Passing The Test

Passing The Test
November 2010
Josh Burrows reports on the state of the women’s game in England and the constant challenges for recognition
Photograph: Tom Shaw/ Getty Images

In 2009 a rampant England women’s team won the World Cup, the World Twenty20 and retained the Ashes. It was a purple patch that turned them, briefly, into front-page news.

Led by Charlotte Edwards, who is one match away from equalling the record of Australia’s Karen Rolton as the most capped women’s ODI player, and spearheaded by Claire Taylor, Wisden’s first female cricketer of the year, the side was one of the strongest the game has seen. One year on the team is rebuilding for a winter Ashes series and the 2013 World Cup in India. The next stop is Sri Lanka in November.

But the players and staff want more than mere on-field success. They are seeking to develop a brand of cricket that challenges perceptions of the women’s game. “I think it’s always going to be tough to stay up at the level we were at in 2009,” says Edwards. “We have fallen below that over the last 12 months by resting players and maybe not always playing our strongest team. But we’re now picking from a much larger squad.”

The competition for places is something the more experienced heads are still getting used to. Isa Guha and Holly Colvin will miss the Sri Lanka tour because of university commitments. Katherine Brunt will stay at home on a fitness programme and Sarah Taylor is taking a break from the international game. Where once they would probably have walked back into the side, they now face a battle.

“I found I was a little more relaxed when there wasn’t competition,” Guha says with a smile. “If you know you’re constantly fighting for your place, you’re always on your toes and fighting to be that much better. That’s something that got to me a little bit last year.”

But for Danielle Wyatt, 19, one of the youngsters that have so impressed the captain, the tour is another huge opportunity. “I really can’t wait for Sri Lanka,” she says “With Holly Colvin not going, it’ll give me more of an opportunity to show everyone what I can do.”

Like most of the teenagers being introduced to the international game, Wyatt has spent the summer improving her game with the men’s 2nd XI at her club, Whitmore, the women at her county, Staffordshire, and the coaches and players at the national academy in Loughborough. Additionally, England women played and beat Bedford School, Denstone College and Staffordshire under-17s in the build-up to their victorious summer ODI series against New Zealand.

It is a development structure that the England coach, Mark Lane, is well satisfied with. “I think it’s important for them to play as much cricket as possible with boys,” he says. “Playing like blokes is something we’re trying to do more of. In old days the girls used to relay in the throws. Now they’re stronger, fitter, faster and they throw the ball in direct. Katherine Brunt bowls a really quick ball and she’ll bowl bouncers. It’s a different game now.”

But for all the improvements in the women’s game it remains hampered by an inability to retain talented players beyond their mid-20s because each player has to fit training around a regular job. For many of them Chance to shine coaching contracts have offered convenient and flexible employment. However, players who lose their form and drop out of the national squad often find it hard to break back in.

“It’s going to become a young ladies’ sport,” predicts Edwards. “If people fall out of the squad or miss out on a couple of tours, the determination to stay on and fight for their spot isn’t really there because the money isn’t there. We lose a lot of players as they’re getting to their peak because they fall out of form and have to go back to a day job.”

Losing talented players makes it difficult for the game to build a reputation as a competitive, spectator sport. Without a reputation the game finds it hard to make money and without money talent continues to drop out of the game.
An additional disappointment is the almost total lack of four-day cricket. At county level the women play a one-day Championship competition and a Twenty20 tournament. The January Ashes ‘series’ comprises three ODIs, five T20s and a single Test. It will be the first women’s Test anywhere since July 2009.

“One Test just doesn’t make sense. The Ashes means everything,” says the allrounder Jenny Gunn. But as Edwards laments, women’s Test cricket is simply not a draw. “We want to play more Tests,” she says. “But the way they market the game is through one-day and T20 cricket and we understand that.”

f England and Australia are to play only one Test, it is a very real possibility that women’s Test cricket could become extinct. That would be a huge shame, says Lane. “I can’t think of anything better than watching Edwards and Taylor stroking it around on a beautiful summer’s afternoon in August and then watching Brunt charge in with Colvin and [Laura] Marsh crafting spells.”

The women’s game continues to improve fast but the battle for recognition is also ongoing. Not that it bothers the players unduly. The team may be rebuilding but, whichever 11 cricketers take the field in Sri Lanka and then Australia, it will be a competitive, skilful and close-knit bunch.

“It is quite tough,” says Guha, “but we all do it because we love it and we have a real passion for it. I am happiest when I’m playing the game on the pitch with the rest of the girls.”

Josh Burrows is a freelance journalist

England skipper felled by throat ball

TWC editor John Stern lords it with the ladies

All I could see was unwanted headlines. Charlotte Edwards, England’s World Cup-winning captain, was on all fours in obvious pain a few overs into what was supposed to be a fun day on the Nursery Ground at Lord’s.
Edwards was keeping wicket to the legspin of Scyld Berry, the editor of Wisden, who had managed to squeeze one through the defences of Colin Ackehurst, TWC’s advertising sales manager. The fizzing ball clipped the top of the bails, ricocheted into Edwards’ throat and down she went.
From where I was standing at backward square-leg I didn’t initially see where she had been hit but had unpleasant visions of a Paul Downton-style bail in the eye. Thankfully there was no lasting damage though Edwards said her throat felt like she had tonsillitis for the rest of the day. “That’s the first throat ball I’ve ever bowled,” said Berry.
The point of all this flannelled foolery? A chance for TWC contributors, staff and clients to pit their skills against a dozen of England’s top female players. And what do Edwards and her colleagues get out of it other than a sore throat for their troubles? The chance to showcase their skills to some media types and generally press the flesh with a few industry movers and shakers. And in among all this jollity a few quid was raised for Chance to shine, the remarkable charity project now celebrating its fifth year of getting the game back into state schools.
So four teams were selected, all captained by a senior England woman: Lottie’s Lions (Edwards); Taylor’s Tigers (Claire Taylor); Jenny’s Jaguars (Jenny Gunn) and Lydia’s Leopards (Lydia Greenway). The winners, Taylor’s Tigers, walked off with the inaugural Wisden Cricketer Girl Power Challenge trophy.
It is a fact of life that the girls will be forever justifying their existence in a male context but events such as this do nothing but help their cause. Their batting and fielding are high-class and their competitive spirit should not be surprising, perhaps, but it is disarming to observe close up, especially in conditions that are essentially social.
“We just love playing cricket,” said Isa Guha, the seam bowler, which might sound like a statement of the bleedin’ obvious but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that some of her male counterparts in the fully professional game no longer share her sense of enjoyment. But for Guha, currently doing a PhD in neuroscience, and her team-mates, they are not in this for the money – if only. So if they did not love every second on and off the field there would be precious little point in doing it at all.
“It’s good to meet the faces behind the words,” said spinner Holly Colvin. “It makes you realise that they’re not that good at cricket!” That may be true, Holly, but the scorebook from the day did read: Colvin, bowled Stern.

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