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.

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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…?

Women’s Ashes – Playing Jones In The Test Could EVEn Things Up

The fallout from England’s ODI Ashes whitewash is still ongoing – there are 30 comments (and counting!) below the line in our postmortem on the 3rd ODI – but England need to put the ODI series behind them and start to think about the Test.

The Ashes series is not actually lost yet – 8 points is the “magic number” for Australia to retain the trophy, and they only have 6 right now; but obviously the odds are stacked against England – they need to win the Test and all 3 T20s.

Being optimistic, England have a team that could win all 3 T20s – they won the T20 series in 2017, and they hold the World Record for the highest score in T20s between the top teams, having made 250-3 against South Africa at Taunton last summer. T20 is probably England’s best format at the moment, with batsmen like Danni Wyatt (one of only two women ever to have scored two international T20 centuries) and Tammy Beaumont ideally suited to the swashbuckling brand of cricket England like to play in the short game.

But the problem is that players – or more particularly, batsmen – ideally suited to T20 are almost by definition not suited to playing Test cricket, where you have to graft for your runs and build a score over hours not minutes. Perhaps more than anything in Test cricket, you have to put a high price on your wicket – something this current England team seem too-often incapable of doing.

So where can we turn?

The Women’s County Championship is not held in high esteem by England’s management, which is why they want to abolish it; but if County Championship cricket teaches you one thing, it is to put value on your wicket and grind-out an innings, and one of the more successful county batsmen over the past few years has been Eve Jones, first of Staffordshire and now of Lancashire.

There are other options of course – Sophia Dunkley or Bryony Smith, for instance – but they are both players more of a T20 mould, who have had the power-hitting mindset instilled into them by now.

Jones, however, is from a different era – dropped from the England pathway precisely because she was too “grafty” and wasn’t ever going to hit a T20 hundred off 50 balls – in other words, just what England need for the Test! Even if you were being extremely cynical, you’d have to say she can’t go any worse than most of England’s batting lineup has thus far in this series.

Is Jones One for the Future™? Not likely – she is nearly 27 and she’s never going to have an international “career”; but England have got a Test to win now and they need to find a bit of backbone from somewhere – Jones would be a gamble… but at 6-0 down we’re in gambling territory anyway – let’s give her a roll!

Women’s Ashes Preview – England Hope!

The last time England took to the field against Australia, at the Twenty20 World Cup final in Antigua, there was hope.

True, England’s path to the final hadn’t been entirely  smooth – they had lost to the West Indies in the groups stages, in front of a fiercely partisan local crowd in St Lucia; but then nor had Australia’s – they had been thrashed by India, limping to 119 all out, after Smriti and Harmanpreet had smashed their bowlers for 167.

England certainly didn’t underestimate the Australians in that final, but having beaten India by 8 wickets in the semis, there was hope that they could go all the way.

But it wasn’t to be.

Having won the toss, England chose to bat, but only Danni Wyatt and Heather Knight reached double-figures as they were bowled out for 105 in the final over. In reply, the Aussies took England’s star bowlers to pieces – Kirstie Gordon and Anya Shrubsole went for 10 an over – as the Southern Stars romped home by 8 wickets with 5 overs to spare.

So much for hope.

And yet this week in Leicester, as England and Australia rejoin their rivalry in the 1st ODI of the multi-format Women’s Ashes series, the hope is there again.

England have put together an undefeated run of 14 matches since February, and in that time have whitewashed a T20 series against India, and both ODI and T20 series against Sri Lanka and the West Indies. It is a winning stretch that has become so talismanic for England that they turned down the chance to give some of their newer players – the likes of Sophia Dunkley and Freya Davies – opportunities in the T20 series versus the Windies, leaving them sitting on the sidelines in favour of the tried and trusted old hands who will be on the teamsheet once again in Leicester.

So is the hope justified this time?

Perhaps, yes.

England are a better team than they looked in that final last November, where they collapsed with exhaustion after an intense 3 weeks of sweltering tournament cricket, on pitches that didn’t really help a side who like to play their shots.

And while the Australians may have already built the strong domestic structures that England can currently only aspire to, at the top level the current cohort of contracted players are just as fit and just as well-drilled as the Aussies.

The returns of Katherine Brunt and Sarah Taylor, who both missed the World T20, will also make a difference. Taylor might not be the run machine she once was, but even as she has slightly struggled to adapt her batting game to the “Bish Bash Bosh ” era we all now live in, she has taken her wicket keeping to another level, and you can’t underestimate the extent to which her presence standing up to the stumps closes down the batsmans options and niggles at their confidence.

Katherine Brunt is arguably even more important, bowling with economy in all formats, even when she doesn’t take wickets; and while her batting can’t 100% be relied on – she still fails more often than not – she can be a match-winner with the bat too, coming in at 6 or 7, to halt a collapse or to give them that extra push over the cliff that turns a “10” innings up to “11”.

England’s settled batting line-up – Jones, Beaumont, Taylor, Sciver and Knight – all assured of their places for the entire series, will be full of confidence, playing on familiar pitches that will give them “value for their shots”, as Mark Robinson likes to say.

It is important to acknowledge that this is hope, not expectation – Australia are the better side, albeit probably not “win every game” better, as Alyssa Healy didn’t quite actually say.

But still, it really is hope.

England v West Indies – Bryony Smith Offered The Candle For England

When Laura Marsh played her hundredth ODI this week at Worcester, and in doing so joined the elite club of 9 players to have passed that mark for England, the much-deserved congratulations were accompanied by hopes that there would be “many more”.

It was the right thing to say at the time, but the truth is that there won’t be many more – Marsh is 32 years old, and though doctors have performed minor miracles on her troublesome shoulder to keep it turning for this long, her career won’t go on for ever, because nobody’s ever does.

Marsh was rested for the final match of the series, and replaced in the XI by… well… that’s actually an interesting question!

As well as Marsh, England rested Katherine Brunt and Nat Sciver, bringing in Jenny Gunn, Fran Wilson and 21-year-old Bryony Smith for an ODI debut. So who replaced who? It isn’t really straightforward, and Mark Robinson probably wasn’t thinking “like for like” anyway, but if you say that batsman Wilson replaced mostly-batsman Sciver, and bowling allrounder Gunn replaced bowling-allrounder Brunt, that leaves Smith to replace Marsh.

And yet Smith has come to prominence in domestic cricket as a hard-hitting opening batsman – topping the Women’s County Championship Batting Rankings with 347 runs for Surrey this season; and while she does bowl tidily at county, she is often second or third change and doesn’t take a huge number of wickets.

Nonetheless, she came into the team on Thursday, didn’t bat, but bowled her full compliment of 8 rain-reduced overs, with a very nice economy rate of 2.5 – in other words, exactly what we would have expected Laura Marsh to do!

So it seems that Mark Robinson is (again) one step ahead of the rest of us in identifying a role for Smith that no one else foresaw – while we were all thinking “The Next Tammy Beaumont” he was thinking “The Next Laura Marsh” and it is a role she could be perfectly suited to, not least because there probably isn’t an opening for “The Next Tammy Beaumont” for several years!

Smith might not take millions of wickets, but that won’t be her job – it will be to dry-up the runs in the post-powerplay overs, which is where West Indies really lost it again yesterday (they were actually slightly ahead of England on runs at 10 overs) and smacking some sixes down the order at the death is just an added bonus.

This is the candle Mark Robinson has offered Bryony Smith – it is now up to her to seize it… and she has made a pretty good start.

OPINION: Reading The Runes On England’s Warm-Up Win In Sri Lanka

England began their tour of Sri Lanka with a comfortable win in a “jumpers for goalposts” warm-up match against a relatively inexperienced “Emerging” Sri Lanka team in Colombo.

England fielded 13 players, with most of the squad getting a run-out with either bat or ball. Lauren Winfield top-scored with 82 (retired) as England posted 319, before bowling the Sri Lankans out in exactly 40 overs, with Heather Knight taking 4-13.

Reading the runes on England’s selections, it looks like Amy Jones, who scored 56 (also retired) will continue to open the batting in the ODIs with Tammy Beaumont; with Lauren Winfield maybe coming in at 3 ahead of Heather Knight and Nat Sciver, as she did in the 3rd ODI in India.

Bowling-wise, although Katherine Brunt has travelled to Sri Lanka, she was originally planned to be rested for this tour, and she didn’t play in the warm-up. Instead, Freya Davies opened the bowling with Anya Shrubsole – Davies finishing with 1-16 from 6 overs.

Does this mean Davies is nailed-on for the ODIs? It would be a bold statement of faith from the coach… but that’s exactly the sort of thing Mark Robinson likes to do! (Remember Linsey Smith, Sophia Dunkley and Kirstie Gordon all making their debuts together at the World Twenty20?)

England’s bowling is obviously a bit injury-ravaged at the moment, with Georgia Elwiss and Sophie Ecclestone both having flown home and straight into rehab, so other options are obviously on the table, but it looks like Sophia Dunkley is not one of them – she didn’t bowl in the warm-up, and it seems like England see her as a pure batsman at the moment.

Danni Wyatt however, did send down some overs – they were rather expensive (going at 7.8, compared to Freya Davies’ 2.3) but England clearly do have her in mind as an option.