IN ADVERSITY, WOMEN’S GAME IS STILL GROWING

@collinsadam

Big support: The T20 Final at the MCG in March drew a huge crowd and full TV coverage

Where the ECB can be proud of their efforts, the mission for professionalism continues

8 6,174. Through the worst of cricket’s strangest summer, it was a number that risked haunting those who have committed so much to the growth of the women’s game. The attendance at the MCG for the T20 Final, held on the eighth of March – days before the planet changed irrevocably – wasn’t just about breaking records. It was also, alongside television viewer numbers, the last bit of proof needed to show that the enterprise could seriously turn a buck.

When, within weeks, the discussion morphed into what the women’s game might have to sacrifice in the short term jarred but wasn’t unreasonable. That it was Clare Connor, the indefatigable boss of the women’s game in England, delivering the message meant it carried credibility. But her sombre April words came with a kicker: “no one would be more disappointed” than her if Heather Knight’s team didn’t play again in 2020. If it felt like a mission statement, realised over the last week in Derby when they finally took the field against the West Indies after India then South Africa pulled out of scheduled tours.

To get these games on was a mighty effort, the entire series drummed up and announced within a fortnight. A charter flight from the Caribbean was planned and paid for by the ECB, reflective of just one of the costs in a Covid-safe world. “We just couldn’t have a situation where we didn’t play any international women’s cricket,” said Tom Harrison, chief executive of the organisation. His offsider on Coronavirus, the ever-reliable Steve Elworthy, made sure of it. In many respects, it was the most remarkable triumph of the strangest summer.

Along the way, the series included a game of women’s cricket televised on the BBC for the first time since the 1993 World Cup, the combined viewing figures for last Saturday’s T20 topping one million. It was another handy reminder, some 200- days after that MCG final, that if you televise it, they will watch. The story was much the same in Australia as they hosted New Zealand this week, their second clash watched by an audience of 300,000.

Where the ECB can be equally proud of their efforts is for work done at the level below as the mission for professionalism continues. Instead of parking plans to issue retainers for a sunnier summer, 25 deals were issued – with more to come soon. Similarly, contracts were rolled over for players signed doesn’t prevail. “I do think that’s an area of focus for the world game. The ECB will be a leading voice in saying work needs to be done here to ensure the women’s game continues to be funded and the funding generated from the women’s game goes into the development of the women’s game, which is not always the case.” As for Knight, a vocal and articulate leader, she also wants the big wigs in Dubai to answer the call, insisting that they “step up” to underpin the health of the women’s game across the board. Crisis and opportunity. As hackneyed as it is to observe, the two have a symbiotic relationship. The ECB have shown how to get this right in tough circumstances. It’s the job now of those pulling the strings at the ICC to do their bit to ensure that the competitive balance is not marginalised further. A passing thought in closing: perhaps the ICC should fund a minimum salary for all women in international ranks? It wouldn’t be a panacea, but it would be a start. in The Hundred with no pay cuts coming their way. As the coffers were taking a pounding, this was tantamount to a ring-fencing effort – meaningful acknowledgement that investment in women’s cricket has to be there in good times and bad.

While the international summer for England’s women remained in the air, the inaugural regional 50-over competition took place in an abridged form. It was an important signal at an important time: if the men were getting the Bob Willis Trophy, there would be an equivalent. “I’m probably even more proud about the Rachael Heyhoe-Flint Trophy and the implementation of a professional set-up,” Harrison continued.

“We feel like there’s momentum building up and we feel like 2020, when it could have been a year of oblivion for women’s cricket, has been a net positive. It’s something we are very proud of.”

That enthusiasm extended to the grassroots. It was impossible to log onto social media during September without seeing a mention of Women’s Cricket Month. Taken as a whole the message was clear: none of this was an afterthought and Covid wouldn’t get in the way. Helpful too is the ascension of Ian Watmore, the new ECB chair, who has a background from his days in football having served on the FA’s women’s committee. as he recalled with pride this week.

There is a but, unfortunately. What about everywhere else? There’s no denying the multispeed economy when it comes to women’s cricket around the world, and it’s a problem. While at the start of the year in Australia the discussion was what a joy it was that Pakistan were gaining ground on the bigger nations after a period of solid support, now what? It is “highly likely,” according to Connor, that some nations will cut their cloth. With her ICC hat on, where she’s also the global supremo of women’s cricket, there is worry.

It’s doubly concerning when considering why the global decision- making body postponed 2021’s Women’s World Cup, originally slated for February in New Zealand. Their rationale was that some nations wouldn’t get enough cricket in between now and then, complicating qualification. But are they going to play between now and 2022? How will less profitable boards, now up against it financially, find the money? England and Australia will be fine – both slated to visit New Zealand this winter – but how about in Asia? What would India’s women, the beaten finalists in March? This is where it differs from men’s cricket.

“There is a danger that women’s cricket’s development becomes isolated in the strongest countries,” as Harrison elaborated, hinting that there needs to be an intervention from the ICC to make sure this doesn’t prevail. “I do think that’s an area of focus for the world game. The ECB will be a leading voice in saying work needs to be done here to ensure the women’s game continues to be funded and the funding generated from the women’s game goes into the development of the women’s game, which is not always the case.” As for Knight, a vocal and articulate leader, she also wants the big wigs in Dubai to answer the call, insisting that they “step up” to underpin the health of the women’s game across the board.

Crisis and opportunity. As hackneyed as it is to observe, the two have a symbiotic relationship. The ECB have shown how to get this right in tough circumstances. It’s the job now of those pulling the strings at the ICC to do their bit to ensure that the competitive balance is not marginalised further. A passing thought in closing: perhaps the ICC should fund a minimum salary for all women in international ranks? It wouldn’t be a panacea, but it would be a start.

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