No-one can deny that women's cricket has come a long way in the last few years, and by "a long way" I mean from a true minority sport for women to a sport that now attracts 60,000 women to play it every week and where those at the top can genuinely call themselves "professionals". A great deal of that development in the game can be put down to the work of Clare Connor, the Head of Women's Cricket at the ECB for the last seven years, and the huge injection of cash that has come from the ECB themselves. She is a massive supporter of England Women's cricket and works tirelessly for the sport she so clearly loves.
But there is always more to do, and the growing number of women's cricket fans always want more, so I took the opportunity at the Test Match at Wormsley to have a chat with Clare about what the future may hold and how the women's game can develop further. We covered a range of topics and here is what she had to say.
Earlier in the year a company called 14 Degrees announced that they were trying to put together a two week T20 tournament featuring all the top women players in the world, akin to a cut-down version of the IPL. The players, who had been promised sums of up to £20,000 for their efforts, were naturally excited at the prospect. However the ECB and Cricket Australia seem to have kiboshed the whole idea when they stated that they would not support the competition. So where are we now?
CC "I think we have shut the door on it if it is only going to be a privately run tournament, because the powers that be at Cricket Australia and ECB jointly won't condone privately run cricket. Some of the privately run stuff in the past has set some rather strong alarm bells (ringing) for certain people.
I think there is a strong feeling from Australia and England that such a tournament is worth considering, once we have really established the ICC Women's Championship, which has been the priority for the last 12 to 24 months, but only if it was run by probably England or Australia. We want everything to be for the good of the game. We want the money to go where the money is most needed.
There are concerns around corruption approaches now; other regulatory stuff; medical support; players actually being paid. A huge amount of effort has gone into integrating women's cricket into the ICC, which I would argue has been a huge benefit to the top eight and the developing nations in terms of how women's cricket is run and developed and in terms of what the future looks like for women's cricket. And the joint World Twenty Twenty has been a big part of that in terms of profile and opportunity, and it is felt that, at the moment, we are not quite ready for another Twenty Twenty operation or competition. That is not to say that we would feel the same in 12 or 24 months."
Is there really a future for Test cricket in the women's game?
CC "There is no doubt that it is hanging by a thread. Its difficult to see a future for Test cricket. I would love to combine a multi-format series with the three ODIs for the Women's Championship, and that is what we tried to do with India for this summer. For whatever reasons India didn't want that schedule, which is why we have got South Africa coming over as a separate competition to play those three Twenty Twenties.
It is really hard to justify why we are going to continue to play Test cricket I think. The reason we came up with the multi-format Ashes series is because Cricket Australia didn't want to play more than one Test. We wanted three; we were prepared to play two, Australia didn't want to play more than one.
I would love to see every one of at least the top five or six playing a Test as part of a multi-format series, which also included the three Women's Championship ODIs. The sad reality is that New Zealand do not want to play any Test cricket. They have not played a Test since 2004. The ECB would like to play more Test cricket (as part of a multi-format competition). I think it could be commercially viable (if it was part of the multi-format series). That really did capture the imagination last summer of the public and the media."
In May the ECB announced that 18 England players were being given contracts. It transpired that there were three levels of contract - tiers 1, 2 and 3. Much was made in the media of the fact that the girls were now "full-time professional cricketers", but is this actually the case? First of all how long are the current contracts?
CC "The new contracts will begin 1st October 2015, so the current contracts are 16 months. We won't take a player off a contract during that time, but we can add players if we want".
Can you see any way that the gap between the contracted players and those immediately below, who have no income from cricket, can be closed?
CC "Yes but probably not drastically. It might be that we can secure extra budget to have maybe, in the next couple of years, 50% of the Academy on some sort of contract. Our ability at the moment to extend that type of budget or give bigger financial payments or incentives to counties - we are some way from that".
And is the tier system here to stay?
CC "I think we have got to be open to reviewing it. It may be that it is tweaked a little bit. I can't see it changing drastically. We were able to increase the tier 3 contract to nearer the tier 2 contract. There is a bigger gulf between tier 1 and tier 2".
Is tier 3 a liveable wage?
CC "Nearly I'd say. By the time you have added in player appearance fees and other bits and pieces that the players can earn, then yes".
Many have been calling for sometime for the County Championship to be white ball and for there to be more games. What are the ECB's plans?
CC "2015 will be white ball cricket, but probably not for every single county team. Certainly for the top two divisions".
So that would include coloured clothing, white ball - extra funding from the ECB for that?
CC "Yes. And in 2016 more significant changes I would envisage. We have a consultation starting with counties on 29th September and that will be chaired by someone independent. I don't want to say too much, but I think we have got to get to a point by 2016, really, where the top-flight of women's county cricket is more top-flight, more high profile, more of the best playing the best more often, with more ECB investment, whilst recognising that we also need to invest heavily in certain areas of club cricket and developing counties".
So where does Super 3s fit into that?
CC "That is part of it. We need to use Super 2s, 3s or 4s as best we can for the talented players. It is tricky to work out what that looks like with young players with exams, players having to be monitored for workloads, players with injuries".
Do you think you get anything out of the Super 3s competition?
CC "Not as much as we would like. That will be looked at closely as well for next year, and of course we can make whatever changes we want as that is ours, to work out what the right format for that looks like".
Ashes Series in 2015
The Ashes Series next year will be the same multi-format series with 1 Test (possibly worth only 4 points and not 6); three ODIs and three T20s.
CC "The three ODIs will be part of the ICC Women's Championship. I don't know if that is complicated? I don't think it is. Those three ODIs are the Women's Championship games with their own points. The good news is that next summer we won't clash with the men's game".
And the Ashes Test will be at Wormsley?
CC "No almost certainly not. We would like it to be at Lords, which would be historic. It would be the first Women's Test at Lords. Lords are great supporters and enthusiastic about doing it. We will know hopefully in the next few weeks. Fingers crossed we can make it happen there."
Thanks to Clare for taking the time to talk with me so frankly.