Women’s cricket is in fine shape but where are the game’s lost leaders?

Almost three decades ago, on 1 August 1993, a 17-year-old Claire Taylor made her way through the Grace Gates for the first time. That day, she watched an England team led by Karen Smithies defeat New Zealand by 67 runs in the Women’s World Cup final. The players wore skirts, they were all amateurs who had to take time off work to compete, and the idea of prize money was unthinkable.

Last week Taylor was back at Lord’s, now a proud MCC member, the chair of the MCC cricket committee, and with two World Cup winner’s medals in her trophy cabinet. As one of the panellists for a special event on “The Future of Women’s Cricket”, Taylor was in a unique position to reflect onhow much has changed in the women’s game in the short space of time since she retired from the international game in 2011.

Taylor’s sacrifices, playing at the back end of the amateur era, were perhaps bigger than most. In order to continue with cricket after university, she had to give up her lucrative graduate career as a management consultant, and return home to live with her parents. It is the kind of choice that is now – thankfully – a relic of a bygone age. Following the England and Wales Cricket Board’s introduction of 41 domestic professional contracts last December, Taylor’s fellow panellist Naomi Dattani (who may go on to represent England) is now able to proudly call herself a professional cricketer. “It was always seen as a hobby for us,” said Taylor, a former Wisden Cricketer of the Year. “The idea now that you can be paid to play cricket, and that is a real choice? That’s brilliant.”

Alongside Taylor and Dattani was Beth Barrett-Wild, head of the Hundred women’s competition, who spoke about the potential of the Hundred to “turbo-charge the profile of women’s cricket”, and “catapult it to a new and wider audience”. Every match of the competition (men’s and women’s) is set to be televised live by Sky or the BBC; a genuine attempt is being made to give the men’s and women’s teams equal prominence; and the £600,000 prize pot is being split equally between the competitions. Like it or loathe it, it would be hard to disagree with Barrett-Wild’s assessment that the tournament “has the potential to be game-changing for women’s cricket”.

Unprecedented visibility. Professional contracts. Equal prize money. The theme of the event last Thursday may have looked at the future of the women’s game, but the message seemed to be: women’s cricket’s present is pretty damn good, thanks very much.

Those watching were left waiting until almost the end of the hour-long panel to hear the caveat. (Experienced followers of the women’s game will tell you there is always a caveat.) In this instance the flipside was presented by the ECB’s managing director of women’s cricket, Clare Connor, who was chairing proceedings. She shared some damning statistics about the underrepresentation of women in senior decision-making roles in English cricket:

Across the first-class counties there isonly one female chief executive, and one female chair.

Only 15% of cricket board members in England and Wales are women.

Only 12% of cricket coaches currently operating in cricket in England and Wales are female.

Diplomatically, Connor failed to mention the ECB’s own board has eight men and four women – and only one of those 12 directors has a background in women’s cricket. But for the woman who in October 2021 will become the MCC’s first female president in its 233-year history, it is clearly a subject close to her heart.

Listening in, I found myself reflecting on the fact that were the panellists on Thursday to suddenly, in a Doctor Who-style twist, find themselves back in August 1993 – on that fateful day when Claire Taylor first went to Lord’s – Connor’s statistics would seem as alien as a Dalek. England’s 1993 World Cup-winning team was coached by a woman, Ruth Prideaux, and managed by a woman, Norma Izard. Those who organised the competition, a special subcommittee of the Women’s Cricket Association, were all women. And the WCA itself, the governing body of women’s cricket in England since its formation in 1926, was an all-female organisation, led by an all-female board.

Five years later, thanks to a government directive, the ECB took over the sport, the WCA dissolved itself, and the women who had run the sport for decades left their roles, replaced by men who had little or no knowledge of the women’s game.

It is this controversial period that is the subject of my research, which involves interviewing women from a number of sports who went through this same process in the 1990s – hockey, lacrosse, squash, football and athletics. Early results suggest the move towards “merged governance”, whereby the same organisation is tasked with running both men’s and women’s sport for the first time, became a trade-off. Since 1998, women’s cricket (along with many other women’s sports) has gained investment that it could previously have only dreamed of, paving the way for visibility, prize money and professional contracts. But the ECB’s takeover of women’s cricket also involved pushing a generation of female leaders, officials and coaches out of the game.

Twenty years down the line English cricket is finally realising those female voices should never have been lost. Better later than never, I guess.