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Bowled over: Sarah Taylor on the professionalism of women’s cricket

Credit: Bodleian Library's "Romance of Alexander"c. 1340

On a typical, somewhat average rainy Wednesday in February last year, a couple of rather notable things happened.

In the House of Commons a buzz of agreement from MPs saw them vote in favour of the European Union Bill – giving Theresa May the power to trigger Article 50 and kick-start Brexit.

Some five or so miles down the road from Westminster, at Lords, the home of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), 18 England central contracts came into effect beginning two more years of professionalism within the women’s England cricket team. These new agreements offered an increase in the value of the contracts plus, for the first time, they were offered to the cricketers for two years. Two more years not out.

While one of these events marked the beginnings of a somewhat turbulent array of affairs – both domestically and internationally, the other marked an important moment for England, for women and indeed for sport.

February 1 became the first time 18 women had been employed full-time by the ECB for two year’s running, and surely cemented the future of continued professionalism for the international side.

Rather like going out to bat after tea, the pace had been set but the ECB needed to continue delivering this standard year after year, and the England team over by over for this precedent to truly stick.

The ECB has certainly shown its dedication to the women’s team – and its individual cricketers.

Not only did they fund world-class wicket keeper, Sarah Taylor, through treatment for an anxiety condition, and protect her contract while she took time out of the game, they also re-signed her last year. This surely could be something cricket legend and advocate for the advancement of women’s cricket, the late Rachel Heyhoe Flint, might have approved of.

Speaking to the Emily Victoria for themixedzone.com, Taylor was lucky enough, she said, to have had private schooling which is what enabled her to take up cricket in the first place. That coupled with her families’ support for her success and achievement started her on the road to professional cricket. However, like many other cricketing pioneers before her, the challenge of juggling bills, work, family-life and the pressures of international cricket pushed the boundaries. She said:

“We were training two or three days a week, which if you then try and do that part time, you can’t. A lot of the girls were struggling to keep jobs. In the end, a lot of people ended up going back to uni in order to have that freedom to play cricket again, which is great but a massive life-choice really. Instead of having an income, you’ve then got to find a job in a few years to pay it off.”

After hanging up their cricket whites, the women (unlike professional men) could not go home satisfied after a day’s work – they often then had to then go to work. This problem has been seen by many a cricketer over the several hundred years women have been playing, and previous success by the England team did not spark help from the ECB and its funding partners.

 

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Not even in 1993 when England rejoiced as the women lifted the World Cup on home soil for the first time did the ECB step in. Even then, while being expected to behave like professional sportspeople while juggling their unpaid training with the demands of family-life and full-time jobs could the athletes rely on cricket to be their full-time employment. In fact, the women’s team were not even a part of the ECB by that point. Meanwhile, the men were being paid to play for their country.

Although Taylor is realistic about the gender pay gap, she is just relieved to be able to get on and play now:

“The fact we’re professional now means all those worries are gone. You’re earning a decent living. We’re able to get mortgages – something as simple as that we couldn’t get before because our contracts didn’t allow us to. It’s just nice to have a normal life instead of always worrying what you’re going to do with your life in order to play cricket. It’s now the complete opposite.

“You can now just focus all your energy on cricket because our life’s taken care of really.

“Honestly, I think I was earning like £600 a month just to play cricket and you can’t live on that.”

Taylor went on to point out the fact people working at somewhere like an Asda or another similar place would likely earn more than this per month. The pressures of playing professional, international cricket with low income and dealing with an anxiety condition did, at times, make Taylor consider if all the effort was worth it. Of course, she decided it was, because her love for the game always won.

“I think I probably went through a year of frustration and ended up taking a year out. There was a lot of frustration in myself actually. We train if not more than the men – they were obviously touring a bit more than we were at the time but we were training just as hard, doing all the hours under the sun.

“We were almost sacrificing more, because we weren’t earning all that money. There wasn’t that safety net underneath us so it was actually quite frustrating at the time.”

 

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In 1993, Sarah Potter, who played for England between 1984 and 1987 and then wrote for The Times newspaper, called for change. She said in The Times: “the sport [cricket] in England staggers along in unnoticed crisis.” Her words were then correct but are now part of history. The game has changed: the addition of new leagues, more international tours and the professional contracts are proof.

Perhaps what influenced this change came in three different yet parallel aspects of the game: the growing standard of cricket being played, the scheduling of women’s cricket games before the men’s Twenty20 games, and the sudden influx of televised women’s cricket by broadcaster, Sky Sports. Taylor believes it was both the media coverage and the standard of cricket coming out of the nets which led to the drawing-up of contracts:

“Someone had to make the move at some point, and I’m not too sure [what came first]. They [Sky Sports] used to cover maybe one or two games in the summer – we were kind of in the pipeline. Then I think T20 massively kicked-off and we were able to play before the men.” Taylor continued:

“All of a sudden they [Sky Sports] wanted to cover all our games, and I think they realised that actually they were getting the viewing figures, and people were watching it. They were good games of cricket. I think our standard had to go high in order to get more from Sky. It was kind of a balancing act – probably a bit of both.

“It worked out brilliantly for us, and hopefully for them.”

Despite this inaugural time for women’s cricket, the ECB have only managed to award 18 England central contracts, with spin bowler Rebecca Grundy missing out this time round. One exciting change this time, though, saw the introduction of the ‘rookie’ contract with Beth Langston, who plays for Yorkshire and Loughborough Lightning, becoming the first recipient.

 

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When the contracts were announced England Women’s Head Coach, Mark Robinson, said: “[Beth] really showed during the tour to Sri Lanka that she has the attitude, commitment and skill to be successful at an international level.”

So, in essence, the ECB are branching out of the top-level and trying to support those who are up-and-coming or could add something to the international side in time. Yet England still need to put in some hard-yards before it can compete with Australia, who are paving the way for women’s domestic cricket.

In November last year Richard Bedbrook made national headlines after being appointed Surrey women’s first full-time coach. A far cry from appointing women cricketers full time, while over in Australia, it really is a different ball-game. Taylor needed some time to think when asked how easy it was from grass-roots to top-tier cricket for any girl aspiring to be the next wicket keeper extraordinaire:

“I think it’s a tough situation. I think Australia have led the way in that their domestic side is now professional – I think especially in Sydney. I’m not too sure of anywhere else. I think we’re a long way off that – like miles away.”

Taylor explains how tough it is to find the time to play cricket while needing to earn a living, which is one stumbling block. Especially now the game is growing, there is a need to commit more time to training in order to reach the high standards now expected:

“The standards like the fitness testing you’ve got to keep up [are time consuming], whereas that wasn’t around a few years ago, so I guess in a way they’re asking more but still giving us the same. Domestic cricket has a long way to go.”

The trouble with grass-roots can be traced back to the same-old problem facing a lot of women in sport. The accessibility to it; the chance to play it, the chance to even try it.

Schools in urban areas don’t have fields, boundaries, nets. They have courts inside and out. Cricket is not widely played amongst girls in Physical Education or offered as an extra curricular activity – especially in cities.  Also, the kit is plastic, so how would a bowler gage the weight of the ball or a naturally talented spinner see the effects of their skills when only working with a hard, level surface? How does a batter feel their way with the different angles of the bat if its plastic? How does a wicket keeper learn if they are continuously catching the rebound from the same-old surface?

 

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Along with others on the England team, Taylor funded her cricket career, pre-professionalism, through working with the charity Chance to Shine, who are addressing these sorts of issues. Having come from grass-roots herself and seeing the challenges from different areas of the country she goes on to say:

“I’m not angry with where the grass roots level is especially when Chance to Shine are fantastic.

“If you have a look at the future, and the future of women’s sport, I reckon all state schools should play cricket.

“You look at the sports the boys are playing and they’re all sports that lead to a professional career: your football, your rugby. All of that, and you think: ‘why aren’t girls doing the same?’

“So because cricket is a professional sport, I think all schools should play it. I think if you talk to a couple of the girls, they literally just play cricket because their dad’s played cricket or their brothers played cricket – they’ve not actually gone through school.

“I know my sister’s boss is fighting for his daughter’s school to play cricket. You need people like that. You need people to turn around and ask: ‘where is the future of some of these children?’

“Then maybe the level or standard of cricket will go higher at grass roots quite quickly, so then it will justify maybe pumping a little bit more money into domestic cricket.”

In order for cricket to really change for women and for girls, it will take time and proactive fathers, mothers, governor’s of school boards and other members of communities across the country to speak up.

The game is thought to have been played by women as far back as the medieval ages. There is a painting from that time which shows a cricket scene where a nun is holding a ball apparently about to bowl it to a monk.

 

Credit the Bodleian Library

Between then and now, there is evidence the game was once professional before. Women’s cricket was hugely popular in the 17 hundreds. Then in 1890 two Balham-based teams known as the Original English Lady Cricketers (OELC) toured the country playing exhibition matches to crowds of over 15000.

The first game played at Headingly (Yorkshire’s county ground and Test match venue) is thought to have been between the OELC’s ‘red’ and ‘blue’ teams. Crowds loved watching women play then, and broadcast viewing figures say they do now. Unfortunately, back in the 18th Century, the culture of the day deemed it unfashionable for women to play cricket.

Despite the demise of the professional game during the Industrial Revolution which followed, cricket remained popular among many women even when they had to play in skirts. With the now forward-thinking society that is Western culture, Taylor thinks it’s unlikely the progress made thus far in women’s cricket will backtrack:

“I can’t see it going backwards – there’s too much invested in it. There’s too much. We’re on an upward curve now but I don’t think we’ll ever go back down.”

Taylor avidly remembers the days when the challenge to play cricket affected her life choices but is already seeing a difference in those coming into the junior squad now. Laughing she said:

“There are people coming in now and moaning about something, and I’m like what are you doing? We used to wear skirts!

“There’s a lot taken for granted, and I think naturally so if you’re given a bit more [money] to do exactly the same job.”

 

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So with the new-found professionalism, the treadmill of professional cricket is starting to pick up. The pains of wearing skirts – the literal pains from burns acquired while diving for the ball and the emotional pain for who wanted to wear trousers, and the days of self-funding cricketing careers could soon be a thing of the past.

Since women’s cricket joined the ECB in 1998 and saw talent coming though the doors, such as the likes of Claire Taylor, Katherine Brunt and Isa Guha, the  England team have proved again and again their tactical class.

They won the Ashes after a 42-year drought in 2005, (Claire) Taylor made it onto the Wisden’s Cricketer of the Year list as the first women to do so, followed by a host of others over the years, in 2009 the England team retained the Ashes and won both the ODI and T20 World Cup’s.

Since the new central contracts were awarded, England won the World Cup at home against India in a thrilling final watched by over 100 million viewers worldwide.

The Queen recognised current Captain, Heather Knight, for her services in the sport with an OBE and her teammates, Tammy Beaumont and Anya Shrubsole were recognised with an MBE a piece.  Clare Connor, Director of England women’s cricket received CBE for her efforts in advancing the woman’s game too.

The current team has gone on to win the Sunday Times’ Sportswoman Vitality Team of the Year Award, the BBC Sports Personality Team of the Year Award and BT Women’s Sports Team of the Year Award amongst others, and just last week Anya Shrubsole became the first woman to be on the cover of the Wisden Almanack.

Cricket in England is an inspiration for the professionalism of women’s sports here, and continued support will keep momentum up for more change and even better standards across all sports.

Sarah Taylor is known by many as ‘good enough to play in the men’s game’, as she has done before. She is part of a new cricket movement. Any girl who dreams of the chance to hit that winning six, take a winning wicket or bowl out the likes of all-rounder Ellyse Perry in a deciding over, should have the chance to.

With the security professional cricket has to offer future generations, and the potential increase in talented women to choose from as a result, England just might have some of the most exciting games of cricket on the horizon.

Emily Victoria
A passionate, ambitious, team-playing journalist with an inquisitive mind, great nose for a story and keen interest in current affairs. Emily's obsession with sport began when she first watched AFC Bournemouth under manager Mel Machin, who assisted them in their 'Great Escape' from being relegated back to the third division. She loves most sport, with the exception of greyhound racing but would challenge someone passionate about the sport to change her mind. She has recently fallen in love with American Football and e-sports. Emily has already gained experience at HOT Radio (2011-2014), Sky Sports (July 2014), Dubai Eye (2015), Newsquest (July 2016) and Press Association (August 2016). While at HOT Radio, the producer saw a natural journalistic flare in Emily. This is where her journey into the industry began. She believes sport plays a hugely important role in society so feels privileged to work on the sporting front line.
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