OPINION: The Wisden Five – An Alternative View

By Richard Clark

Syd’s piece yesterday on the non-selection of a woman among Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Year for 2021 raised some interesting points. However, I’m not entirely sure I agree with him.

It’s true that 2020 was a summer like no other, and that editor Lawrence Booth’s choices could quite reasonably have followed some ‘left-field’ thinking. In fact, even in normal circumstances, the selection of Georgia Adams (maybe less so Stafanie Taylor) might have been justifiable given her outstanding batting and leadership for Southern Vipers. Equally, though, I feel her non-selection can also be justified.

Like many, I’m sure, I felt that little pang of disappointment on Wednesday night, but this is not about Adams or Taylor. It’s about the wider question Syd asked yesterday – is the women’s game on a par with the men’s… or not?

The timeline of ‘The Five’ and Women’s cricket is an interesting one. No woman was chosen until 2009 (Claire Taylor) despite England having won World Cups in both 1973 and 1993. One wonders how long and hard the respective editors of the time pondered selections from those winning teams – I reckon I know exactly how long!

Bizarrely, from our vantage point now, even our 2009 Double World Champions saw nobody honoured – Taylor had been selected for her achievements in 2008.

Prior to the 2018 Almanack (that’s just three years ago!) only two women had EVER been chosen. Think about that for a moment – TWO! 2017 changed all that, of course.

The selection criteria have always been unique – influence on or excellence in the previous English summer, the fact that you can only be chosen once, and that it is in the editor’s gift. There is no other award in cricket – possibly in any sport – quite like it. Its mystique is precisely therein – as a Worcestershire supporter (apologies for digressing into ‘The Other Game’ briefly!), my fascination with ‘The Five’ was cemented by the selection of Alan Richardson in 2012, but you can’t tell me he was quantifiably one of the five best players in England the previous year.

Richardson’s selection is interesting, though, in the context that it was purely related to domestic cricket. Jamie Porter, Simon Harmer, and now Darren Stevens, have been picked on similar grounds more recently. Women’s domestic cricket in this country, contrastingly, had virtually no public profile until the advent of the KSL in 2016, less than five years ago.

In that context, the suggestion of someone like Georgia Adams even as a potential recipient is a sign of huge strides. In the longer term I hope that more players from the domestic game can force their way into the conversation, and onto the final list. Is this to say we should be grateful for what we get? No, but it is to emphasise the huge differences in profile historically between the men’s and women’s games. And although Wisden has been a very positive influence in shifting those sands, the differences – whilst shrinking – undoubtedly remain.

Despite the selection of women becoming a regular occurrence in recent years, I’m not so sure that this sets – or should set – an unbreakable precedent. The notion that there has to be a woman each year feels awkward. What if nobody genuinely merits the accolade, and the editor is left scrambling around for a name – any name – to fill the blank space?

Similarly, how would we have felt had Booth only been ‘allowed’ to pick one woman from England’s 2017 World Cup winning team? Three felt right, of course it did – anybody reading this probably wouldn’t have quibbled at all five – but being limited to just one?

Nor am I convinced by the idea of a separate ‘Women’s Five’. My own personal view is that anyone being chosen now is up there at the peak of the game, rather than being dismissed or ignored by many as a level (or more) below because they were ‘only’ on the women’s list. Let the dinosaurs rage, let the debate rumble, but at least let’s have that debate and use it as a tool to keep pushing.

I want any woman chosen to be there for absolutely the right reasons, rather than having the ‘token woman’ asterisk beside her name. And to repeat, this is not about Georgia Adams, Stafanie Taylor, or anybody else from the 2020 season.

If that means there isn’t one then so be it, and conversely should it mean all five are women, so be that too. 2022 – Ecclestone, Goswami, Jones, Levick & Raj – you read it here first!

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Follow Richard Clark on Twitter @glassboy68

OPINION: The Under-19 World Cup Should Not Be An Under-19 World Cup

The ICC have reaffirmed their commitment to holding an Under-19 Women’s World Cup, with the tournament now rescheduled from its original window at the tail-end of 2021, to January 2023.

As is always the case, you can argue that it should have been done sooner – the first men’s edition was held in 1988, and it has been a biennial feature of the calendar since 1998 – but we are where we are, and the important thing now is that it is being done!

With a firm(ish) date now agreed, thoughts immediately turned to who might play, with Indian journalist Snehal Pradhan tweeting:

Having Shafali on the team would clearly put India among the favourites to reach the final, alongside Australia, who will be able to field a squad full of seasoned WBBL pros, who will obviously be odds-on to win the tournament.

But we also need to remember that this is supposed to be a “development” competition. By January 2023, Shafali will likely have 50 caps, and be as automatic a pick in India’s full ODI team as she is currently in the T20 format, whence all of her 22 caps to date have come. She doesn’t need “developing” now… let alone in 18 months time!

The tournament regulations have yet to be firmed up, but in my view the “Under-19” label should be just that – a label,  not a law. The tournament should exclude anyone who has a full international cap regardless of age, and also allow space for a limited number of players over the age of 19, with perhaps one wildcard pick up to 21 and another up to 23.

It could then play out similarly to last year’s Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy in England, where the unavailability of the England players for most of the tournament actually created the most exciting and competitive domestic season in recent memory.

If the Under-19 World Cup is serious about being a “development” competition, then that is what it needs to be… even if that makes it not technically an “Under 19” World Cup.

REVIEW: The Record – History Written By The Winners

The Record – a two-part documentary mini-series, now available on Amazon Prime – tells the story of the 2020 Women’s T20 World Cup from inside the Australian camp.

In terms of the level of access the filmmakers got, The Record isn’t quite unprecedented – the team which made Beyond the Boundary about the 2019 Women’s Ashes tour got a similar inside track into the locker room, and in some ways made better use of it. The Record is relentlessly positive – it’s all team songs and patriotic pep-talks; and there’s no equivalent of the eye-opening footage from Beyond the Boundary of Meg Lanning metaphorically throwing her toys around the Loughborough dressing room after being bowled by Freya Davies in a warm-up!

Where The Record wins out though is in the use of a series of startlingly honest post-tournament interviews with some of the key figures involved, including Mathew Mott, Meg Lanning and Alyssa Healy. Not only are these totally uncensored, with enough f-bombs to make an NWA album blush; but they border in several cases on ‘saying the quiet part out loud’ in a way which is not entirely flattering.

Healy for example admits to having “blatantly lied” to the press about the pressure the team were under; whilst Lanning and Mott both acknowledge their attempt to lean on the match referee as he was making his decision as to whether Australia’s crucial rain-affected semi-final would go ahead, with Australia set to be knocked out if the game had been abandoned.

Whilst The Record to a certain extent treats all this as larks, the filmmakers must also have been well aware of the other sides of these coins – journalists will watch this, as will ICC match referees, and they might not go so easy on the Aussies in future, knowing what they do now. Mott and Healy et al may find they have become the footballer who goes down too easily, and then sees the referee shrugging when she really is fouled right in front of the goal!

Perhaps the oddest part of the whole film is the way it ultimately falls flat having to admit that the tournament technically failed to break the eponymous ‘record’ for attendance at a women’s sporting event, coming in a few thousand short of the 90,000 who attended the 1999 women’s football World Cup final at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, USA. While we’d actually agree with Nick Hockley, who closes the show arguing that it didn’t really matter in the greater scheme of things, the program has just spent the last 2 hours telling us it did, including footage of the very same Mr Hockley on the day of the final checking the numbers on his phone every 15 minutes.

The lack of budget also starts to become apparent in the closing sections – they obviously only licensed a certain amount of footage of actual play, leading to over-use of Ken Burns-affected still photos to illustrate key moments in the final; and Katy Perry’s performance is overdubbed with “generic bombastic pop”, even as the Aussies are reminiscing about singing Firework on stage with the superstar, presumably because they couldn’t afford a license for the actual song!

If this is “history” it is definitely history written by the winners – Australia’s distinguished victories are accompanied with stirring classical symphonics; their tragic losses with sad piano melodies. Australia’s annihilation of Bangladesh is shown entirely without the context of it being a match played between the number 1 side in the world and a team of million-to-one-shot outsiders – it is a glorious win, and that’s that!

So unsurprisingly the degree to which you actually “enjoy” The Record may be strongly correlated with the degree to which you hold an Australian passport! Nonetheless, if you’ve got Amazon Prime it’s still probably the best thing you can do with a couple of hours this weekend, while you wait for the real cricket to start up again soon.

OPINION: Bouchier Ban Is A Failure Of The System

The news that Maia Bouchier has been suspended from bowling for an illegal action is a devastating blow for a player who opened the batting and the bowling for Hampshire in the final season of the County Championship last summer. Although she didn’t bowl much in the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy, and had a good season coming in at 3 for the Southern Vipers, scoring 214 runs at an average of 31, her future England claims were considerably bolstered by her allrounder status, which now looks to be in jeopardy unless she can make a substantial correction to her action.

The ECB’s official press release accompanying the announcement reads somewhat sternly:

“The 21-year-old has been advised to undergo remedial work on her bowing action before requesting a re-assessment. Bouchier will remain ineligible to bowl in ECB competitions until she is able to pass an independent re-assessment of her bowling action.”

This puts all the responsibility on the player, but the truth is more concerning. This hasn’t come out of nowhere – Bouchier didn’t wander in to a dressing room in 2020 having spent 21 years in the desert! She’s been on the county scene since she was 14, and has been part of the England Academy setup for over five years, so the real question is how on earth did things get to this stage?

Were her coaches not aware that there was an issue? Did it not occur to someone in the Academy at Loughborough, with all that money and technology at their disposal, that there was potentially a problem which needed fixing years ago?

What’s the point in investing tens of thousands of pounds in a player’s future, as England’s Academy programme has in Bouchier over the years, if they can’t spot and remediate a technical issue like this well before it gets anywhere near an independent assessment panel?

In the space of less than a month, Maia Bouchier has seen the highs and lows of being a professional athlete – from seeing her name in lights in the RHF Trophy, to seeing her name in headlines that read like a rap sheet.

But Maia Bouchier hasn’t failed – the system has failed her, and it needs to take a long hard look at itself while it undergoes remedial work before requesting reassessment.

OPINION: Connor & Morgan Firsts Must Not Be Lasts

In the words of our old friend Mike Selvey, it’s “been a good couple of days for women at Lord’s.” First Clare Connor was named as the next president of the MCC – the first woman in the club’s 200-year history to be so venerated; and then Beth Morgan became the first woman in 150 years to be voted an Honorary Life Vice-President of Middlesex County Cricket Club.

Both selections are welcome and deserved – Clare Connor, former England captain, now Managing Director of Women’s Cricket at the ECB; and Beth Morgan – World Cup winner and the only player (Middlesex or otherwise) to have featured in every season of the Women’s County Championship.

But following these appointments, what’s important now is that these firsts are not also lasts. It would be right for a man to follow Connor as president of the MCC, but after that the club must not then use Connor’s term as an excuse to say: “You’ve had your turn – now back to the men for the next 223 years!” There are plenty of deserving women out there  – let’s make sure the next next MCC president is a Claire or a Mel… not another Colin!

It’s going to be harder for Middlesex though, because the best female players won’t be playing for them any more – they will be playing for the London Somethings or the Eastern Somethingelses – teams that there are no guarantees will still exist in 20 years time, let alone going-on 200.

And sure, the players for the Somethings and the Somethingelses will get paid – probably more in a season than Beth Morgan did in her entire career – but they won’t have that history behind them, or the pride to wear a shirt that generations have before.

The recognition of Morgan and Connor, as well as Surrey and Kent’s recent efforts to acknowledge the histories of their great women players of the past by handing out belated, and in some cases even posthumous, county caps, should feel like the start of something.

It’s important to make sure it’s not the end too.

OPINION: Multi-Day Domestic Cricket In England? Yes We Can!

After Lisa Sthalekar raised the possibility of bringing multi-day cricket back to the Australian domestic calendar, there has been some chat on social media about whether we could do the same in England, via the new Centres of Excellence which are hopefully set to take off later this summer… the “C” word permitting!

Unfortunately, it’s probably not realistic for the CoEs to play multi-day cricket – for the foreseeable future they will continue to be dependent on semi-professionals, who will make up 2/3 of their squads and who will need to maintain day jobs for the 10 months a year they aren’t playing in The Hundred.

But over the 8 CoE “franchises” we will nonetheless have 40 full-time professionals who won’t be playing for England, and for whom there would be time in the calendar to play multi-day cricket during the weeks of May, June and September.

We’ve got the players… we’ve got the time… we just haven’t got the teams!

So how about we make the teams, by bringing the 8 franchises together into two blocks for a North v South showdown, playing a series of three three-day matches, with full First Class status, across the summer?

It would help prepare the domestic players for playing Test cricket – it is completely ridiculous that new caps go into an Ashes Test having never played a “proper” First Class game (ie. not a “jumpers for goalposts” warm-up) in their lives.

It would also give those players who will never quite play for England something to aspire to be part of – a selection and representation opportunity below international level; and you never know – it might just uncover the odd diamond in the rough too.

It needn’t even cost much – we are already paying the players, and it doesn’t have to be played at Lords. [Although… now you mention it… Ed.]

If we want to make this happen, we can!

ECB… over to you.

OPINION: Women’s Cricket Risks Being Forgotten As Men’s Game Fights For Survival

Over on ESPNCricinfo, Senior correspondent George Dobell yesterday laid out the dilemmas facing the ECB board as they meet today with cricket facing an unprecedented crisis due to Coronavirus.

There are question marks over all aspects of the men’s game – Tests, ODIs, the County Championship, The Hundred, The Blast… the list goes on! Men’s cricket is in desperate, desperate trouble. Although it has emerged that the ECB has some insurance against the impact of a global pandemic, this is limited and unlikely to pay out for months, if at all – with the insurance industry itself staring down the barrel of a smoking volcano.

The men’s counties meanwhile are… to put it politely… absolutely stuffed. Most of them live year-to-year with few reserves, and none of them are in any position to meet their obligations without the ongoing income from a combination of TV, gate receipts and hospitality. If the season were to be totally cancelled, several would likely go bust, with the ECB looking on helplessly from the sidelines.

Given this situation, it is understandable that the priorities at the forefront of people’s minds are to try to get some men’s cricket – any men’s cricket – played this summer, with talk of “biosecure” internationals and domestic cricket being live-streamed from behind closed doors.

But while the men desperately debate science-fiction solutions, the women’s game risks being totally forgotten.

Yes, technically, The Hundred is women’s cricket; but while all the talk has been about male players potentially losing their lucrative big-money contracts, no one seems to have quite clocked that for the majority of female players, The Hundred was going to be their only source of cricketing income this year – without it, they will be back to their pre-KSL status – 100% amateur.

The problem is magnified when you remember that the Centres of Excellence, which were supposed to offer full-time professional domestic contracts to an additional 40 non-England players, have essentially been put “on hold”. Although no contracts had been signed, several players were led to believe they would be getting one of these deals, and so not unreasonably put off other life decisions on that understanding. While the long-term investment is secure, as far as the players are concerned they now look set to get a big, fat cheque for absolutely nothing until next year at least.

Even what remains of national level women’s county cricket – the T20 Cup – has been pretty much ignored. We assume it counts as “recreational” and has therefore been effectively cancelled on that basis, but as far as we are aware no one has officially come out on the record and said so, and the fixtures are still listed on Play Cricket, the competition’s official web site.

In the fight to keep the men’s game alive, the women’s game is clearly not the main priority for many of those who have any influence on this situation. But nonetheless we’re still here – we still exist, we still matter… and we won’t be forgotten.

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.