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.............