VIDEO: The CRICKETher Vodcast – Social Isolation Edition – Episode 16

Raf and Syd discuss: the resumption of recreational cricket; will the Regional Centres of Excellence play any cricket this season?; India coming to England to play an international series in September; and the results of our poll – should the Women’s Ashes be extended?

Plus… we’re at The Oval this week celebrating the return of club cricket – but why?

INTERVIEW: South East Regional Director Richard Bedbrook – “We’ve got to make this domestic structure as good as it possibly can be”

So far, Richard Bedbrook’s new job hasn’t exactly gone to plan. Appointed as Regional Director of Women’s Cricket for the new London & the South East Region back in March, he had been in role less than a month before full lockdown was imposed across the UK. By now he should have been overseeing a full squad of players, and a full complement of coaching & support staff on top of that.

Instead, recruitment is on hold, and much uncertainty lies ahead for the 8 new Regions, which had been due to supersede women’s county cricket as the pinnacle of the domestic player pathway in England from 2020 onwards. No one knows for sure whether the September inter-regional fixtures will go ahead as planned, or what the route back to training and squad selection looks like from here.

Nonetheless, for Bedbrook – who has been head coach of Surrey’s county side since 2017, and seen first-hand the struggles which county players face when trying to juggle cricket with work and study – the overwhelming feeling remains one of excitement in being involved in a new era for the women’s game in England.

“The level of the game’s got to be taken forwards,” he says. “We don’t want that jump for players from domestic cricket into the internationals to be still too far apart. We’ve got to make this domestic structure as good as it possibly can be.”

Despite the delay to the 40 full-time professional domestic contracts, which were originally due to begin in April, there has been one important development: the ECB last week confirmed the allocation of 20 place-holder “retainer” contracts, split between the 8 regions. These represent the first step towards domestic professionalism in England. Representing London & the South East in the list are Tash Farrant, Alice Davidson-Richards, Sophia Dunkley and Bryony Smith (the latter three are all current holders of England “Rookie” contracts).

Bedbrook, who was in charge of the selection process, describes them as “the standout four players from our region”:

“Tash [Farrant] is a Kent girl at heart. When we initially chatted and there was a desire for her to come back this way,” (she has lived in Loughborough for the past 5 years), “it was a no brainer then that she’d be part of that group.”

“Alice [Davidson-Richards] and Bryony [Smith], being home grown girls from their respective two counties and on the rookie scheme at the moment, those players were nailed on as first choice because of that reason. They’ve both got ambitions to progress out of that Rookie system into the England setup.”

“There’s been a relationship between Surrey and Sophia [Dunkley] for a couple of years through the KSL. We’ve got to know each other as coach and player, and then when she joined Surrey this year, it was a fairly obvious question to ask, would she be interested in coming to this region? Again, it’s another player in the Rookie system who’s got big England ambitions.”

While the official line from the ECB was that retainers should be allocated on the basis of future potential to play for England, the Regional Directors have clearly been given the scope to mould the core of their new squads according to their own preference. Bedbrook is clear how he sees his role:

“We’re having to work through that right from the outset, what is the aim of this regional programme? And I think probably one of the bigger drivers is the player development aspect. The winning of the competition is actually probably a secondary aim behind that.”

One of the difficulties going forward will be juggling the needs of the professionals in the squad with those of their teammates, who will remain largely amateur, though they will have the capacity to earn match fees of circa £200 for each regional fixture they are selected for. Bedbrook acknowledges this will be a challenge, but argues that the new professional domestic contracts will play a positive role in increasing the drive and motivation of players to showcase their skills in the domestic set-up.

“The players who aren’t professionals are going to want one of those [paid] spots,” he says. “Offering them the ability to train as much as they can, within the programmes that we can set up, will clearly show those that are massively keen to make the next step, out of that amateur status into semi professional / professional.”

“Those players are going to have to really, really take a step forwards with their outlook to cricket, their outlook to their own training. Because when you’ve got players such as these four [Farrant, ADR, Smith and Dunkley] who have got high standards, who have got ambition to be better, they don’t want to be held back by others.”

He is also keen to emphasise that the 5 professional contracts per region are only the first step on a path to full domestic professionalism: “I think we’re going to be a little bit led by by how the programme itself can develop in time – i.e. how long are we only going to have five professionals within each region? When potentially is the stage when it can increase?”

He emphasises, too, that in this new era for the women’s game, his role is not only to support those with England ambitions. “It’s really important for us to set our stall out – we want to help players make the next step up, realise the ambitions that they might have, which might be to play for England, but equally it might be to be a professional cricketer for as long as they can.”

Last week the London & South East Region announced that their team name would be the “South East Stars”, a clear carry-over from the KSL, confirming CRICKETher’s theory that the regional sides represent the KSL Mark Two. The decision, says Bedbrook (who coached Surrey Stars in all 4 seasons of the KSL), was made back in January by a joint Surrey-Kent Working Group, who felt it was right to “keep that brand going”.

“I think there’s elements to it clearly that are going to have been ear marked in the KSL,” he adds. “But I think the biggest link from the visibility of the KSL will be to The Hundred – that’s going to be a game changer for women’s cricket.”

Is the main marketing focus going to be on The Hundred, rather than promoting the regional Centres of Excellence, in that case? “Primarily at the moment the marketing is being pushed into The Hundred. But we clearly want to have people coming to watch [the regional competition], and we clearly want to make it visible where we can”, says Bedbrook.

“Ultimately, there is still that strap line of, ‘you need to see it to be it’. And that’s hugely relevant for the women’s game at this point still. We’ve obviously seen some massive strides taken over the last few years, not just with our domestic competition, but obviously the KSL. And then clearly, we’ve just had the Women’s World Cup, which put it into a new realm. And that’s why it’s so disappointing that this pandemic’s come at the worst possible time, I think.”

“But that’s not to say that that momentum will be lost – that momentum’s just paused. And we’ve got to make sure that we do make these players on the call now visible to young girls in the region and nationally. We want to make these four, but all the other players involved, as visible to as many people as possible.”

Now all they need is the chance to get out there on the field and play some cricket.

INTERVIEW: Tash Farrant – I’ve Still Got England Aspirations

Speaking for the first time as a South East Stars player, Tash Farrant has told CRICKETher that her sights are set on an England comeback, 18 months after she was unceremoniously dropped from the squad by then-coach Mark Robinson.

Farrant, who was unveiled last week in the first tranche of what will eventually be 40 new domestic professional contracts in England, was appearing alongside fellow Stars signings Sophia Dunkley, Alice Davidson-Richards and Bryony Smith, and newly appointed Regional Director Richard Bedbrook, who told us that inking-in the former England player, currently living in Loughborough, was an easy decision to make:

“Tash is a Kent girl at heart, and when we initially chatted there was a desire for her to come back this way, so it was a no-brainer then that she’d be part of the group.”

For Farrant, losing her England contract at the start of 2019 was a bitter blow that came somewhat out of the blue: “When I got let go I wasn’t really expecting it, so for the last year and a half it has been tough.” There were even thoughts of packing it all in: “I potentially wanted to [give up], because if you get let go from the England setup, you’re living the best life, you’re contracted, you’re stable, but as soon as you lose it, there’s nothing to fall back on.”

But fortunately for everyone, those thoughts were short-lived: “I quickly switched out of that. For me, I just love the game – I would play in the back garden!”

Working with a new bowling coach – Scott Boswell, formerly of Lancashire and Leicestershire – has been a big positive for Farrant:

“I feel like I’ve got a new sense of my cricket life – I’ve been working at Trent College with Scott, who I cannot praise highly enough. We’ve been going back to the basics, and looking at some points of my action – it’s quite mundane stuff, but I’ve worked really hard, so hopefully we can get some games and I can get out there playing again with the girls, which would be amazing”.

Meanwhile Farrant’s new boss Bedbrook, who was formerly head coach of Surrey Stars in the KSL, is keen to support the ambitions of his players as far as they want to take them: “We want to help players make the next step up and realise the ambitions that they might have, which might be to play for England, but equally it might be to be a professional cricketer for as long as they can.”

For Farrant, the former is clearly very much on her mind, but she remains grounded about it: “I definitely have aspirations to get back into the England squad, so hopefully if we do get back out there at the back end of the summer, I can get out there and show what I can do. If it will happen, it will happen; but if not, then I’m happy to be a professional cricketer in the domestic game.”

NEWS: Harrison Throws Doubt On Elite Regional Cricket This Season

Less than a week after the confirmation of regional retainers for 20 new domestic professional cricketers in England, ECB Chief Executive Tom Harrison has cast doubts upon whether the ECB’s plans to go ahead with the regional “Centres of Excellence” competition this season can proceed.

Announcing the rescheduled start of the men’s domestic season on August 1st, Harrison had the following to say about the women’s game:

“Our strong preference is that the women’s new elite domestic structure starts this summer and we will work hard to ensure that happens.”

But… there was a but:

“For this to be achieved, brand new infrastructure still needs to be rolled-out, alongside imperatives we need in place when playing competitive cricket during a pandemic.”

“Our first choice remains to do everything we can to start this year and build on the fantastic momentum in the women’s game. In the event that proves impossible, we will explore other options for play to enable our women’s players to enjoy competitive domestic cricket in 2020.”

Those other options may well ironically be local county competitions, of exactly the sort the ECB tried to discourage the counties from organising, following the disbanding of the Women’s County Championship.

“Planning for the return of the women’s domestic game remains ongoing, but our commitment to women’s domestic cricket is unwavering and we look forward to sharing further news shortly.”

Hopefully we’ll get some answers soon.

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.

NEWS: 20 Players Awarded Regional Retainers

The ECB have announced the 20 players who have been awarded regional “retainers” ahead of the 40 domestic contracts which will now kick in later in the year.

The recruitment of the 20 players – who will be the first ever domestic female professionals in England, earning £1000 a month – has been driven by the Regional Directors of Women’s Cricket, with selections made on the basis of likelihood of representing England in the near future.

While Kathryn and Sarah Bryce are currently Scotland players, this suggests that either or both might hope to one day follow Kirstie Gordon in qualifying for England. Additionally, Beth Langston, Alex Hartley and Tash Farrant – who all previously represented England – are clearly still in contention for future selection.

The 5 holders of England “Rookie” contracts have also been allocated to regions but will remain on their England contracts until the 40 full-time contracts begin later in the year.

The 25 players allocated to a particular region are as follows:

North East:

  • Hollie Armitage
  • Beth Langston
  • Linsey Smith (EW Rookie)

North West:

  • Georgie Boyce
  • Alex Hartley
  • Emma Lamb (EW Rookie)
  • Ellie Threlkeld

West Midlands:

  • Eve Jones
  • Marie Kelly
  • Issy Wong

East Midlands:

  • Kathryn Bryce
  • Sarah Bryce

South West and Wales:

  • Dani Gibson
  • Sophie Luff
  • Fi Morris

South Central:

  • Georgia Adams
  • Tara Norris
  • Paige Scholfield

London and South East:

  • Alice Davidson-Richards (EW Rookie)
  • Sophia Dunkley (EW Rookie)
  • Tash Farrant
  • Bryony Smith (EW Rookie)

London and East:

  • Amara Carr
  • Naomi Dattani
  • Cordelia Griffith

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.