Thursday, 18 September 2014

The way forward for Women's County Cricket

Another women's cricket season came to an end last weekend with the County Championship promotion and relegation play-offs. [I don't think we actually need/want play-offs, plus it wastes all this great playing time in September - extend the season and play more games! But heh!]

There was heartbreak again for Div 2's Somerset, denied promotion last year by the weather, and this year by Hurricane Shipman - Warwickshire's Helen Shipman that is, who decided to hit her first-ever century for Warwickshire, in only her third game of the season for them coming back after severe illness. She helped Warwickshire retain their position in Div1, with a last ball win, chasing down Somerset's 220.

In the Div2/3 play-off game Worcestershire retained their place in Div 2 beating the Netherlands by 38 runs in a very low-scoring and edgy game. In the Div 4 play-off Suffolk overcame Cornwall by 61 runs with Emma Elsom (52) starring with the bat, and Vicky Mitchell (3/20) and Sheldene Ford (3/18) starring with the ball.

So next year the leagues will look like this, with Divs 1 and 2 playing with a white ball :-

Div 1 - Berkshire, Kent, Lancashire, Middlesex, Notts, Surrey, Sussex, Warwickshire, Yorkshire

Div 2 - Devon, Durham, Essex, Ireland, Scotland, Somerset, Staffs, Wales, Worcestershire

Div 3 - Cheshire, Derbyshire, Hampshire, Herts, Leicestershire, Netherlands, Northants, Oxfordshire, Suffolk

But what about beyond 2015? There is an ECB Consultation Meeting on 29th September, although I am not clear quite who is being consulted. I think ultimately the ECB will be looking to follow the model currently being used by the Aussies, with a second tier of cricket played between far fewer semi-professional teams, funded by the ECB and sponsorship. The reason is that there is a huge void between the current 18 contracted England players and those immediately below them. Unlike the men's game there has never been a women's professional county circuit in which future England players could hone their skills while still getting some sort of remuneration. Establishing a contracted "elite" at the top of the game means that the ECB's next task is to create a second tier below them, who are rewarded for their efforts, with a view to creating the England contracted players of the future.

The current county championship system of three leagues of nine counties and two regional fourth divisions with another 10 counties in them, all partially funded by the ECB, does not lend itself to the creation of this small second tier. There are simply too many teams with too few players of a reasonable standard.

So what is the Aussie model? Rather than having 37 counties, as we have, they have just seven state teams - ACT, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia. That is it. In total 114 players are contracted to the state teams, including 15 who are current Southern Stars (Australia) contracted players (ie full-time international players). The other 99 players are paid between $2,500 - $7,500 (£1,400 - £4,000) per annum to train and play six weekends during the season (two T20s and a 50 over game each weekend). This is funded by $100,000 which is paid to each state by Cricket Australia every year. On top of this Cricket Australia also cover the state's travel and accommodation expenses for each away weekend (which are pretty substantial given the distances covered), so the players are not out of pocket.

On the recent release of their 2014/2015 fixtures CA stated that "The WNCL (Women's National Cricket League)....will continue to build its reputation as the leading domestic women’s competition in the world with a number of high quality international players taking part this coming season". Those players include our own Charlotte Edwards, Sarah Taylor, Heather Knight and Lauren Winfield, plus three New Zealanders.

So how could the ECB mimic/improve on this structure? The first move could be to reduce Division One of the County Championship to seven teams with funding from the ECB of around £50,000 per team. The county contracted players would be paid £2,000 - £4,000 to play for the county for the year. If Division Two was also reduced to seven teams with slightly less funding, 37 teams would be reduced to 14 (more akin to the men's 18). What of the players in the other 23 current county teams? As with the men they would be free to join Division One and Two teams, and those that could not would have to look to play their cricket in a week-in/week-out club structure, which should improve as a result of the influx of many decent players playing regularly every week.

My preference for the two new divisions would be that they play home and away fixtures throughout the season (ie twelve 50 over games). Running alongside this would be a separate T20 competition which could be played midweek evenings, if possible at small county grounds, eg Hove, Chelmsford, New Road, et al with a view to attracting paying punters. Here the women's game really does need the support of the men's county teams and their facilities.

This of course supposes that we are wedded to the county structure of cricket? A more radical solution perhaps would be to set up seven regional franchises - say South East, South, South West, South Midlands, North Midlands, North East, North West and to allocate 2/3 England players to each franchise; 2/3 Academy players to each franchise and to complete the squads with the best players from the junior county teams within those areas of the country. Given that many of the women's county teams are poorly treated by their male-orientated boards, perhaps now is the right time to really give this "breakaway structure" some serious consideration.

None of this would be without pain and suffering. Change is never a welcome thing. But the women's county game does have to change if the England Women's team are going to continue to flourish and the women's game in England and around the world is to continue to develop. Hopefully these are the sorts of discussions that will be taking place at the Consultation Meeting in 11 days time. Let's wait and see.............



  1. The primary concern has to be the professional v amateur split and how a player transitions from one to the other. The presence of contracts should, in theory, make the 18 players even more competent and therefore create a greater gap to those that are non-contracted. In practice the contracts have not been in place long enough to prove this and many of the contracted players were already devoting a significant amount to training.

    The county structure has worked in producing World Cup winning players although it’s right to question whether it’s appropriate for the new quasi-professional era.

    The communication side is a shambles and it takes dedication to know where matches are being played and when (and don't point me to the Play Cricket website which would have sent me to Wellsbourne for the Div 1 play-off). In-match scores are the reserve of the Twitter community with MD doing his best to re-tweet progress. The results are spasmodically available and sometimes only appear days later (particularly Notts home matches) - even the ECB website couldn't cobble together a report on the Div1 playoff. Small wonder only family and friends truck up to these matches.

    The credibility of the whole thing is undermined by the adhoc treatment of cancelled matches. This reached its bizarre nadir in Division 2 this year when Devon (3rd place) could have overtaken Somerset (and even Lancashire) if their cancelled matches had been played. The ECB Rules and Regs apparently promote the playing of cancelled matches but this doesn't translate into it actually happening. Perhaps the season requires slots to be set aside specifically for cancelled (well postponed) matches.

    One way to reduce though not eradicate the impact of weather is to play more matches. Currently the season is more or less blocked into county 50-over and then internationals. It’s not heresy to play county 50-over matches during the international season (Middlesex might really like this idea !). Sure those in the England squad would be unavailable but they would be replaced by players that wouldn't otherwise get into the county team, perhaps youngsters that would benefit from the opportunity. It would allow internationals on the recovery route from injury to get game time. In the last two seasons there have been 64 players reach Academy level or above and only 14 of these would be involved in a senior home-tour squad. Rugby Union play through internationals but has end of season play-offs to mitigate the impact on teams that loose many players to international squads - not that I like playoffs.

    Why there are an odd number of teams in Div1 is a mystery (other than the obvious one of sharing 27 teams across 3 divisions). 9 or 10 teams requires the same number of weekends to complete the matches so why not have 10. Promote Somerset. Ah, now Div2 is only 8 – promote Netherlands. Ah, now Div 3 is only 8 – so what ?

    Each county in Div 1 needs to pick on a home ground and stick with it as much as possible. Most men's counties tend to stick to one home ground. It would be great if, say in Div1, this could be a county level ground but cost may prevent this.

    Retaining county identity seems vital. The only way to create a smaller top level is too reduce the number of teams in the top division (not that I'm advocating this) rather than try to brew up some artificial teams. It’s incredibly difficulty to generate brand loyalty from scratch.

    T20 – weekday evenings at county grounds might have the same cost issues touched on above and presumably some cricketers at county level have jobs during the week. It would also have to be a worthy product, something even international teams have at times struggled to achieve. What do we do with county T20s – sorry, my wand snapped on the up stroke.

  2. Not convinced reform as radical as Martin suggests is really required. Are we actually behind Australia by that much at the moment? We won 3 of 7 international matches on Aussie soil, and the only place we really fall short is in T20, and I'm not sure that changing the county game will solve the problem of a lack of power hitters.
    Also don't see the problem with lots of county sides. After all the men's game has 38 counties in either the Championship or Minor Counties. Women cricketers who are serious about England just need to gravitate to the top divisions, just as you won't get in the England men's team by playing Minor Counties.
    The change I would make is to go back to smaller divisions playing home and away, although the ECB had their reasons for moving from 6 to 9 team divisions a few years ago, in fact I thought that was to help England?
    Re the Clanger's comments about number of games, no it's not heresy to play County Champs during women's internationals. The problem is that current ECB thinking is that women's cricket can only be played on Sundays (save for 2 days in July for T20). If this stance is maintained, then having more county games would mean clashes with women's club cricket. This would be impossible as many clubs at all levels struggle for full 11s, and some clubs are little more than county teams in disguise (eg Bath/Somerset, Clifton/Notts). The only way to play more games is to start playing on weekdays, but this needs a major culture change. It is what happens in men's cricket, where in my county of Cheshire the county 1stXI play Sunday-Tuesday 3 day games and the 2ndXI play 2 day weekday friendlies. So it's accepted in Cheshire that if you want to play county you need to take time off work, but will top women's county players be prepared to do the same?
    Re the publicity points, yes this is very poor, but how many of the women's counties actually have a dedicated Media Officer?