INTERVIEW: South East Regional Director Richard Bedbrook – “We’ve got to make this domestic structure as good as it possibly can be”

So far, Richard Bedbrook’s new job hasn’t exactly gone to plan. Appointed as Regional Director of Women’s Cricket for the new London & the South East Region back in March, he had been in role less than a month before full lockdown was imposed across the UK. By now he should have been overseeing a full squad of players, and a full complement of coaching & support staff on top of that.

Instead, recruitment is on hold, and much uncertainty lies ahead for the 8 new Regions, which had been due to supersede women’s county cricket as the pinnacle of the domestic player pathway in England from 2020 onwards. No one knows for sure whether the September inter-regional fixtures will go ahead as planned, or what the route back to training and squad selection looks like from here.

Nonetheless, for Bedbrook – who has been head coach of Surrey’s county side since 2017, and seen first-hand the struggles which county players face when trying to juggle cricket with work and study – the overwhelming feeling remains one of excitement in being involved in a new era for the women’s game in England.

“The level of the game’s got to be taken forwards,” he says. “We don’t want that jump for players from domestic cricket into the internationals to be still too far apart. We’ve got to make this domestic structure as good as it possibly can be.”

Despite the delay to the 40 full-time professional domestic contracts, which were originally due to begin in April, there has been one important development: the ECB last week confirmed the allocation of 20 place-holder “retainer” contracts, split between the 8 regions. These represent the first step towards domestic professionalism in England. Representing London & the South East in the list are Tash Farrant, Alice Davidson-Richards, Sophia Dunkley and Bryony Smith (the latter three are all current holders of England “Rookie” contracts).

Bedbrook, who was in charge of the selection process, describes them as “the standout four players from our region”:

“Tash [Farrant] is a Kent girl at heart. When we initially chatted and there was a desire for her to come back this way,” (she has lived in Loughborough for the past 5 years), “it was a no brainer then that she’d be part of that group.”

“Alice [Davidson-Richards] and Bryony [Smith], being home grown girls from their respective two counties and on the rookie scheme at the moment, those players were nailed on as first choice because of that reason. They’ve both got ambitions to progress out of that Rookie system into the England setup.”

“There’s been a relationship between Surrey and Sophia [Dunkley] for a couple of years through the KSL. We’ve got to know each other as coach and player, and then when she joined Surrey this year, it was a fairly obvious question to ask, would she be interested in coming to this region? Again, it’s another player in the Rookie system who’s got big England ambitions.”

While the official line from the ECB was that retainers should be allocated on the basis of future potential to play for England, the Regional Directors have clearly been given the scope to mould the core of their new squads according to their own preference. Bedbrook is clear how he sees his role:

“We’re having to work through that right from the outset, what is the aim of this regional programme? And I think probably one of the bigger drivers is the player development aspect. The winning of the competition is actually probably a secondary aim behind that.”

One of the difficulties going forward will be juggling the needs of the professionals in the squad with those of their teammates, who will remain largely amateur, though they will have the capacity to earn match fees of circa £200 for each regional fixture they are selected for. Bedbrook acknowledges this will be a challenge, but argues that the new professional domestic contracts will play a positive role in increasing the drive and motivation of players to showcase their skills in the domestic set-up.

“The players who aren’t professionals are going to want one of those [paid] spots,” he says. “Offering them the ability to train as much as they can, within the programmes that we can set up, will clearly show those that are massively keen to make the next step, out of that amateur status into semi professional / professional.”

“Those players are going to have to really, really take a step forwards with their outlook to cricket, their outlook to their own training. Because when you’ve got players such as these four [Farrant, ADR, Smith and Dunkley] who have got high standards, who have got ambition to be better, they don’t want to be held back by others.”

He is also keen to emphasise that the 5 professional contracts per region are only the first step on a path to full domestic professionalism: “I think we’re going to be a little bit led by by how the programme itself can develop in time – i.e. how long are we only going to have five professionals within each region? When potentially is the stage when it can increase?”

He emphasises, too, that in this new era for the women’s game, his role is not only to support those with England ambitions. “It’s really important for us to set our stall out – we want to help players make the next step up, realise the ambitions that they might have, which might be to play for England, but equally it might be to be a professional cricketer for as long as they can.”

Last week the London & South East Region announced that their team name would be the “South East Stars”, a clear carry-over from the KSL, confirming CRICKETher’s theory that the regional sides represent the KSL Mark Two. The decision, says Bedbrook (who coached Surrey Stars in all 4 seasons of the KSL), was made back in January by a joint Surrey-Kent Working Group, who felt it was right to “keep that brand going”.

“I think there’s elements to it clearly that are going to have been ear marked in the KSL,” he adds. “But I think the biggest link from the visibility of the KSL will be to The Hundred – that’s going to be a game changer for women’s cricket.”

Is the main marketing focus going to be on The Hundred, rather than promoting the regional Centres of Excellence, in that case? “Primarily at the moment the marketing is being pushed into The Hundred. But we clearly want to have people coming to watch [the regional competition], and we clearly want to make it visible where we can”, says Bedbrook.

“Ultimately, there is still that strap line of, ‘you need to see it to be it’. And that’s hugely relevant for the women’s game at this point still. We’ve obviously seen some massive strides taken over the last few years, not just with our domestic competition, but obviously the KSL. And then clearly, we’ve just had the Women’s World Cup, which put it into a new realm. And that’s why it’s so disappointing that this pandemic’s come at the worst possible time, I think.”

“But that’s not to say that that momentum will be lost – that momentum’s just paused. And we’ve got to make sure that we do make these players on the call now visible to young girls in the region and nationally. We want to make these four, but all the other players involved, as visible to as many people as possible.”

Now all they need is the chance to get out there on the field and play some cricket.

NEWS: 20 Players Awarded Regional Retainers

The ECB have announced the 20 players who have been awarded regional “retainers” ahead of the 40 domestic contracts which will now kick in later in the year.

The recruitment of the 20 players – who will be the first ever domestic female professionals in England, earning £1000 a month – has been driven by the Regional Directors of Women’s Cricket, with selections made on the basis of likelihood of representing England in the near future.

While Kathryn and Sarah Bryce are currently Scotland players, this suggests that either or both might hope to one day follow Kirstie Gordon in qualifying for England. Additionally, Beth Langston, Alex Hartley and Tash Farrant – who all previously represented England – are clearly still in contention for future selection.

The 5 holders of England “Rookie” contracts have also been allocated to regions but will remain on their England contracts until the 40 full-time contracts begin later in the year.

The 25 players allocated to a particular region are as follows:

North East:

  • Hollie Armitage
  • Beth Langston
  • Linsey Smith (EW Rookie)

North West:

  • Georgie Boyce
  • Alex Hartley
  • Emma Lamb (EW Rookie)
  • Ellie Threlkeld

West Midlands:

  • Eve Jones
  • Marie Kelly
  • Issy Wong

East Midlands:

  • Kathryn Bryce
  • Sarah Bryce

South West and Wales:

  • Dani Gibson
  • Sophie Luff
  • Fi Morris

South Central:

  • Georgia Adams
  • Tara Norris
  • Paige Scholfield

London and South East:

  • Alice Davidson-Richards (EW Rookie)
  • Sophia Dunkley (EW Rookie)
  • Tash Farrant
  • Bryony Smith (EW Rookie)

London and East:

  • Amara Carr
  • Naomi Dattani
  • Cordelia Griffith

NEWS: Lauren Bell and Issy Wong In Line for England Debuts This Summer

The ECB have announced that 24 players will return to training on Monday 22 June in preparation for the proposed tri-series between England, India and South Africa in September, with uncapped fast bowlers Lauren Bell and Issy Wong amongst their number.

The announcement suggests that both Bell and Wong, who impressed for Southern Vipers in the KSL last season, could be in line to make their international debuts in September, should the proposed tri-series take place as intended.

With all 22 contracted England players also returning to training, it looks likely that the ECB are expecting the tri-series to consist of a high number of compressed fixtures, meaning that there will be more players in line for international duty than usual this summer.

The training sessions will take place under the same medical guidelines and bio-secure conditions as have been in place for England Men. The 24 players will initially train on their own before progressing to small group training, and they will be based across six different venues: the National Performance Centre, Loughborough; Emerald Headingley, Yorkshire; The Kia Oval, London; Bristol County Ground, Bristol; Chester Boughton Hall CC, Lancashire Cheshire; and the 1st Central County Ground, Hove.

Full squads for the series and a list of fixtures will be announced in due course.

The full list of 24 players returning to training is as follows:

  • Tammy Beaumont (Kent)
  • Lauren Bell (Berkshire / Middlesex)
  • Katherine Brunt (Yorkshire)
  • Kate Cross (Lancashire)
  • Alice Davidson-Richards (Kent)
  • Freya Davies (Sussex)
  • Sophia Dunkley (Surrey)
  • Sophie Ecclestone (Lancashire)
  • Georgia Elwiss (Sussex)
  • Katie George (Hampshire)
  • Sarah Glenn (Worcestershire)
  • Kirstie Gordon (Kent)
  • Amy Jones (Warwickshire)
  • Heather Knight (Berkshire)
  • Emma Lamb (Lancashire)
  • Nat Sciver (Surrey)
  • Anya Shrubsole (Berkshire)
  • Bryony Smith (Surrey)
  • Linsey Smith (Sussex)
  • Mady Villiers (Essex)
  • Fran Wilson (Kent)
  • Lauren Winfield (Yorkshire)
  • Issy Wong (Warwickshire)
  • Danni Wyatt (Sussex)

EXCLUSIVE: Retainers Worth £1,000 Per Month; Domestic Contracts Will Be Worth £18,000

The ECB’s new retainers, which will be awarded to 24 domestic players and will begin on 1 June, will be worth £1,000 a month; while the 40 new full-time domestic professionals – whose contracts will commence later in the summer – will earn £18,000 a year, CRICKETher has learned.

All of those awarded retainers will subsequently be upgraded to a full-time domestic contract once these kick in later in the summer.

The remaining contracts will be confirmed after the Centre of Excellence fixtures have been played in September, presumably based on player performances during the competition.

All CoE players, meanwhile – assuming at least some fixtures go ahead this season – will be paid a match fee of approximately £200 per game.

From 2021, the £18,000 will be supplemented by payments for The Hundred (Women’s Competition), which for domestic female players will likely range between £3,600 and £9,000.

This would still, however, mean that all domestic players would earn less than the PCA’s mandated minimum wage for full-time professional cricketers in England, which last June was set at £27,500.

NEWS: Hosts For New Centres Of Excellence Confirmed

The ECB have confirmed the hosts for the 8 new Regional Centres of Excellence which will form the backbone of the new domestic structure in England and Wales.

As mooted by CRICKETher last October, the new teams will largely correspond to the previous 6 Kia Super League regions – with Surrey, Hampshire, Loughborough University, Lancashire and Yorkshire all acting as CoE “hosts”; while both Western Storm and Southern Vipers live on in an alternative guise. Both Storm (a partnership of Glamorgan CCC, Gloucestershire CCC and Somerset CCC) and Vipers have also registered as limited companies, reflecting the greater amount of autonomy granted to the CoEs compared to the KSL hosts.

Meanwhile the two “new” regional teams – London & East and West Midlands – will be hosted by Middlesex CCC and a partnership between Warwickshire & Worcestershire CCC respectively.

It is expected that the players selected for the new Centres will train and play at least some of their fixtures at the home grounds of the regional hosts, with the new domestic calendar therefore centring around Headingley, Old Trafford, New Road, Loughborough University, Taunton / Bristol, the Ageas Bowl, the Oval and Lord’s.

All 8 Regional Directors of Women’s Cricket are also now in place, with familiar faces Danni Warren (London & East), Richard Bedbrook (London & South East), Laura MacLeod (West Midlands) and Lisa Pagett (South West & Wales) joined by James Carr (North East), David Thorley (North West), Ian Read (East Midlands), and Adam Carty (South Central).

Carr previously worked at Cricket Scotland, while Carty had headed up Hampshire’s Boys’ Player Pathway; Thorley joins from England Boxing, and Read is the former Performance Programme Manager for Loughborough Sport.

The full list of hosts is as follows:

  • North East – Yorkshire CCC
  • North West – Lancashire CCC
  • West Midlands – Warwickshire & Worcestershire CCC
  • East Midlands – Loughborough University
  • South West & Wales – Glamorgan CCC, Gloucestershire CCC and Somerset CCC (aka Western Storm Ltd)
  • South Central – Hampshire CCC (aka Southern Vipers Ltd)
  • London & South East – Surrey CCC
  • London & East – Middlesex CCC

BOOK REVIEW: Cricket 2.0 – A Vision Of Women’s Cricket’s Future?

Last week Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde’s Cricket 2.0: Inside the T20 Revolution was deservedly named Wisden’s Book of the Year. The book provides a forensic examination of the multiple ways in which T20 has changed cricket, both for the better and for the worse, and features interviews with more than fifty players and coaches in the men’s game.

I began reading it while out in Australia for the T20 World Cup, and almost immediately happened upon the following, in the Authors’ Note: “This book is solely on men’s T20 cricket. T20 has transformed women’s cricket too – quite possibly even more so – but that story deserves its own full telling, and there are others better qualified than us to do it justice.”

That quickly became the lens through which I consumed the rest of the book. How far can Wigmore and Wilde’s analysis be extended to the women’s game? Is men’s T20 cricket a vision for our future?

I’ve noted some of my musings below. I’d be interested to hear your own views in the comments.

  • Increased use of data is at the heart of this book, and is one aspect of what Wilde and Wigmore label a “paradigm shift” in cricket in the past 10 years (see especially ch.2). Here is one area where women’s cricket is lagging behind. Matthew Mott is the first coach I’ve heard who regularly uses the term “match-ups” in press conferences; Australia are the first international side who actually have the resources at their disposal (i.e. analysts) to use data to the extent that it’s been used in men’s cricket. This was much discussed during the recent T20 World Cup, when Australia came under the spotlight for becoming obsessed with a numbers-based approach to questions like whether Ash Gardner or Meg Lanning should bat at 3. Overall, use of data is one area where I’d suggest women’s T20 cricket will begin to look much more “Cricket 2.0” in the next few years, as teams become better resourced around the world.
  • Commercial forces have shaped men’s T20 cricket to a much greater extent than in the women’s game. Men’s T20 franchise leagues have created a free market whereby mercenaries like Chris Gayle (ch.3) can make millions of dollars without wearing their national shirt. No one chooses the freelance life in women’s cricket: it’s hard work – see for example Rachel Priest, who snapped up a New Zealand contract as soon as she could, after moonlighting in the KSL and WBBL for a couple of years.
  • That means that some of the positives which T20 cricket has brought to the men’s game, like the “democratisation” process amongst players from non-Test playing nations (ch.13), have not yet arrived in women’s cricket. On the other hand, you might argue that the players remain much less motivated by money – they are grateful for the chance to make a living playing cricket, but they don’t turn into the kind of person who gives themselves the nickname “Universe Boss”, which is a plus point as far as I’m concerned.
  • Men’s T20 cricket has brought spin bowling to the fore (ch.4) – an interesting contrast with the women’s game, where spinners have generally been more dominant. I might even hesitantly say that, in a reversal of the trend Wilde and Wigmore identify, T20 cricket has made pace bowling more important in women’s cricket. If the best T20 pace bowling is about mastering variations (ch.7), might that gives seamers in women’s cricket an advantage, because variations (not sheer pace) have traditionally been the tools of their trade?
  • In chapter 8, Wilde and Wigmore outline the gradual unravelling of the ECB’s initial opposition to the IPL from 2015 onwards, which they attribute to England Men’s poor performance in the 2015 World Cup. I am intrigued by this timeline. It was in June 2015 that Clare Connor first unveiled plans for a new women’s “Super League”, which was to be a franchise T20 tournament – the first of its kind in England. Perhaps the success of the KSL, as it became, helped erode the ECB’s opposition to these kind of leagues?
  • Something we have seen a lot less of in women’s T20 cricket is the struggle for peaceful co-existence between domestic T20 leagues and international cricket (ch.9). WBBL and KSL have both been part-funded and fully supported by their national boards. Nonetheless, an integral part of the story of the WBBL’s origins is the rebel-league-that-wasn’t, Shaun Martyn’s Women’s International Cricket League (WICL). This initiative pushed Cricket Australia, who were terrified that they might lose control of their players, into launching WBBL – and the rest, as they say, is history. It’s going to be interesting to see if the launch of a Women’s IPL eventually takes us to another showdown between the boards and the franchises.
  • Chapter 12, “Why CSK Win and Why RCB Lose”, could equally well be entitled “Why Western Storm Win and Why Lancashire Thunder Lose”. Western Storm, the only team to feature in all 4 KSL Finals Days, realised early on (as did CSK in the men’s IPL) that a strong core of domestic players was the way to achieve success.
  • However, one key difference between women’s and men’s T20 franchise leagues has been the lack of a player draft in the women’s game. There is no “science of a good auction” (ch.2) in women’s T20 cricket – in the KSL, England players were “allocated” centrally by the ECB, while for the overseas players, all the negotiations were done behind the scenes. These negotiations, which have generally been top-secret, would certainly be a fascinating process to research!
  • On that note, Wigmore and Wilde’s “Epilogue” is devoted to 32 Predictions For The Future Of T20 Cricket. (Many of these provide a compelling vision for the future of the women’s game, which is one reason why I’d recommend this book to Cher readers.) One prediction is that: “The system of drafts and auctions will evolve”, with at least some of the allocation process moving to direct negotiations with players, in order to create more continuity in teams and eliminate the upheaval currently experienced in the men’s IPL when contracts come up for renewal. I wonder whether women’s cricket might learn from the men’s game and actually bypass the draft system completely, given its many disadvantages?

A final point: Wigmore and Wilde’s “Author’s Note” might well be interpreted as a “call to arms” for some future author to write their own version of this book, but centring on the women’s game. My feeling is that it would be a very different book. The forensic level of statistical analysis which Wilde and Wigmore adopt, based on extensive use of CricVizz’s stats database, would be much harder to achieve – there is no equivalently sized database for the women’s game (as far as I’m aware). As it stands, an author would have to rely far more heavily on anecdotal information provided at a team level.

I’d still read it, though!

NEWS: Loughborough University Confirmed As Host For New Regional Centre Of Excellence

Loughborough University are set to play host to one of 8 new Regional Centres of Excellence which are due to replace 50-over county cricket as of this season, according to a job advert which appeared online on Thursday.

The advert, which is for Regional Director of Women’s Cricket for the East Midlands Region, states that the new Director will be based at the Sports Development Centre at Loughborough University.

The East Midlands region will consist of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Loughborough, with the new Director – according to the advert – expected to “establish and lead a senior team and an academy for the East Midlands and work with all the counties to further develop women’s cricket at all levels”.

While Clare Connor had strongly hinted at the launch of the ECB’s new “Inspiring Generations” strategy last October that Loughborough might become host to the East Midlands Centre, the regional hosts have yet to be announced officially by the ECB.

However, Loughborough’s success as host to Loughborough Lightning in the Kia Super League appear to have convinced those involved in the new structure that they deserve to continue to have hosting rights for the new CoE competition.

The news will be welcome to fans of the KSL: not only does it seem almost certain that the Loughborough Lightning brand will continue to exist within women’s cricket, it looks likely that the remaining CoEs will take up the names and branding used during the Super League, albeit in slightly amended form – just as CRICKETher predicted back in October.

While plans for the new Centres of Excellence are largely on hold for the moment, 6 of the 8 Regional Directors of Women’s Cricket are now in place – including Lisa Pagett for South West & Wales, Adam Carty for South Central, Laura Macleod for West Midlands, Richard Bedbrook for London & South East, and David Thorley for North West – with Loughborough set to hold interviews for the above post on 28 or 29 April via Skype.

NEWS: ECB To Re-Assess Calendar for Centres of Excellence But Investment Remains Secure

Plans for the 8 new regional Centres of Excellence – the structures that were intended to replace women’s county cricket as of September 2020 – have been placed on hold, as the ECB seeks to assess whether it will be feasible to launch the new Centres in a season likely to be severely disrupted by the Coronavirus outbreak.

However, an ECB spokesperson assured CRICKETher that the £20 million investment in women’s and girls’ cricket promised in the new Inspiring Generation strategy is secure, saying: “The ECB remains committed to the transforming women’s and girls’ cricket action plan, despite the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

While 6 of the 8 Regional Directors of Women’s Cricket for the CoEs are now in place – including Lisa Pagett for South West & Wales, Adam Carty for South Central, Laura Macleod for West Midlands, Richard Bedbrook for London & South East, and David Thorley for North West – no further staff or coaching appointments are being made until more is known about the shape of the coming season.

This is in line with the ECB’s own total freeze on recruitment in 2020, which was announced by the Board last week.

The player allocation process for the Centres was due to commence shortly, but is also being placed on hold for the moment. Additionally, it looks likely that the 40 new professional contracts for domestic players (5 per Centre of Excellence) – originally scheduled to begin in June – will now be delayed until the back end of the season, or even postponed until 2021, given that the recipients would be unable to train together for the foreseeable future.

This delay would come as a blow to a number of players, in particular those recently released from England central contracts such as Alex Hartley and Tash Farrant, who might well have been holding off from seeking other employment on the basis of an expected paid full-time future in cricket. While the PCA were able to negotiate with the ECB on behalf of the centrally contracted players, who have agreed a pay cut, the Association only represent existing professional players in England – meaning that female domestic players have no one to speak for their interests.

However, it is important to emphasise that plans for both the Centres and the new domestic contracts are on hold only. While there has been speculation in the media that the ECB’s £20 million investment in the women’s and girls’ game as part of their new strategy, Inspiring Generations, could be at risk due to cost-cutting measures, the ECB have assured CRICKETher that they remain fully committed to this area of investment.

“The Board’s initial two-year investment into this long-term plan remains unaffected and close discussions with our Regional Hosts will continue as the situation becomes clearer,” the ECB spokesperson said.

With the CoE fixtures not scheduled to take place until September, it remains possible that the 50-over regional competition could still go ahead as planned, and a range of scenarios are still being discussed with the Regional Hosts.

“We are currently collaborating closely with our Regional Hosts and modelling a range of alternative scenarios, including a later start to the season and a reduced season,” an ECB spokesperson told CRICKETher. “Although it is not yet on the agenda, a postponement of the first year of elite domestic structure fixtures is also a scenario that may need to come under consideration.”

NEWS: New East of England Women’s County Championship “Absolutely A Long Term Thing”

When the ECB first mooted the possibility of abolishing the Women’s County Championship last year, the Eastern Counties provided some of the loudest opposition to the plan – telling CRICKETher that: “Removing county cricket doesn’t make any sense when we are trying to grow the women’s game.”

Now, with the national County Championship consigned to history by the ECB, those same counties – Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Huntingdonshire and Norfolk – have come together to launch their own East of England Women’s County Championship.

The competition has been conceived in response to a local demand to retain competitive 50 over Women’s County Cricket in the region, which has seen a resurgence in the last few years.

“With all 4 Counties, the players have a real passion to represent their County and look forward to the County season every year,” Phil Lewis, Women & Girls Development Officer for Huntingdonshire, told CRICKETher. “Not just the playing standard, but the matches we have played in the East have been good hard fought encounters – rarely do you see one-sided games.”

“The standard is getting better and better all the time – players in these sides have now gone through the entire CAG system of their representative counties – 5 or 10 years ago that wasn’t the case. Players in these women’s sides have longstanding rivalries with opposing players right from U11s.”

“I have known the guys at Norfolk and Hertfordshire for years now. We spent a lot of time in each others company during last season and had many a conversation about the impact [of abolishing the County Championship] on the Women’s game, and vowed there and then to do all we could to keep things going.”

The initiative resembles the new London Championship, which will see Surrey, Middlesex, Kent and Essex taking part in a similar 50-over competition, in spite of the ECB’s insistence that all 50-over cricket would as of the 2020 season rest with their 8 new “Centres of Excellence”.

However, an article by George Dobell on Cricinfo suggests that the ECB has “endorsed” the London Championship; by contrast, the East Championship is an entirely independent initiative. “The last word we as counties had received at one of the consultancy events last year was that it was up to individual counties if they did something, but there wouldn’t be any funding for it – which is why we have tried to approach it a little more commercially to help support the tremendous backing from the Counties,” Lewis says.

The Championship is receiving no financial support from the ECB; instead, it is being funded through the support of the representative county boards of Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Buckinghamshire, as well as Huntingdonshire CCC. They have also received backing from some independent sponsors, including Soroptomist International (specifically the Hertfordshire branch), who are providing a Championship Trophy and end of season awards for the teams and players. The trophy is likely to be named after former England player and Chairman of the Women’s Cricket Association 1983-1994 Audrey Collins, who passed away in 2010.

The ECB’s rationale for abolishing the Women’s County Championship last season was that county cricket was providing a “participation experience” for players, which needed to transfer down to local clubs. However, Lewis says that the weakness of club cricket in the East of England means that this is simply not a realistic option for the players he works with.

“Our competition is a clear statement that the removal of competitive county cricket by the ECB in the region is hugely damaging to a great number of women in the area who have very little to fall back on,” he told CRICKETher. “Women’s club cricket is not even remotely close to being an adequate substitute in the area.”

“The standard is very poor, and there are no genuine league options of any kind of standard. A good quality, competitive Women’s league is at least 5 if not 10 years away, depending on the efforts of the local boards.”

The aim, says Lewis, is to utilise the new Championship to help enhance club cricket, rather than act in competition with it. 

“The Championship is not there to be a substitute for Women’s Club Cricket and our fixture planning was all about scheduling outside of Women’s Club Sundays – inevitably there may be some clashes now [given the shortened season] but we are here to work with clubs and hopefully help enhance the club competition, not work against it.”

While there is now much uncertainty surrounding the cricket season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the organisers of the new Championship have agreed a contingency set of fixture dates. As it stands, 50-over fixtures will take place on 16th, 23rd and 30th August, and 13th, 20th and 27th September, with a T20 Cup Festival on 6th September. “There is a great deal of determination to make sure the competition happens,” says Lewis.

What of the future? Currently the Championship may be small-scale, but the hopes for its growth are big. “As a group we hope to bring other long adversaries into the fold to resume battle against, including Suffolk and Lincolnshire – it would also be awesome if we could somehow attract entries from Europe in time as I am sure the Netherlands will be hugely impacted,” says Lewis.

“We absolutely see this competition as a long term thing. No question.”

T20 WORLD CUP FINAL: History Made At The MCG – On The Shoulders of Giants

Six years ago – the last time I was at the MCG – an ODI took place in Melbourne, as part of the Women’s Ashes series. The match was due to get underway at 10am. When I arrived at the ground, I wandered around, trying to find a way in: none of the gates were open. You wouldn’t have known there was a game taking place.

MCG security, I later learned, had decided that they weren’t going to open up the gates to the ground until 9.30am – half an hour before play was due to start. Players’ families were queued up, trying to get in. And the couple of journalists who, like me, were trying to cover the match, were told we would be unable to enter until after the toss had already taken place. It took us a good while to work out who was batting first when we did get inside.

Skip forward six years, and here I am, back at the MCG for another women’s match. Only this time, every gate of this mammoth-sized ground is wide open, beckoning in the tens of thousands of fans who are gradually taking their seats. The place is crawling with photographers, journalists, ardent fans in “Australia” or “India” shirts. The ICC have advised that all fans should be seated by 5pm (an hour before the match is due to start).

It’s really quite the contrast.

—————

29 December 1997, Eden Gardens, Calcutta. Australia are playing New Zealand in a World Cup final. 80,000 people fill the ground: virtually all of them women and girls bussed in by the local Sports Minister. Before yesterday, it was the highest attendance ever at a women’s cricket match. Before yesterday, it was an anomaly.

Harmanpreet Kaur is asked about Eden Gardens 1997 in her press conference the day before the final. “I didn’t even know there was women’s cricket then,” she says. Last night’s match seems unlikely to go under the radar in the same kind of way.

It is not just about yet another Australian World Cup title. The world record for attendance at women’s sport may have remained intact, but this is women’s cricket’s big moment. When 86,000 people at the MCG paused during the 16th over of India’s chase to light up and wave their phones, you could almost hear the lyrics of Katy Perry’s “Firework” echoing through the ground:

“You just gotta ignite the light
And let it shine
Just own the night
Like the Fourth of July
‘Cause baby you’re a firework
Come on show ’em what you’re worth
Make ’em go “Oh, oh, oh!”
As you shoot across the sky-y-y”

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During the second ever women’s match at the MCG – a Test in January 1949 between England and Australia – England batsman Molly Hide drove the ball down the ground. It passed through the fence, and disappeared into a drain: the cover was not big enough to stop the passage of the smaller, five-ounce women’s ball. 

Fortunately, nowadays, the drains are fully covered: else the sixes slammed over long on by Alyssa Healy (one of them, at 83 metres, clocks in as the biggest six of the tournament) would have significantly lengthened yesterday’s game.

“Women have no power”, they have been saying since time immemorial. “They don’t hit sixes.” 1899: WG Grace declares that cricket is “not a game for women”. 2011: The Sun’s John Etheridge tweets that “Women’s cricket is a joke. The standard is truly appalling”.

The 80,000 people who watched Healy rack up a 30-ball fifty yesterday – the fastest ever hit in an ICC final, men’s or women’s – might beg to differ with Grace and Etheridge.

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6 April 2014, Shere Bangla National Stadium, Mirpur, Bangladesh. It’s just a few months after the farce at the MCG, when security didn’t even want to open the gates. England are playing against Australia in the final of the Women’s World Twenty20. It is Meg Lanning’s first tournament as captain; during the group stages she has racked up a record score of 126 against Ireland. Australia walk all over England in the final, winning by 6 wickets.

Six years later here we are on 8 March 2020, at the MCG, in Melbourne, Australia. The result is the same – Australia are triumphant – and the margin of victory is equally huge – 85 runs. The similarity between the two occasions, though, ends there. Beth Mooney’s unbeaten 78 in yesterday’s final took her officially past the record set by Lanning in 2014 for most runs made during a T20 World Cup: all 259 of Mooney’s were broadcast in glorious technicolour; Lanning’s went largely unnoticed. 

And in 2014 the official attendance at the final was 4,313. At the G, it’s 86,174. The roar around the ground when the final wicket falls and Australia are world champions once again is unimaginable in its volume.

How do the two occasions compare? Just ask Lanning: “They’re both special in their own ways, but this day today is incredible, and something we could only have dreamed of happening. It was something else. This day is the best of my career so far.”

How about 2020 vs 2018 in the Caribbean – in front of a crowd of 9,000? Here’s Alyssa Healy: “This is soooo much better. To sit here tonight with a medal around our neck at the MCG is going to be very hard to beat.”

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23 July 2017: Lord’s Cricket Ground. A full house watches England play India in the World Cup final. India, chasing just 228, collapse to 219 all out. “After the loss of two early wickets, we were cruising with two partnerships that Punam built with Harman and Veda [Krishnamurthy],” captain Mithali Raj says after the match. “But then we lost our way. I think it was the inexperience of playing on such a big stage on such a big occasion.”

2017 may have been big: 2020 is even bigger. 7 of that India team are playing again today. Once again, they are chasing; once again, they fall short. Same old story? Maybe, maybe not. “We enjoyed it,” says Harmanpreet Kaur after the match. “Winning and losing are a part of the game. You cannot convey your day with winning and losing because one team is going to win and one team is going to lose. I think, at the end of the day, it was a great tournament for us. Hopefully, in future, we’ll give our best and try to win for the country.”

Harmanpreet Kaur: the Captain of Hope.

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Shafali Verma doesn’t remember the loss in 2017. She is 16 years old: this is her first World Cup final. She has no real conception that this is the biggest match, ever, in the history of the women’s game.

Sometimes players drop catches. Shafali drops a big ‘un: putting down Healy in the very first over of the match. Sometimes players – especially those like Shafali, who live by the sword and die by the sword – get out cheaply: in this instance, she is out third ball, nicking it to Healy behind the stumps. She has been the mainstay of India’s batting all tournament: if anything, it’s surprising she hasn’t failed earlier. Was it nerves? I doubt it. To Shafali Verma, filled with the insouciance of youth, it’s just normal to play in front of a crowd of 80,000 people at the MCG. You might tell her that it isn’t, but since when did a teenager ever listen to anything someone tried to tell them?

My hopes for Shafali’s career are many, but here is one: that she retains that insouciance throughout her career. May 80,000 people never be just associated with a memory of the time she dropped a catch and got out in single figures. May it one day become the everyday occurrence that it seemed like to Shafali on 8 March 2020.

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Ever heard the expression: “On the shoulders of giants”? It means we couldn’t have done this without all those who went before. It means that every painful loss – at Lord’s for India in 2017 – and every glorious victory – for Australia in Bangladesh in 2014, or Antigua in 2018, or any of the others – was a precursor to this. It means that Meg Lanning and Harmanpreet Kaur couldn’t be playing in front of packed-out crowd at the MCG if Jill Powell, Betty Wilson, Belinda Clark and Betty Archdale hadn’t played in front of an empty one. It means that every day of international women’s cricket before 8 March 2020 – every day when no one showed up and the players and umpires weren’t paid a cent but they did it anyway – has all been leading up to yesterday.

Australia beat India by 85 runs on International Women’s Day, 2020. And it was all done on the shoulders of giants.