RDC Academy matches, will be prepared to do so for premier club cricket? How soon before these players lose their ambition or drift away from cricket totally?
This early abandonment of talent, the squandering of investment and the consequent narrowing of the population from which the top echelons will be drawn can only be bad for the women’s game.
However, it’s not difficult to imagine an alternative universe where players at a level beneath the regions receive the coaching and support to ensure that late-developing and latent talent has the maximum chance to be discovered and flourish; where being released from a franchise wouldn’t effectively constitute a career-ending moment; and which additionally would provide early-career coaching and leadership opportunities in line with the ECB’s goal to increase the representation of women in the cricket workforce, and to support more women to take on leadership roles. All this would be built on existing structures and wouldn’t require a large budget.
The answer is the ignored and unloved county game. Surviving in name only, what is gained by the same professional players and local RDC players (all of whose talents are already recognised) playing against each other for a few games in May under a different badge? Instead, imagine a vibrant county scene fought between squads comprising players who hadn’t ‘made it’ by their early twenties, players who’ve experienced but not pressed their case at regional level, the fringe RDC players and good players who perhaps can’t commit to full-time cricket for family or work reasons. At a stroke there’d be hundreds of extra players playing quality cricket. How many overlooked or late-developing stars could be unearthed; the female Matt Milnes or Jake Lintott? How many more comeback stories like Tash Farrant’s would this facilitate? And good cricketers who won’t ever be in the ‘top 150’ could once again aspire to play for their county. All these players would be ambassadors for the game and role models for young players at their local clubs (who are unlikely to know or play with a franchise player).
Regarding coaching, contracted players could pass on their skills whilst developing skills and gaining qualifications for careers beyond their professional playing days. New administrators could gain their first experience, budding umpires could hone their skills, and supporters in sections of the country where there’s no franchise women’s cricket could see high-quality local matches.
The format should be T20 with games held every other week throughout the season; played on Saturdays (so as not to harm the nascent Sunday club scene which is already suffering from the removal of many of the best players). And it needn’t be expensive – players and officials wouldn’t need paying (although travel expenses would be nice), a commitment to delivering coaching could be made a requirement of professional contracts, and many fine school grounds are available. Only players who haven’t played regional-level cricket in the current or previous seasons should be eligible, and extensive efforts should be made to embrace older players before they give up or resign themselves to easy stats in local leagues. Conference leagues would minimise travel, but it could culminate in a round of matches to determine a national champion.
Let’s make 2022 the year when women’s county cricket is resurrected and restructured, to provide the vital missing step between club and region.