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?

RHF TROPHY FINAL: Vipers Triumph In Taylz Of The Unexpected

In a week in which England’s young trio of Sophie Ecclestone, Sarah Glenn and Mady Villiers dominated the headlines, for one sunny September afternoon in Birmingham it was a 26-year-old  “unknown” spinner from Hampshire who stole the limelight, turning the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy final on its head.

In a spell which utterly baffled the BBC and Sky commentators, who were scarcely aware of her name before today’s final, off-spinner Charlotte Taylor took six wickets for 34 runs across her 10 overs – the best return by any bowler across the entire competition.

Despite the early loss of Lauren Winfield-Hill, Northern Diamonds looked to be well in control of their chase at 74-1 after 14 overs, before Taylor’s decisive intervention knocked the stuffing right out of them – Holly Armitage, Alex MacDonald, Jenny Gunn and Bess Heath all deceived by her stock delivery (the arm-ball), with Diamonds reduced to 96-6.

MacDonald’s dismissal in particular will be one she won’t be keen to watch back on the Sky highlights reel – Taylor forced her back so late that she hit the top of off-stump with her own bat, and was out hit wicket for a golden duck: not something you see much at this level of cricket.

Then, with Diamonds threatening a last-ditch late surge, captain Georgia Adams brought Taylor back on in the 35th over and she worked her magic yet again, trapping Beth Langston LBW (21) attempting the sweep, and dislodging half-centurion Sterre Kalis, who sent a catch up to Adams at mid-on.

In a matter of minutes Taylor became the unexpected hero of the hour, as Vipers romped home by 38 runs. Adams, whose 80 with the bat had earlier set things up nicely for the Vipers and who might on any other day have expected to be crowned Player of the Match, had the grace to step back and let Taylor lead the team off the pitch.

As we reported last week, Taylor’s role in this competition came as a surprise to herself as much as anyone – she had lined up a commentary gig with BBC Radio Solent for the Vipers game against the Stars at Hove, which she had to pull out of when she was selected to play in the match!

“About 3 or 4 weeks ago now I got the call from Lottie,” Taylor told us after the final. “I’d made 77 in a club game the week before, and I thought that might have done it, but actually they wanted me for my bowling.”

“It was an amazing feeling to get the call. Within a week I was training with the guys!”

Taylor made her senior domestic debut for Hampshire back in May 2010, when the county side were still languishing in the depths of Division 3, and the following season was regularly opening the batting for them. In September 2015, she hit a memorable 165* against Northants, helping Hampshire secure promotion to Division 2 at the end of the season. (They of course then went on to reach Division 1 and win the Women’s County Championship in back-to-back seasons in 2017 and 2018.)

Now, with today’s performance, she has fixed her name in the record books, but with the ball, not the bat – she finishes as leading overall wicket-taker in the RHF Trophy.

So how did the batter become a bowler?

“I was out for a while with an ACL injury,” Taylor explains. “That took me out of the game for 2 and a bit years. And then when I came back from that I just wanted a way to get in that Hampshire side, and I thought that they had a lot of good batting so I thought maybe working on my bowling might be a way to get in with something different. Lottie saw it and she was impressed, and I wouldn’t be here without her.”

“Now apparently I’m a bowling all-rounder who bats at 10!”

What is it about her bowling that has bamboozled so many? “I bowl genuine arm-balls,” she explains. “I turn one if the pitch is turning, but on a very good batting track like that I wouldn’t, I just get the ball to drift away. I back myself to bowl on a spot and it worked for me today.”

At age 26, Taylor exemplifies what the new regional structure is all about – she won’t be getting an England call-up any time soon; and she won’t ever earn her entire living from cricket. She works for an aerospace company, selling aeroplane parts, and is fortunate enough that her employers – Curtiss-Wright – allow her the flexibility to have time off to train and play cricket when she needs it.

But the opportunity to have access to a professional set-up, and train year-round, is nonetheless a transformative one for her. 

“It’s fantastic,” she says. “When I was growing up, playing professional cricket was such a long way off, and now to think that I’m actually playing professional cricket while I’m holding down a full time job elsewhere – it’s a struggle, but it’s a fantastic opportunity and long may it continue for a good few more years.”

A few weeks ago, after the first round of matches, I wrote that the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy had thrown up a dilemma which was never quite resolved in the KSL: “are we trying to develop the next generation of England players, or are we trying to put on the best display possible?… As the matches in the RHF unfold over the next few weeks, it will be interesting to see what answers – if any – emerge.”

Taylor’s performance today – done in front of the Sky cameras, for all to see – is that answer: this competition, and indeed this new regional structure, is about opportunities for all, regardless of age, and regardless of whether anyone has even ever heard your name before.

At the end of a strange and difficult season, that feels like something to celebrate.

NEWS: Tom Harrison Pledges Support For Women’s Test Cricket

ECB Chief Executive Tom Harrison has pledged his support for women’s Test cricket, stating that he sees it as “a key part of Ashes series” and that the ECB are keen to work to fit the multi-day format “into something that builds a narrative for the women’s game internationally”.

Speaking to promote the ECB’s Women’s Big Cricket Month, Harrison said:

“At the moment [women’s Test cricket] is a key part of Ashes series, and we’re trying to work out what is the right balance for international women’s Test cricket.”

“I think if you asked that question now you wouldn’t have too many international teams putting up their hands and saying ‘this makes sense for us’.”

“It certainly does for us, it certainly does for Australia. Outside of that, we’ve got to do a lot of work to work out how that fits into something that builds a narrative for the women’s game internationally.”

With Acting Cricket Australia CEO Nick Hockley having expressed his own support for more women’s Test cricket, Harrison said he would shortly be having a conversation with Hockley about the possibility of extending the next Women’s Ashes series – due to be played in Australia in 2022 – to incorporate two Test matches.

“If it’s something that both boards and both sets of fans want and demand, then it’s something we can look at,” he said. “I’m sure it will come up in our next conversation.”

Harrison was also keen to emphasise that discussions around Test cricket should be player-led, saying that the current group of England players “feel very passionately about playing Test cricket”. “We need to do a lot of work on listening to players,” he said.

However, he acknowledged that Test cricket represents a commercial challenge, saying that “it will be difficult to find the commercial support for [more] Test cricket”.

More broadly with regard to the future commercial direction of women’s cricket, he said that it was important to “enable women’s events to stand on their own” and to generate separate revenue for the women’s game:

“The next important staging post from an ICC perspective is all about the next media rights process, where we will need to generate revenue for the women’s game from the women’s events. instead of it just being part of a global set of events that are sold for a couple of billion dollars globally,” he said.

“We need to absolutely ringfence at ICC level the ability for that revenue to go into generating excitement around the women’s game specifically. And I think that starts to send the expectation to investors that what we want to see is proper investment into creating conditions under which the women’s game can grow.”

Q&A: Jonathan Finch – The RHF Trophy Is “On A Par” With The Hundred

With the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy now well underway, we spoke to ECB Director of Women’s Cricket Jonathan Finch about regional selection policies, the relationship between the ECB and the 8 regions, how the regions fit in with The Hundred (Women’s Competition) when it launches next season, and lots more besides. Here’s what he had to say:

Q: From the ECB’s perspective, what is the purpose and the role of the new regional teams?

A: We look at it from a number of different angles. From a competition perspective, the purpose is to try and get the best players playing against each other at the best possible grounds, on the best possible pitches, with the best possible coaches with the infrastructure to support that. So you’re exposing players to good, hard, competitive cricket. That is one element – exposing players to the various scenarios that they might later come up against in international cricket.

And then obviously, there is a big push to try and increase the number of players that can make a living out of the game, and we hope the number of professional players and the amount they earn continues to increase as we move forward. But if we can start to increase the number of players that are professional and get to focus on their cricket 12 months a year – that’s the most exciting bit for me: getting players exposed to good quality coaching from full time head coaches, over a prolonged period of time.

Q: Would you describe the RHF Trophy and whatever replaces it as a “development competition”?

A: Certainly not. It is our top end domestic competition, that will hopefully be played across 50 and 20 over formats moving forward.

Q: If we were looking at it as a hierarchy, do you see it as sitting on a par with The Hundred?

A: What you get with The Hundred is three overseas players. You get an opportunity then for our current international players and our future international players to learn pro ways and understand how to compete with those players. There is no doubt that in the period of time that The Hundred is taking place, that that would be our premier competition. There is a difference in that the regional structure is in place to support players 12 months of the year whereas The Hundred has a short sharp focus of attention during the season.

But from my position I see them as on a par. They’re both helping us develop cricketers to play for England, and helping us develop a plausible way to increase the number of females that make a living out of playing the game, but also developing the number of roles, coaches and support staff that are involved in the women’s game to help drive what we do forward.

Q: Will there be overseas players in next year’s regional teams?

A: Each region has the opportunity to bring one non-England qualified player in to play, whether that be for the 50-over or the T20 competition. That is very much up to the eight regions – is it going to add value for them? Is it going to add value to their environment and what they do?

Q: If the regions are intended to develop England players, was it a surprise that two Scotland players got regional retainers?

A: That’s a regional decision to make. We do have discussions, and there is that veto from the ECB if we needed to do that. However, one of the key things that we’ve got to develop is a level of collaboration and trust. And trust in those regions that they are making decisions a) based on what we as the ECB want to achieve from the competition, but also b) based on setting up a team in the way they want to set it up, based on seeing something in certain individuals. Some teams may identify key characteristics within individual players that will help develop others within the squad and therefore that player is deemed the right fit for that team.

We don’t want it to be ECB versus the eight regions – it’s about us working together as a team of nine to do what’s better for us. If we start going in and dictating decisions, based around those kinds of regulations, it becomes a bit Big Brother, and we don’t want to do that. We trust Lightning to make that decision for the betterment of English cricket, because that’s what they’ve signed up to do as being one of the regions.

There is no doubt that Kathryn and Sarah Bryce have added a lot to Lightning and the competition as a whole, and that in itself helps develop both their teammates and the opposition who come up against them.

Q: What were the selection criteria given from the ECB to regional directors, when choosing their squads?

A: There were three “steers”:

1. Is this player identified as high potential to go on and play for England?

2. Is there the perception that if this player is exposed to development for 12 months of the year, then they’ve got high potential to go on and play for England?

3. Is this individual going to add real value to the competition? Are they going to perform to a certain level that raises the standard of not only their peers, but the opposition that they play against?

We didn’t put a hierarchy on those three. We asked the regional teams to consider them in their selection.

Q: So there was no age criteria?

A: No, there was no age criteria.

Q: Were those selection criteria perhaps inconsistently applied, given that some players were explicitly not selected based on being “too old”?

A: Each region will have their principles of selection and what they’re trying to do, whether that be put a squad together for the here and now to try and win the competition in the next couple of years, because they think that gives them profile in the local area and then helps them build a brand or connection to that region – or whether someone’s taken a longer term view of, actually we’ll select a team that we think is going to be successful in four or five years.

That decision has to be led by the regions.

Q: What would your advice be to the players who were not selected based on being “too old”?

A: This is high level, high performance sport, and not everyone agrees all the time. After the first year of the competition, Regional Directors and Head Coaches will start looking at different options that are available out there on the market, and you are likely to see a migration of players from different parts of the country into different teams. 

That is exciting – we’ve now got an opportunity where there are retainer contracts and pay-as-you-play contracts, at eight different regions. So my direct advice is, try and continue in county cricket – performances are the currency of selection – and if for whatever reason that isn’t the right region for that individual then there are always seven others.

Q: Will women’s county cricket continue in 2021 and beyond? Will there be a T20 Cup for example?

A: That decision is yet to be made. There’s arguments for and against. Those discussions will be part of a wider end of season review. We will get feedback from the Regional Directors, from the Head Coaches and from the players about the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Competition this year. And that feedback inevitably will involve the role of [senior] county cricket and what that means for the set-up as a whole.

Q: Is it still the plan that the remaining 40 pro domestic contracts will be awarded in October, and if so, how much say does the ECB get in who gets those?

A: Yes, our intention is to do that.

The process will be similar to the process for awarding the current regional retainer contracts. The regions spoke to us about certain players, in order to gain insight into those that are on our pathway or from our scouting in the past. It wasn’t “have a think about this player”, it was, how do we help you create a better picture of that player because you’re going to invest in this player for the next 12 months. It was a general discussion, to help out some of those regional directors that have come from either outside the game or come from different parts of the game.

Q: The amount that players are paid has been set centrally by the ECB. Let’s say the Vipers win the RHF Trophy and they want to give their players a bonus, or pay them more next year, would they be allowed to do that?

A: That will be part of the review. One of the reasons to try and get a uniform approach initially, certainly with a young startup competition, is that you don’t want too many things complicating things early doors. So at least you know that if a player is involved in this, they’re going to get recompense, they’re going to get their expenses, and that’s a good step.

It would be a good step if the regions are able to offer different things that gives that region competitive advantages over others, whether that be salary or something else. What you want is people to start to come up with new ideas, and be quite enterprising in and around that.

Q: Has the RHF got more exposure because of The Hundred not happening, and will there be as much exposure next season? Will we still see live streams next year?

A: It’s a great question that we’ll never know the answer to!

To be able to watch the live streams is amazing. If we can continue to hold the matches at those types of venues, the capability to stream is quite easy because the infrastructure is there. I would love it that we continue to be able to provide that as a service, not only for people following the game, but the intricacies it brings to us as a coaching team centrally, being able to watch the game live and have live conversations about it.

There’s no doubt that if we don’t continue with what we’ve done, it would be a backward step. The coverage on the first weekend, we had the ECB Reporters Network out there reporting on it, we had really good paper coverage and online coverage. And that in itself is a really positive thing for the players playing the game. So it’s important that we try and continue to do that.

Obviously we’ve got The Hundred coming on board next year, but they’re not mutually exclusive in the fact that a thriving domestic competition is going to help The Hundred, and a thriving Hundred is going to help the regional set-up. So I think working hand in hand around that type of stuff is important.

Q: Does the move away from the traditional county identities to new regional brands concern you, in that it makes building a fanbase harder?

A: You’re always going to have a battle between protecting a current brand and trying to build something new. But there’s a very strong argument, performance wise, as to why we’ve gone to eight regions. I think what it does do is bring counties together in that region, to make decisions that are for the betterment of women’s cricket, and the players within the pathway. And you’re pooling resources, insight, knowledge and understanding of the women’s game. That’s a real positive.

NEWS: Player Pay & Contracts To Roll-Over For Women’s Hundred

The ECB have today confirmed that all players offered contracts to play in The Hundred (Women’s Competition) in 2020 can renew their deal on the same terms for next year – same team, same pay.

The decision has been made “to offer maximum security to the players who were denied the opportunity to play in The Hundred this year, after the competition was postponed due to COVID-19”.

Anya Shrubsole has already re-signed for Southern Brave, and many of the other contracted players for 2020 are expected to follow suit over the next few weeks. As of October, teams can begin to replace any players who choose not to roll-over their contracts.

The news is especially welcome given that the ECB announced in June that the salaries in the Men’s Hundred are being cut for 2021 by 20%. With the women’s salaries substantially less than the men’s to begin with, there were concerns that any cuts would have hit the women’s competition particularly hard – but the ECB have clearly recognised that, and have chosen (rightly) to protect the women players.

RHF TROPHY: Batting Long Is Batting Strong

In our vodcast today, we posed the question: how successful has the RHF Trophy been so far? “Very”, was our general conclusion, but there was one important aspect which we omitted to mention.

Sophie Luff summed it up in our post-match interview, after Storm – chasing 289 – ended up losing to Vipers by 32 runs.

“I love the fact that this is a 50-over competition because it genuinely shows people’s skills, and you have to do your skills over a long period of time,” the Storm captain said.

“With the bat, you have to take responsibility and you’re allowed to score big scores. The fact that Georgia Adams scored 150 today shows that – you wouldn’t get those scores in a T20.”

“It’s the right format, particularly given the opportunity for the young girls in the squad.”

It would have been easy for the ECB, given the constraints of this summer, to rejig the original plan and announce that the regions would actually play 20-over cricket this season.

It would have been cheaper, logistically easier and generally less of a strain on precious resources.

But ultimately it would have robbed us of one of the greatest domestic games we’ve ever seen live – when’s the last time a county side got within 30-odd of a 289-run target? – as well as one of the all-time great domestic innings – Georgia Adams finishing unbeaten on 154*.

It would have robbed us of seeing Nat Wraith, age 18, battling away to score 68 in 75 balls – the kind of innings that the England Training Squad player simply wouldn’t have the chance to accumulate in a 20-over match.

And it would have robbed us of seeing Sophie Luff playing her natural game, in her first ever season as a full professional. Luffy might be best known to most people as a key element of Western Storm’s double-win in the 20-over KSL, but she’s also been a prolific run-scorer for Somerset in the Women’s County Championship over the years; and if she had to pick a format, it’s pretty obvious which one she’s better suited to.* (Which explains why she’s currently second on the list of leading run-scorers in this competition, with 336, second only to [who else?] Georgia Adams, who has 379.)

Not making the KSL a 50-over competition, as was Clare Connor’s original intention back when it was launched in 2015, was a mistake – domestic players were never exposed to the high-profile of the KSL over the longer format, and our system fell further behind Australia’s in the meantime. So, credit to the ECB for not repeating that mistake this time around, and pushing ahead with their original plan for the regions to play in a 50-over competition this season, even in spite of COVID.

*Ed: She’d probably actually pick multi-day cricket, but let’s not try to run before we can walk.

RHF TROPHY: The Last Ten Wins It For Vipers

Southern Vipers maintained their 100% record in the RHF Trophy at the Ageas Bowl today, beating Sunrisers by 49 runs. They now look strong favourites to go on and win the South group, with 19 points on the board (5 more than nearest contenders Western Storm).

What has been the secret to their success? Well, just like in the KSL, a strong middle order seems to be key – and Charlotte Edwards knows how to pick ’em. Vipers’ batting line-up in the RHF Trophy includes England Academy duo 21-year-old Maia Bouchier and 19-year-old Charlie Dean; “seasoned pro” Paige Scholfield, who has been propping up the Sussex middle order since 2012; and Carla Rudd, who has kept wicket for Vipers since Day One and has always been a safe pair of gloves. It may be a cliche, but that mix of youth and experience is crucial: between them, these 4 have so far scored 345 runs in the competition – a substantial proportion of Vipers’ cumulative total of 910.

Running alongside this goes the ability to “finish big” – on the 3 occasions where Vipers have batted first (out of 4 games so far played in the RHF Trophy), they’ve amassed substantial runs in the final 10 overs of their allotted 50. Against Western Storm, they hit 58 runs off the last 10; against Stars, it was 50 runs; today, it was 48.

As it turned out, that 10 overs was the most crucial period of the entire game. At 184-7 with 10 overs to come, many sides at this level would have rolled over and lost their last 3 wickets with a whimper – it’s the kind of limp finish we often see in county cricket. Vipers, though, were able to consistently go at nearly 5 an over for the last 10, bowled out with just 1 ball going unused in their innings. Carla Rudd was particularly impressive, cleverly marshalling the tail and playing a few decent shots of her own, including a textbook reverse sweep for four.

As for those 48 runs added between overs 40 and 50? They were, quite literally, the difference between victory and defeat.

Carry on like this, and Vipers might just ensure that the KSL Trophy (which is being repurposed for the RHF) comes back home to Hampshire after all.

NEWS: Two Lightning Players In Self-Isolation After Breaching Covid Regulations

Two Lightning players are currently in a mandatory two-week isolation period, after breaching COVID regulations, CRICKETher has learned.

The pair – who were unavailable for selection in yesterday’s Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy fixture against Northern Diamonds – were found to be in breach of the UK government’s Stage Three guidelines relating to elite sport.

The ECB have confirmed that the players are now “self-isolating for a two week period following Public Health England advice”.

They will miss the next two rounds of Trophy fixtures before they can join back up with the rest of the Lightning squad.

The Stage Three guidelines, which all players were informed of before the competition got underway, have to be strictly enforced to ensure that the health of all players and officials is not put at risk.

RHF TROPHY: Thunder Crash But Dyson Hoovers Up The Runs

With Thunder 123-7 against Sparks in today’s RHF Trophy encounter, the result of the match looked like being a foregone conclusion. Doing commentary on the live stream at the time, I suggested – based on long experience of county cricket – that it would be very unlikely that Thunder would from there go on to reach 150.

My calculation did not account for the swashbuckling heroics of 20-year-old Alice Dyson, who – batting at 9, and having not even been selected for the opening encounters of the competition last weekend – smashed 21 off 24 balls, at a strike rate of 87.5 – the highest of the match*.

It was exactly the impetus that the Thunder innings needed, and it saved the game from being even more one-sided than it ultimately was – Sparks winning by 8 wickets.

“I did have a little bit of a point to prove,” Dyson said afterwards. “But I wanted to go out there and do what was best for the team in that situation – it’s not a selfish sport.”

“I tried to go at at least a run a ball and if there was a bad ball there, get it away. I tried to keep it simple and play to my strengths, straight down the ground.”

“I just wanted to rotate the strike at the end and see if we could push [the total] up.”

140 miles away, down in Chelmsford, Alex Griffiths (batting at number 6) was creating similar fireworks for Western Storm – hitting 43 off 34 balls at a strike rate of 126 against the Sunrisers, and leading the Storm’s recovery from 109-4 to 189-5, to post a final total of 265-6.

How impressive are these kind of performances? To put this in context, let’s have a look at the leading strike rates so far across the first 3 rounds of the Trophy (excluding players who have faced less than 15 balls):

Player Strike Rate
1. Alex Griffiths 115.00
2. Linsey Smith 104.54
3. Lauren Winfield 97.33
4. Ami Campbell 93.47
5. Nat Sciver 92.30
6. Sophie Ecclestone 90.24
7. Danni Wyatt 89.47
8. Tara Norris 89.47
9. Fran Wilson 88.88
10. Heather Knight 88.26
11. Alice Dyson 87.50
12. Tash Farrant 85.22
13. Beth Langston 83.33
14. Sophia Dunkley 82.92
15. Rhianna Southby 82.35

You’ll notice a strong theme here – the England players tend, almost exclusively, to populate this kind of list. Years spent on professional contracts, with proper year-round coaching and S&C training, have put them head and shoulders above domestic players when it comes to hitting beyond the infield.

But there, topping the table, sits Alex Griffiths as one of only 2 players in the competition to currently have a strike rate of over 100.

And there at number 11 sits Alice Dyson, who (lest we forget) is in the Thunder squad as a specialist bowler.

One of the biggest differences between men’s and women’s domestic cricket is that when women’s county teams have lost 4 wickets, they have a tendency to collapse horribly, because their batting orders are very top-heavy. Dan Norcross has remarked that this was his key takeaway from commentating on the Surrey v Lancashire game at Guildford on Women’s County Cricket Day last season (when Surrey collapsed from 136-0 to lose by 1 run chasing Lancashire’s 242).

The strike rates of Dyson and Griffiths, batting at 9 and 6 respectively, are therefore particularly remarkable.

Last weekend we noted that the RHF Trophy looked to be producing the same kind of attritional cricket which we are used to seeing in the county game. And so it is, in many cases. But we should also celebrate the exceptions to that rule; and acknowledge that women’s domestic cricket needs more Alice Dysons.

And maybe this same table of leading strike rates might look a little bit different in 5 years time – when (we hope) domestic players will have the same opportunities as their England counterparts to access high-quality, year-round coaching, and bosh it around with the best of them.

*Discounting Alex Hartley’s strike rate of 166.66 (she only faced 3 balls).

RHF TROPHY: A New Dawn?

In some ways today’s RHF Trophy opener – Stars v Storm – felt like a typical women’s county match: it was held at Beckenham; we brought our own picnic; and as the first ball was bowled, we were the only written press at the match. It was freezing cold and I spent the day in a winter coat and woolly hat. Heather Knight trampled all over the opposition bowling, with Storm winning by 6 wickets. If it was the dawn of a new era, it didn’t feel much like one.

On the other hand, we were both temperature-checked and had to fill in health questionnaires on arrival. (Thanks, COVID.) There was a press tent and Wifi (glorious riches!) and we could hear the buzz of Mark Church doing commentary for the live stream in the next door tent. County cricket never had it so good.

The amount of investment which has gone into this year’s regional competition is impressive. The ECB are funding salaries for both the Regional Directors and Coaches (UK Sport have an advert up at the moment which suggests the annual salary for those head coaches will be £60,000.) The players are all being paid to participate, and by October, 40 of them will be professionals (albeit likely not earning the PCA’s mandated minimum wage).

And of course there is the fact that – as Sunrisers coach Trevor Griffin put it when I spoke to him a couple of weeks ago – “If we go back to March, there was real concern that we wouldn’t see any cricket at all. It’s a real bonus.” Getting this competition off the ground is an impressive achievement in the middle of a global pandemic.

On the other hand, there remains some confusion as to what exactly – aside from a lot of money – is the difference between this and last year’s 8-team Division 1 County Championship. The Stars today batted at a run rate of just over 3 for much of their innings. Rowe aside, they displayed the kind of attritional cricket which we are well used to seeing in the women’s county game.

That is not unexpected – these are players who have grown up playing county, and all the money in the world will not enable them to dispense with old habits overnight. The new set-up is part of a long-term strategy to professionalise the women’s game, which is very welcome. On the other hand, today’s showing does rather beg the question: in exchange for ditching the commercial advantage which comes with being able to align teams with existing men’s county brands, what has women’s cricket gained?

There’s another question, too, which I don’t think anyone has quite figured out the answer to yet. With the England players catapulted in at the last minute, but with rumours also circulating that some players were not selected for the RHF Trophy because they are considered “too old” to fit the bill, what exactly is the purpose of this competition? Is it purely a development competition – designed for 16-year-olds like Alice Capsey to strut her stuff – or is it about pitting the best against the best, to create the kind of high-level cricket which both looks good on live streams and which will provide the stiff competition which the England players need, in order to thrive at international level?

The ECB’s answer to this, I am sure, would be that in non-COVID years it is The Hundred which will be the high-profile competition, the one with all the glitz and the one where players really hone their skills. Perhaps, going forward, the England players will play only a minor role in regionals. Except… do you win a World Cup if at domestic level you are only playing at a high level in a non-World Cup format? Can we really afford for regionals to become “just a development competition”, and dismissed as unimportant accordingly?

At Beckenham today it was Stars’ top-scorer Susie Rowe (38 off 44 balls) who exemplified the development-vs-elite dilemma. At 33 years old, the former England player is unlikely to want one of the new domestic contracts, even if one were offered to her: she has a very good, very secure teaching job where she oversees both hockey and cricket; jacking it in to accept a short-term, not very well-paid regional cricket contract is (you’d think) an unattractive option. She hardly has a place in a “development competition”.

Nonetheless, she lit up today’s match – and you can bet she is a great person to have around when you’re 16 years old, lacking in big-match experience, and need a word in your ear or a clap on your shoulder. In any case, why on earth should players like Rowe be excluded on the basis of age, denied the chance to carry on playing at the highest level they can for as long as they want to do so?

It’s a dilemma that was never quite resolved in the KSL – are we trying to develop the next generation of England players, or are we trying to put on the best display possible? – but with no overseas players in regionals, it seems all the more acute now. As the matches in the RHF unfold over the next few weeks, it will be interesting to see what answers – if any – emerge.