OPINION: The Times They Are A Changin’… Because That’s What They Do!

The international retirement of allrounder Jenny Gunn, confirmed this week by the ECB, means that the England squad have now lost two senior players in the past month, after Sarah Taylor announced her retirement two weeks ago.

For different reasons, neither Gunn nor Taylor were automatic selections any more – Taylor having already essentially opted out of overseas tours and tournaments; and Gunn reduced to a “squad player”, winning just one cap in the past 12 months, in the 3rd ODI against the West Indies.

But having been fixtures of the team for so long – Gunn made her debut in 2004; Taylor in 2006 – they will be missed by the squad, both professionally and personally.

Their retirements, combined with new contracts awarded this summer, reduce the average age of the “fully contracted” squad (excluding rookies) by an entire year, from 27½ at the start of the 2019 season to 26½ now.

Retirements are of course natural and expected – a 20-strong squad would normally see one or two a year – but the cycle had recently been put out by the introduction of central contracts, which allowed some to play longer than they might otherwise have done, whilst also pulling up the drawbridge behind them, as the “chasing pack” of amateurs fell back, unable to compete with the full-time athletes for skills and fitness.

Perhaps this is why the loss of two players in the space of a month, plus Dani Hazell earlier in the year, feels disconcerting – though not as disconcerting as it will feel when Katherine Brunt (34 – a year older than Gunn, and 4 years older than Taylor) also decides to join them on the great balcony in the sky… or at least in the great comms box on Sky, which is where most of them seem to be headed!

But one player’s retirement is another’s opportunity, with Georgia Elwiss perhaps set to take over Gunn’s job as the “squad player”, able to step up as either a late-order batsman or a bowler at a moment’s notice, as needs must in the heat of a tournament; and Amy Jones now secure in her role with the gloves, at home as well as away.

So yes, the next England contracted squad in 2020 will feel different – the times they are a changin’… but only really because that’s what they usually do – we just need to get used to it again!

OPINION: 40 New Contracts… But Who Should They Go To?

The ECB’s announcement of 40 new full-time domestic professional contracts is great news for the game in England and beyond.

In England, it means that for the first time there will be a cadre of professional players beyond the England squad. It has been noticeable recently how much the England players have pulled away from “The Rest” in terms of fielding skills and fitness in particular – not because the rest have got worse, but because the contracted players have become true elite athletes, as the benefits of 4 years of professionalism have begun to show. Professional contracts for some of The Rest will allow them to start to catch up again.

It is also good news for the game more widely, with concerns that the Australians are playing the sport on a different level to everyone else thanks to the depth of their professional structures. As these changes start to work-through, and as “The 40” become 60 or 80 in years to come, England will hopefully be in a position to challenge Australia, as well as raising the bar more generally across the top-tier nations.

The ECB have said that The 40 will be selected centrally, though presumably there will be some local input at least on an informal level; so this raises the question of who these contracts should go to.

Make no mistake – it will be contentious! During the discussion phase, there was a debate about whether the available budget should be used to pay everyone a little “semi-professional” money, or pay a few players enough to go fully professional. The latter won-out, but this means there will be Haves and Have Nots… and the Have Nots won’t necessarily be happy about it – there will be jealousies and bitterness and some of the Have Nots may well decide to quit the elite game as a result.

But leaving these questions aside, there are essentially two options now for The 40 – we either fund the best players on current form; or we pay those with the most potential to play for England one day in the future.

One of the arguments for abolishing county cricket, and establishing the eight new “Centres of Excellence” teams, was that county cricket didn’t provide a high standard of competition; so on this logic, you have to pay the best players to ensure the quality is raised – especially as those players are probably the most likely to walk away if they don’t get contracts. (“Why should I open the batting or the bowling, and carry the team, when X down the order is getting paid, and I’m getting nothing?”)

On the other hand, the purpose of these contracts is to build the England team of the future, so perhaps there is no point in paying players, however good they are right now, if they will likely never be pulling on an England shirt? CRICKETher understands that these contracts will not be going to students, but if all the contracts have gone to the current best, players coming out of university will still end up facing the same choice that Katie Levick did however-many years ago – cricket or… well… eat!

Hopefully the answer is a happy medium. Unfortunately, we are likely to lose some players as a result of this process – there are certainly a handful of big-ish names who would have to take pay-cuts to go pro on the salaries we are talking about, which they probably can’t afford to do; and we’ve also spoken to players who just don’t want to be professionals, even regardless of the money. But if we can use the budget to keep the likes of Aylish Cranstone and Marie Kelly in the game, through their twenties into their thirties, and give some of our most promising youngsters like  Rhianna Southby and Sarah Glenn a platform to build towards the dream of one day playing for England, we might just get the best of both worlds.

NEWS: 40 New Full-Time Domestic Professionals in England

As part of their “Inspiring Generations” strategy, the ECB have today announced that they will fund 40 new full-time domestic professionals, in addition to the 21 England contracted players, bringing the total number of full time pros playing in England up to around 60 – a 200% increase.

The ECB’s action plan dedicates £10 million per year over the next 5 years to grow the women’s game – focusing not just the new professionals but also the elite “pathway” – the England players of tomorrow, between U11 and U17 – and the recreational game; with the ultimate aim of making cricket a “gender-balanced sport”.

The action plan’s ten points are split into five main areas:

Participation:

  • 1. Create cricket offers that inspire girls to say ‘cricket is a game for me’
  • 2. Bring cricket to more primary and secondary schools
  • 3. Build a strong, sustainable, and inclusive club network

Pathway:

  • 4. Raise standards in girls’ County Age Group cricket to provide consistency and excellence

Performance:

  • 5. Launch a new regional elite domestic structure for women’s cricket
  • 6. Introduce 40 new full-time professional contracts

Profile:

  • 7. Drive engagement with The Hundred – Women’s Competition
  • 8. Increase the profile of elite women’s cricketers and connect them to a new generation of fans

People:

  • 9. Increase the representation of women in the cricket workforce
  • 10. Support more women to take on leadership roles in cricket

Speaking at the launch, the ECB’s Managing Director of Women’s Cricket, Clare Connor, hailed the integrated approach of the plan:

“To truly transform women’s and girls’ cricket, we must now move from targeted standalone programmes to addressing the whole pathway as one,” she said.

OPINION: The Hundred WILL Succeed

In 1985, facing what they believed to be existential competition from Pepsi, Coca-Cola introduced New Coke. Driven on by gung-ho marketing consultants, who based their findings on small secretive focus groups, New Coke was sweeter and, in the words of the management gurus, “bolder” and “more harmonious”.

It was a spectacular failure – the public hated it, and less than 3 months later “Classic” Coke was reintroduced, with Coca-Cola President and CEO Donald Keough admitting:

“The simple fact is that all the time and money and skill poured into consumer research on the new Coca-Cola could not measure or reveal the deep and abiding emotional attachment to original Coca-Cola felt by so many people.”

More than thirty years later, with New Coke having passed into legend, the ECB launched The Hundred – a new, sweeter competition, based on small secretive focus groups – with a blitzkrieg of marketing babble:

“Follow Southern Brave, and go boldly where others shy away. Endlessly curious, with an insatiable appetite for adventure, what’s over the horizon?”

The parallels were like railway tracks disappearing into that very horizon.

Tweets were tweeted:

And replies were replied:

And actually, Megan Schutt is right – it will be great.

Money is being poured into it, and the spectacle will be unprecedented. Domestic players will be paid more than ever before, as they match up against an unrivalled lineup of the world’s biggest stars, including all the top Australians who have mostly passed on the KSL, with Ellyse Perry having only played two KSLs; Alyssa Healy one; and Meg Lanning none.

The final will be broadcast on the BBC – free to air at prime time, and is certain to be the biggest live TV audience ever for a women’s cricket match in this country.

This time next year, Clare Connor will rightly be able to stand up and say to the world that the doubters were wrong – The Hundred has been a roaring success.

But it is what comes slightly further down the line which we should all perhaps be a bit more concerned with – and that’s where the worries really lie – Clare Connor and Tom Harrison will have moved on by then, but cricket will still have to live with their legacy.

Put simply, England is not a big enough market to sustain a form of the game that no one else plays. Even if The Hundred restores cricket’s place as England’s “second sport”, it will still be dwarfed by the commercial might of the IPL, which by then will include a full-blown Women’s competition. And the BCCI are never going to embrace The Hundred format – they are the paymasters of world cricket now and they just won’t countenance it, and everyone else, from Australia to the West Indies and everywhere in between, knows which side of the bread their butter is on.

So at some point – maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, in the greater scheme of things – a future ECB board is going to have to accept that reality.

They’ll launch a “New” New Competition, based on the Twenty20 format which everyone else plays; and The Hundred will be quietly forgotten, having succeeded… but ultimately failed.

NEWS: Beaumont Unsigned As England Players Announced For The Hundred

The ECB have announced the first round of “draft” picks for The Hundred – the 100-ball tournament which will replace the Kia Super League next summer.

Birmingham Phoenix

Amy Jones, Kirstie Gordon

London Spirit

Heather Knight, Freya Davies

Manchester Originals

Kate Cross, Sophie Ecclestone

Northern Superchargers

Lauren Winfield, Linsey Smith

Oval Invincibles

Laura Marsh, Fran Wilson

Southern Brave

Anya Shrubsole, Danni Wyatt

Trent Rockets

Nat Sciver, Katherine Brunt

Welsh Fire

Katie George, Bryony Smith

The 16 players were selected through a negotiated process, rather than a classic “draft”, which meant players were free to accept, or importantly reject, any offer they received.

Significantly, it looks like Tammy Beaumont has done the latter – she is the highest profile player not selected, and it looks like she may be holding-out to be a second-round pick for a more attractive team.

Also unsigned from the current contracted squad are (former) Loughborough Lightning captain Georgia Elwiss, Jenny Gunn, Alex Hartley and Alice Davidson-Richards.

Today’s announcement also confirms the team names – “Welsh” winning-out over “Western” for the Fire, who will play in the traditional Welsh heartlands of… er… Taunton – and the kits, which are basically advertising hoardings for salty snacks.

Mmmmm…. snaaaaaaacks…

NEWS: WNCL – Western Australia Bolt-On Ahead

Team Played Won Lost Points
1. Western Australia 2 2 0 8
2. ACT Meteors 2 2 0 8
3. Queensland Fire 2 1 1 5
4. Victoria 2 1 1 4
5. NSW Breakers 2 1 1 4
6. SA Scorpions 2 0 2 0
7. Tasmania 2 0 2 0

With the Southern Stars on international duty, the first two rounds of Australia’s 50-over WNCL presented the opportunity for others to make their cases – none more so than Western Australia’s Nicole Bolton. After struggling to find her form over the England’s summer during the Women’s Ashes, Bolton struck gold with two consecutive Player of the Match performances to put her side top of the table.

Against Queensland, Bolton hit 77 in a 150-run stand with captain Chloe Piparo (76) as Western Australia successfully chased 189; and she then top-scored again with 63 versus Tasmania, before following-up with the best bowling figures of 2-26 as the Tassies were bowled out 16 runs short of Western Australia’s 194.

ACT Meteors also made it two-from-two, with wins versus South Australia and Victoria. Against South Australia,  20-year-old Amy Yates took a career-best 6-33 as SA were bowled out for 203, with Katie Mack then hitting 83 as ACT won by 3 wickets. Mack was then in the runs again against Victoria, making 63 as ACT posted 168-6 in a rain-reduced game, with Victoria falling 18 short in the chase.

In the other matches, Makinley Blows hit a century for Victoria as they beat the Breakers by 7 wickets; Georgie Prestwidge took 4-41 to help Queensland beat Tasmania; and Tahlia Wilson made 95* for the Breakers in their 6 wicket win v the Scorpions.

The WNCL now goes into hibernation until January, as attention turns to WBBL which stars on Friday 18 October with the Sixers v Thunder Sydney derby.

OPINION: Sarah Taylor – The Best We’ll Ever See

In the summer of 2019, I saw two pieces of fielding which I will never forget. The first was Fran Wilson’s “Catch of the Century” at Chelmsford. The second was at first glance more prosaic.

At Guildford, Surrey Stars were in the field as the ball was run down through backward point and the batsmen jogged through for an easy single. The boundary fielder, having run around from third man, picked up the ball and began the action of throwing it back to the wicket keeper, who was standing casually over the stumps, with one hand on her hip as if queuing for the bus.

As the ball was leaving the fielder’s hand, the keeper nonchalantly stuck out a glove just to her right, and then waited… and waited… for what seemed like an eternity as the ball arched through the air… until finally it popped right into her mit.

I’d actually be surprised if any of the several-hundred people there at Guildford that afternoon even noticed what I’d seen, but it was nonetheless quite remarkable. From the moment the ball had left the boundary fielder’s hand, Sarah Taylor – because… of course that’s who the wicket keeper was – had judged its trajectory consummately and stuck out a hand to exactly where it was going to end up… and it had!

It was Sarah Taylor in a nutshell – the swagger; the poise; and the pitch-perfect execution.

I first met “Squirt” when she was a teenager, and women’s cricket was still a niche attraction being played in front of one man and his dog – I was the man that day… and I didn’t even have a dog! Taylor had already made her England debut, and there was a star quality about her, but also an unpretentious simplicity as she cadged-about for a lift to the train station afterwards, having not yet passed her driving test!

I next encountered her at an England match. Walking around the boundary while England were batting, two young girls of around 10 or 12 grabbed her and asked them to autograph their t-shirts, which of course she did, meanwhile charming them with a few minutes of conversation, which I’m willing to bet those two girls, whoever they were, still remember.

That was Sarah Taylor in a nutshell too – the warmth; the charisma; and the time she had for the fans.

And throughout her career, none of that changed – at the very first match she played after her comeback from her well-documented mental health layoff, she was the first player out to sign autographs and take selfies with the young fans who’d come along to see her play.

With bat in hand, she reminded me of no one more than David Gower – as he was the most naturally gifted batsman of his era, male or female, so was she of hers. At her best she was imperious, with a classical cover drive to die for, though like Gower she could frustrate, as another insouciant waft ended up going to hand.

As a wicket keeper however, she frustrated only the opposition batsmen, with more magic moments than a box of Quality Street – topped by that catch at Hove to dismiss Jodie Fields in the 2015 Women’s Ashes.

The best of her generation? Without a doubt!

The best we’ll ever see? I think so too!