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Three-match ODI limit is obstructing the game’s evolution

(Photo: Shaun Botterill / Getty Images)

By Alison Mitchell

With the dust having settled on the most watched Women’s World Cup the world had ever seen, international women’s cricket returned this week with the start of the qualifying period for the next World Cup, to be held in New Zealand in 2021. However, while Twenty20 cricket is being heavily encouraged by the ICC, teams are not being allowed to schedule more than three ODIs per tour, as part of the ICC Women’s Championship.

It seems curious, that, at a time when Women’s cricket has never enjoyed such profile, the number of 50-over matches is being curtailed. Admittedly there is a World T20 on the horizon (next Autumn in Barbados), for which teams will want to prepare, but the message I kept hearing from players during the recent World Cup was that they needed to be playing more cricket – and the emphasis was on the longer form in order to really develop skills and ensure plenty of players got opportunities. How many times, for example, does the number six batter really get a long innings in a T20?

This next, two-year cycle of One Day International matches – the ICC Women’s Championship – starts with West Indies taking on Sri Lanka in Trinidad, before Australia host England in a multi-format Ashes series, of which the three ODIs count towards World Cup qualification. India, whose run to the World Cup final generated such excitement in their home country, aren’t in action again until they play South Africa in February – more than six months since the World Cup ended.

The Championship as a whole, involves all eight top women’s sides – England, Australia, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka and West Indies, playing each other home and away in series of three ODIs, with two points for a win and one for a tie or no result. New Zealand will gain direct qualification to the World Cup as hosts, and they’ll be joined by the three best other teams in the Championship’s league table at the end of the qualifying period. The remaining teams will get a second bite at the cherry by dropping into the qualifying tournament (details of which have not yet been announced).

Previously, it was left up to boards to determine whether they would play just the three, qualifying ODIs, or whether they would schedule in more 50-over games, as part of their tour, with only the first three counting towards the Championship table.

My understanding is that the ICC felt that the ‘non-qualifying’ matches were becoming devalued by virtue of the fact they didn’t ‘count’ for anything. Perhaps, by not permitting additional ODIs on these tours, we might see ‘break away’ stand-alone tours, or perhaps countries turning to those outside of the top eight for more ODI matches. This would, on the face of it, be beneficial for the smaller nations, but, would it be beneficial for smaller nations to be beaten soundly by top teams such as Australia or England? It certainly moves away from the idea of ‘the best against the best,’ which is how the Women’s Championship is billed.

It is a difficult balancing act, with the game still in evolutionary phase. The Women’s Championship has been an excellent innovation, giving structure and meaning to Women’s ODI cricket in a way the men’s game doesn’t have so clearly. The amount of cricket does, eventually, need to grow. Saying that, perhaps flexibility is the women’s game’s best friend at the moment, at a time when opportunities and possibilities have never been greater.

Winner: Graham Radford with Mike Gatting (photo: Getty Images)

Last week I was privileged to host the ECB’s NatWest OSCAs – the Outstanding Services to Cricket Awards. The three-course lunch and awards ceremony honours the thousands of cricket lovers across England and Wales, who voluntarily and tirelessly give their time and effort to local leagues and clubs.

The years of dedication offered by some people is truly astounding. The Lifetime Achievement Award was won by Graham Radford, a man who has spent 41 consecutive years on the Committee of Felbridge Cricket Club in Sussex. During that time he oversaw a merger with Sunnyside Cricket Club (which saw the club become Felbridge and Sunnyside CC), he has undertaken numerous roles on the committee, helped to build partnerships with local schools, secured funding for club facilities and represented the club on the Sussex Cricket Board.

The award could equally have gone to Terry Birt, of Worcester Nomads CC, a fellow nominee, who has clocked up over 60 years playing, coaching and organising recreational cricket in Worcestershire. The third name on the shortlist was Mike Winter, who has served Brettenham Park CC in Suffolk since 1971. He has been on the committee from almost the day he joined, and while his playing days may be behind him, he is still, at the age of 75, heavily involved off the field, including being club fixture secretary.

The camaraderie in the room was remarkable that day at Lord’s. Cricket is never more so a family, than when people from all parts of the country and from all different clubs come together. Whatever age or background, the game is always the common denominator.

Speaking of age, I was particularly delighted to meet Albert Pagan, from the North Yorkshire and South Durham League, who won the Umpires and Scorers Award. Albert is still umpiring at the age of 88 (I initially told the room he was 86, and he delighted in correcting me). After the lunch Albert asked if we could get up on stage and have a selfie.  I noticed he was wearing a hearing aid, which must help him hear the snicks out in the middle – although I resisted the temptation to ask if he ever turned it down, depending on who was batting or bowling! As well as coming across as a man who has tremendous spirit, I learnt that Albert played a significant part in having the definition of wides clarified in the Laws of the game, particularly as regards a batsman changing their stance.

At the other end of the age spectrum, there were OSCAs for Young Coach of the Year and Young Volunteer of the Year. After the awards ended I got chatting to the Young Coach of the Year, Abi Bates, who juggles life as a maths teacher at Shuttleworth College, with being a lead coach in the Junior Academy section at Leyland CC in Lancashire. She also works part time coaching Lancashire Cricket Board Under 11 girls and the regional girls’ Under 11 North team. And there I was thinking I had a busy life!

At such an occasion it is easy to talk about ‘dedication’ and ‘effort’ but it is done through love. Cricket has drawn them in. It is a sport that keeps giving; through, learning, friendship, adventure and misadventure. We are all, to an extent, a parent to the sport, keeping a guiding hand on the tiller. We are lucky to be part of such a family.

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