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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OPINION: The Hundred – The Case For Equal Pay

Since the salary bands for The Hundred were announced recently, there’s been a lot of talk about the huge disparities between the money on offer for the women – which will range between £3,600 and £15,000 – and those for the men – minimum £30,000; maximum £125,000.

As a result, debates over “equal pay” have reared their head yet again, with some prominent voices reiterating their opposition to the concept.

This, though, is not about whether Heather Knight should be paid the same as Joe Root in her role as England captain. The Hundred is a different kettle of fish altogether – and there’s an excellent case to be made that this is a missed opportunity for the ECB to pay players in their new competition exactly the same. Here’s why:

1. The Hundred as a competition is predicated on equality between male and female cricketers. We’ve been told the whole way along that the reason to get behind it is that it is women’s cricket’s big opportunity to be seen as on a par with men’s cricket. “It enables us to send a very powerful message that we are putting men and women on the same playing field, in the same teams,” Clare Connor has said. Heather Knight, at the launch last week, said that: “Kids growing up will look at The Hundred and see men and women [on] level-pegging.” But what message does it send out to kids when they see that the women’s players are being paid 10 times less than the men’s players? Surely that defeats the whole purpose of the competition?

2. The launch of The Hundred is unique: from the outset, men and women are playing under the same brand names, with the same team names, kit, and sponsors. As we’ve been very pointedly told by the ECB, it’s “The Hundred”, not “the Men’s Hundred” and “the Women’s Hundred”. Surely, on that basis, everyone playing in the competition should have the opportunity to earn the same amount of money, whether they be male or female. Can you imagine the outcry, for example, if we learned that the mixed doubles champions at Wimbledon had to split the prize money on offer, with 90% going to the male player and 10% to the female player? It just wouldn’t make sense. These salary bands don’t either.

3. The normal argument against equal pay – that women don’t sell out stadiums in the way that men do – doesn’t apply here. We’ve no idea at this stage how many people will turn up to watch the men’s or women’s matches. For all we know, the women could attract bigger crowds – as it stands, it’s completely up in the air. (And given how much opposition there is to The Hundred from existing cricket fans, it’s surely not out of the question?!)

4. Another argument often used against equal pay is that men’s sport attracts more money from sponsors and more money from TV deals. Again, in this instance, that argument doesn’t apply. As the main sponsor, KP have paid for a package deal, to have their branding on the shirts of both the men and the women. Ditto the BBC, who have signed a broadcasting deal to cover the men’s and the women’s competitions. Given that the competition is being funded largely from these two sources, why should the men be able to automatically claim the lion’s share of the money?

5. Given that the squads will be made up of 15 players, at least one of the men in each team will probably end up not playing in any of the matches, but will still get paid £30,000 for the privilege. Incredibly, this means that some of the male players in the competition will be paid more to sit on their bums and do nothing for a month, than the women on the top salary bands – say someone like Ellyse Perry, who is likely to command the top women’s salary of £15,000 – will be paid to play in every match. Doesn’t sound massively fair when you put it like that, does it?

You don’t have to support equal pay in sport per se to see that The Hundred is an unusual case. On that basis, it does seem like this has been a missed opportunity for the ECB to demonstrate that their commitment to parity between the men’s and women’s Hundred teams is more than just rhetoric.

OPINION: The Hundred WILL Succeed

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tweets were tweeted:

And replies were replied:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best of her generation? Without a doubt!

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

OPINION: New Zealand Contracts In Perspective – An Important Starting Point

The announcement of a new framework for international and domestic contracts in New Zealand has been widely reported this week, and hailed as a big step forward for the women’s game there.

New Zealand Cricket has set aside $1.3m per year – about £750,000 – to pay players over the next 3 years, with the centrally contracted international squad earning a minimum of $44,000 (£23,000) per year, up to a maximum of around $80,000 (£43,000) per year for the top tier, including match fees.

This is significantly less than the top Australian or Indian internationals, but only slightly less than England, and considerably more than anywhere else – it establishes New Zealand firmly in the top 4 for internationals, and will doubtless serve to keep players in the game who might have otherwise started to look at their options.

Equally significantly, New Zealand have pledged to introduce paid central contracts for the first time for an additional 60-or-so domestic players competing in the T20 Super Smash and 50-over Hallyburton Johnstone competitions, which were previously 100% amateur.

While this undoubtedly moves New Zealand cricket a significant step forwards, there has been some confusion about quite how far.

Although these players will be “contracted” most of them will initially be earning only $3,000 per year – approximately £1,800. So while the fact that these agreements will be called “contracts” is exciting, they are actually only worth about half the amount that English domestic players can currently earn from the Kia Super League – and considerably less than even the lower-end numbers which have been rumoured for next year with the new Hundred and CoEs competitions in England.

So this is not professionalism or even semi-professionalism. As Suzie Bates put it in Cricket New Zealand’s press release, it is “[a] starting point for the eventual semi-professionalisation of the women’s domestic game in New Zealand.” [Emphasis ours.]

It is still an important step though – women’s cricket needs New Zealand to be competitive and to to give us stars like Suzie Bates and Sophie Devine – and this new announcement hopefully means that they will continue to do so in the years to come.

OPINION: To Win Or To Entertain? The Contradiction At The Heart Of Pro Sport

There has been a lot said and written about Australia’s “bore-draw” game-plan during the Women’s Ashes Test – were they just being “professional”? Or should they have tried to contrive an exciting result for the benefit of the fans?

Aussie coach Matthew Mott was vigorous in his defence, telling the media post-match “We’re not a charity!” and @aotearoaxi spoke for many when he said on Twitter: “[Mott] coaches an elite team who is judged on results – anything else is a bonus.”

But even Mott implicitly accepted the dilemma, admitting: “There’s always a responsibility to the fans.”

It is certainly easy to argue for a “result” from the press gallery or commentary box; and it isn’t just English “sour grapes” either – several Australians, including Mary Konstantopoulos and Brittany Carter from the Ladies Who Legspin podcast, and The Guardian’s Geoff Lemon – expressed disappointment that the Aussies didn’t put on more of a show.

Some of the disappointment in the press box stems from the disconnect between words and actions. After the 3rd ODI, I asked Ellyse Perry about the Southern Stars tactics going into the Test, and she had this to say (emphasis ours):

“These Test matches come around once every couple of years and I think it is a big responsibility for all players to play it in a really great spirit and in a way that is entertaining because I’d love to play more of them, and I think there is scope to play this kind of format series against some of the other top teams in the world, but to do that we’ve got to do the Test match justice.”

And that is not what we really saw, certainly in the final sessions of the last day.

On the other hand, say Meg Lanning had declared at a point where England would have “gone for it” and lost? She’d have been torn to pieces by the media and the fans – at least the Australian ones – who would have given her little credit for “doing the Test match justice”.

It comes down to the contradiction at the heart of professional sport – the job of the players and the coaches is to win; but the job of the sport as a whole is to entertain – if no fans turn on their TVs or come through the gates, ultimately the sport dies and the players and coaches don’t get paid!

The sporting reality is that players are paid to win; but the commercial reality is that if they don’t also entertain, they don’t get paid at all – and this may be what we have seen this summer, with slightly disappointing crowds across the Ashes series so far.

Its not Matthew Mott’s job (or Meg Lanning or Ellyse Perry’s) to solve this dilemma; but as a sport, it is a concern.

Perhaps an exciting T20 series can liven things up again, and a forgettable Test can be forgotten? T20 is certainly the format which takes “entertainment” most to heart – it will be really interesting to see if that happens… and how the fans respond.

Women’s County Cricket Day: A Reflection

The man behind Women’s County Cricket Day, Richard Clark, reflects on the campaign.

I never expected Women’s County Cricket Day to have a massive impact. I hoped maybe it would encourage a few cricket lovers to take an interest in the women’s game, perhaps even watch a match or two, but there was no serious expectation beyond that.

If it has achieved anything then that is largely down to the support of Syd and Raf, plus Martin Davies at Women’s Cricket Blog and Don Miles at Women’s Cricket on the Net, who threw themselves into it wholeheartedly.

Support came most notably too from Sam Morshead at the Cricketer, Dan Norcross of TMS and Tanya Aldred at the Guardian, as well as others. Thank you, folks.

And thank you to the people in the Shires – far, far too many to list individually – for embracing this idiot who you’d never heard of but who for some unfathomable reason wanted to champion your game. It’s been a pleasure getting to know so many of you just a little.

My original intention at the start of the season was to just support Worcestershire as often as I could, but as the campaign gathered pace and support began coming in from all parts, I realised that was too narrow – I was hearing from all these people involved in the game and I wanted to find out more.

So I’ve found myself at North Maidenhead, at the picturesque Milford Hall CC, at Brixworth, with its intriguing ‘barn conversion-style’ pavilion, briefly on familiar territory at Kidderminster and New Road, and finally in the heart of the Quantocks at Wombat.

I’ve seen Staffordshire beat Derbyshire in a match that ebbed and flowed every bit as much as last Sunday’s, I’ve watched Northamptonshire romp to a 9-wicket win over the Netherlands in a winner-takes-all title decider, and I’ve bitten my nails as Worcestershire pulled off a tense run-chase against Somerset (who will probably be glad to see the back of me!) I could not have enjoyed myself more!

I’ve seen stars of the game dominate (Heather Knight’s century against Worcs was as outstanding as it was inevitable) and unheralded youngsters perform exceptionally under pressure (take a bow, Meg Austin of Staffs).

Not necessarily by design, I’ve watched all my cricket in the lower Divisions. Perhaps there’s a bit less pressure there, a little less intensity, away from the top level where those battling to gain, or hold onto, international recognition are fighting to get themselves to the head of the queue under more severe scrutiny. Perhaps that makes it more FUN? And that’s not to detract or demean in any way – there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the game!

Meeting and speaking to people from all over the country, the same recurring themes have come up time and again.

Commitment, passion and a sense of community.

The time and energy players, coaches, parents and oft-maligned administrators put into the game – without hope, expectation or desire for any kind of “reward” beyond doing representing their county and doing something they love – is incalculable and invaluable.

I could give you so many examples – Hayley Brown at Northants speaking about how much it meant to the team to play at County HQ the week before and the team’s sense of achievement in winning five out of five in Division 3B, or Lisa Scott at Northumberland of her pride in her daughter Lizzie’s five-wicket haul against Scotland are just two that spring to mind.

I sat quietly and listened to a conversation between a group of parents at Wombat on Sunday. Only after a good few minutes did I twig that they weren’t all on the same side, but they were talking about shared experiences and friendships both as parents themselves, and from their daughters’ point of view. It hadn’t occurred to me before this season the extent to which the game – particularly perhaps in the lower divisions – is one big family.

But you know all this.

And now it’s over? My over-riding feeling is that we are losing something which matters to a lot of people. Something which counts. Something which may be a bit off the beaten track, and which some might have you believe “doesn’t contribute to the pathway”, as the modern jargon has it, but which has value all the same. I think that’s a pity, I think it’s unnecessary, and I think it’s avoidable.

But what do I know…?