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.

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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.

T20 WORLD CUP: Fully Fit England Raring To Go

Anya Shrubsole has assured England fans that, despite a couple of injury niggles in recent weeks, coach Lisa Keightley will have the full squad at her disposal for their opening match against South Africa at the WACA on Sunday evening.

“All 15 of us will be fit and raring to go on Sunday,” Shrubsole said.

That is good news for England, after Nat Sciver missed a warm-up match earlier in the week with a ligament injury to her right knee; while Shrubsole herself sat out a portion of the tri-series with a sore foot.

Having already been in Australia for over a month, Shrubsole stressed that England were now very keen to get their tournament underway, and that they would be going all out for a win in what is likely to be a tricky opening group encounter against the South Africans.

“If you lose one match, it puts a bit of pressure on,” she said. “So this is a big one. We’ve done everything we can do to be in the best place going into that game.”

“South Africa are probably one of the teams who will be looking and thinking they can can win this World Cup, so to call it a ‘banana skin’ match would be a disservice to them. They’re a really quality team and they’ve got dangerous players and what you know in T20 is one person can win you a game. It’s a tough game first up, and we know that will have to be our best.”

England last played at the WACA in January 2014, when they won a memorable Test encounter against Australia – a match Shrubsole (who took 7-99) has fond memories of.

“There’s a few of us who played in that match,” she said. “It’s always nice to come back. We’ve also got about five or six of us who have played for Perth Scorchers as well in the WBBL, so it’s a little bit of a home away from home for some of us.”

If England can start with a win that is likely to provide good impetus for their stated goal of reaching the semi-finals, with matches against the lesser threats of Thailand and Pakistan to follow next week.

TRI-SERIES: England v Australia – Sting In The Tayla As England Sunk By Vlaeminck

At the halfway point of today’s match, it looked a fairly safe bet that England had it sewn up, and that Australia were about to fail to make the final of a tri-series in their premier format, played on home soil. England’s bowlers put on a disciplined display in the main, to restrict Australia to just 132-7 (though Anya Shrubsole’s 3 overs cost 35 runs – is the foot injury which saw her MIA earlier in the series still bothering her?)

It was another poor effort with the bat from Australia – certainly given the high standards we have come to expect from them over the past 18 months. Alyssa Healy fell hook, line and sinker into the trap that England set for her, holing out to deep midwicket in the first over of the day, continuing her miserable run of form. Meg Lanning, who since the summer has inexplicably dropped down from number 3 to 4 in the line-up, again looked uncomfortable out in the middle. There were some odd murmurings on commentary that she “doesn’t like to bat in the powerplay” – if true, this is a bizarre hang-up from someone who just 6 months ago was doing this.

After Australia’s loss to India yesterday, Ash Gardner described the series as “a good learning curve. These games don’t matter as much as what the World Cup is going to matter. This tri-series is all about trying different things.” Is this bravado or have Australia actually been treating this series less seriously than the other teams? In their 4 matches, they’ve not played the same XI once; and there doesn’t seem to have been much rhyme or reason to the continual switch-ups.

Tayla Vlaeminck, for example, has only featured in 2 of the 4 matches. Today, though, it was the young quick who starred. Not only did she pick up the wickets of both Danni Wyatt and Amy Jones in the powerplay, but she bowled with such venom and pace that she forced England to sit back and “see her off”. Sophie Molineux may have picked up 3-19 and the Player of the Match award but it was Vlaeminck who effectively “bought” those wickets by piling on the scoreboard pressure early on. Why hasn’t she been playing every match?

If it is the case that Australia are viewing this series as glorified net practice, that’s actually quite worrying for England – if Australia can beat them when they’re only firing at 50%, it doesn’t bode well for the forthcoming World Cup. Arguably, there isn’t much that England can change up at this distance from the tournament – they seem pretty set on playing 8 batsmen and heavily relying on Nat Sciver’s bowling to see them right; and they certainly won’t be changing their opening partnership, or abandoning the “Tammy Beaumont at 6” strategy, this close to the World Cup.

On the basis of today’s performance, the one thing that might make sense is dropping Shrubsole in favour of the much more economical Freya Davies. It would be a brave call by Heather Knight and Lisa Keightley, though if they wanted to save face they could always blame it on her foot injury. We’ll have to wait and see what the preferred approach is, come 23 February at the WACA.

TRI-SERIES: Australia v England – “Heather Say Die”

Knight Knight

England twice looked dead and buried in this match – and twice it was captain Heather Knight who refused to say die, seeing England home in a thriller of a match that felt at times like it had as much riding on it as a World Cup final.

At 41-3 at the halfway stage of their innings, England could easily have given up (we nearly gave up on them from our sofa…) To recover as they did to post a total in excess of 150 – beating their effort against India yesterday by 7 runs – was a remarkable effort.

That recovery was spearheaded by Knight, who smashed her highest score in T20 internationals for the second consecutive day in a row – this time with a 45-ball 78; alongside a 115-run stand with Fran Wilson, who underwrote her newly-found status as England’s middle-order power-player.

Then, after debutant Annabel Sutherland smashed Katherine Brunt for 17 off the antepenultimate over, in a display of youthful swagger that almost cost England the game, Knight did the job for her side again in the Super Over – hitting Ellyse Perry for consecutive boundaries to reach the target with two balls to spare. Unsurprisingly she was once again named Player of the Match.

Perry v Jones

Ellyse Perry’s opening spell of 4 consecutive overs went for only 9, but it was interesting to note from coach Matthew Mott that her economy rate wasn’t the only reason she bowled all her overs up front. Mott, interviewed during the match, said that he had sent out a message telling Meg Lanning to keep Perry on for her fourth over because it fitted with their pre-planned “match-ups”. Presumably it hasn’t escaped the Australians’ attention that Amy Jones effectively became Perry’s “bunny” last Ashes, and there is clearly still a psychological “block” there, with Jones playing out 12 dot balls against Perry today. It all built up to what was a frankly suicidal run-out.

Jones’s confidence will have taken a big knock after being unfairly lambasted for claiming the Smriti Catch-That-Wasn’t yesterday, which is very unfortunate. England will need to hope she can find some form across the rest of this series.

Uninvincible Australia

England will take a lot from this win, which will be all the sweeter after Australia walked all over them in the Ashes last summer. More to the point, it showed that Australia aren’t the invincible super-humans that we’ve come to expect. Both Knight and Wilson were dropped at crucial stages in their innings’ – Knight when she was on just 2* – and there were also some distinctly average pieces of fielding on the boundary rope during the Knight-Wilson onslaught. It just goes to show that even the Aussies aren’t immune to pressure when their backs are against the walls.

There is one other cause for concern for the home side. Captain Meg Lanning – who looked uncharacteristically uncomfortable at the crease today – missed the Super Over, having gone off for treatment for a “bad back”. It seems a bit odd that she would miss such a crucial part of the match unless there was something genuinely wrong – fingers crossed she holds up OK for the next match of the series against India tomorrow.

OPINION: Surrey’s New Scholarship Programme Especially Important For Female African-Caribbean Cricketers

Surrey County Cricket Club will this month launch a new scholarship programme to create new opportunities for young African-Caribbean cricketers to enter the Club’s performance pathway.

Targeting 11-18 year old girls and boys with sporting potential, the initiative intends to break down barriers for the local African Caribbean community by providing Level 3 ECB qualified cricket coaching, sports science and personal development education, equipment & travel grants – as well as chances to meet inspirational role models from their community.

Two free open days will take place on Wednesday 4 and Wednesday 11 March in the Ken Barrington Cricket Centre at the Kia Oval. More details on the programme can be found here.

One of the most important aspects of the programme is that it is one of the first ever to target girls as well as boys. Women’s cricket has historically been an overwhelmingly white sport in England, with only 3 black players represented in last season’s Women’s County Championship across all 38 counties.

Black girls and women remain at a double-disadvantage as far as cricket is concerned. England has a strong tradition of African-Caribbean cricket clubs, some formed as early as the 1970s, but these have traditionally excluded women, who in turn have lacked the resources to start their own clubs.

Ebony Rainford-Brent, now Director of Women’s Cricket at Surrey, remains one of only two black woman ever to represent England. Her own route into cricket came about largely by chance – she was spotted at a London Community Cricket Association coaching event, and was reliant on the support of an LCCA employee (Jenny Wostrack) to access women’s club and county cricket.

Rainford-Brent’s experience highlights how important this targeted programme from Surrey could be in helping to provide young black women with a clear pathway into cricket. The programme, which is being run in partnership with Surrey Cricket Foundation, will support local African-Caribbean clubs in developing a sustainable infrastructure and in building strong links with a range of community schemes.

Rainford-Brent herself will also be heavily involved in the programme, providing a role model for young black girls aspiring to reach the top levels of our sport – something that was lacking for many previous generations.

Overall, it is a welcome development in a sport which has never done enough to encourage diversity in its ranks.

NEWS: Western Storm Lives On As New “Centre Of Excellence”

As first mooted by CRICKETher back in October, it has been confirmed that the Kia Super League’s “Western Storm” will live on, becoming the name of the new South West & Wales Centre of Excellence who will field women’s teams in both 50-over and 20-over domestic cricket as of 2021.

The job advert [MS Word] for the South West’s new Regional Director of Women’s Cricket, who will work across Wales, Somerset, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Devon and Cornwall, states that  the jobholder will be employed by the “Western Storm Board of Directors”, with Western Storm now registered as an official limited company with HMRC.

The web page accompanying the job advert states:

“Following on from four successful years in the Kia Super League, Western Storm has proudly become a household name across the South West. With existing strong links across the region, Western Storm has left an excellent legacy of programmes encouraging participation and support for women’s and girl’s cricket.

Five counties (Cornwall, Devon, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire) in the South West, and Wales have joined forces to lead the way in collaborative working for the greater benefit of performance and recreational cricket across our vast region.

With Western Storm’s existing legacy and the ECB’s new wider game strategy to Transform Women’s and Girls Cricket, this key appointment represents a substantial and exciting opportunity to play your part in both continuing and driving female cricket forward across our region.”

The new Centres of Excellence are due to launch shortly, acting as a replacement for the women’s senior county structure, with CoE sides to play against each other in September in a 50-over competition which replaces the Women’s County Championship. As of 2021, the CoEs will also compete in a 20-over competition. The Centres will serve as the base for the 40 new professionally-contracted domestic players and are a cornerstone of the ECB’s new Women and Girls’ Strategy.

It remains to be seen whether other Centres will follow in Western Storm’s footsteps and also adopt the name of their corresponding Kia Super League side. Nonetheless, if Western Storm can live on in a new guise, there seems no reason why Southern Vipers, Loughborough Lightning and the rest can’t do the same.