May 1, 2013

Give girls role models of their own

Women cricketers still grow up idolising male players, like they did back in the 1940s. It's time that changed

The only women regularly seen on cricket coverage are those who are paid to fawn over the performances of men while looking pretty © BCCI

We all have childhood heroes. Cricketers who we adore growing up. Mine (I'm sorry if this makes anyone feel old) was Nasser Hussain.

Usually we want to be our heroes. But I knew I'd never captain England. I wouldn't even carry the drinks. Girls didn't play cricket at my school, we watched the boys do it.

Until I went to Lord's in 2004. I watched Nasser play in his last Test. And then, during the lunch interval, I watched some ten-year-old girls run on and do a Kwik Cricket demonstration. I was 16, and these were the first girls I had ever seen on a Proper Cricket Pitch.

It was a revelation. I realised it could have been me.

Just recently, New Zealand Cricket awarded four of its female players semi-professional contracts. The four players involved - Suzie Bates, Sian Ruck, Sophie Devine, and Sara McGlashan - are, as well as being given the opportunity to devote more of their time to cricket, contracted to promote grassroots women's cricket in conjunction with provincial associations. The roles will involve a great deal of time spent coaching young girls, in an effort to bring new talent into the game.

These contracts are similar to the ones that seven England players have had since 2008, working as coaching ambassadors for the Cricket Foundation's "Chance to Shine" scheme, designed to bring cricket back into state schools. Cricket Australia also offers its female players contracts that stipulate that they will promote the game in conjunction with its "Females in Cricket" strategy, which aims to increase participation in the sport among five-to-12-year-olds.

Often these contracts are not particularly lucrative - this is quite possibly why Amy Satterthwaite and Nicola Browne turned down the ones they were offered by NZC. But for those who do take them, I'd guess it's not just about the money. When these women accept contracts, they become role models for all the girls they come into contact with. They become the cricketers the girls they coach want to grow up to be. It's important and exciting and potentially life changing.

Sometimes I wish I was ten again, at school, and being taught to bowl by Jenny Gunn. I could have done with a role model and a hero.

The earliest women cricketers managed without female role models because they had to. When no one has done it before, you don't really have a choice. Take four of the women who played in the Test in Melbourne in 1949 - only the fifth women's Test ever played in Australia. Mollie Dive was the Australia captain. Her hero was her dad, Percy, who played one game for New South Wales. Australia's star allrounder Betty Wilson had been encouraged to take up the game by her own father, a bootmaker, who made special lightweight boots for her to wear while playing; he was hers. Betty Snowball was England's wicketkeeper. She was coached by Learie Constantine as a schoolgirl; he was her hero. And Aline Brown was England's 12th man. She had grown up playing with her brother Freddie. He may have gone on to captain England to a 4-1 defeat in Australia two years later, but he was still her hero.

Charlotte Edwards admits she was not even aware of the existence of an England women's team while at school. Suzie Bates grew up with Chris Cairns as her idol. And Jodie Fields' hero was Michael Bevan

They wanted to change things. Very few girls' schools played cricket when the first national governing body of women's cricket, the British Women's Cricket Association (WCA), was set up in 1926, and one of its aims from the start was "to enable any woman or girl wishing to play cricket to do so". As Netta Rheinberg, England's manager on the 1948-49 tour of Australia, wrote in 1956, schoolgirls "constitute the Suez Canal for the WCA. They are our life-blood and vital to us if we are to survive." Even with the very limited resources at their disposal, schoolgirl coaching was always a priority. Many of the early England players - Snowball, Betty Birch, Mary Duggan, Cecilia Robinson, among others - were PE teachers, who spent their days inculcating a love of cricket into the girls they taught. The WCA's coaching rallies were the "Chance to Shine" equivalent of their day, and these women, the pioneers, were its ambassadors.

The Suez thing didn't work out so well. And the WCA tried, but many girls in England, and across the world, continued to grow up watching their brothers and fathers playing cricket, and never doing so themselves. The ECB estimated that by 1998, the year it took over responsibility for running the women's game, there were only 500,000 girls playing cricket in England, compared with 1.3 million boys. And the leaking of talent was still a major issue: only 4000 of those who played as girls continued with cricket as adults.

The ECB has worked to improve this over the last few years, as have other national cricket boards. But when it comes to female role models, progress is still slow. Charlotte Edwards, Chance to Shine ambassador since 2008, admits she was not even aware of the existence of an England women's team while at school. Suzie Bates, one of those just awarded a semi-professional contract, grew up with Chris Cairns as her idol. And Jodie Fields' hero was Michael Bevan. These are some of the best cricket players of their generation. Suddenly my admiration for Nasser doesn't feel so incongruous.

And those are just the countries where women's cricket is at its biggest and best supported. Do you think girls in India grow up hero-worshipping Mithali Raj? Not many of them do. Like their brothers, most of them adore Sachin and have done with it. Do girls in Pakistan grow up wanting to be Nida Dar, who hit 204 in 135 balls the other day for ZTBL in a domestic match? Nope. When they're batting, they're thinking of Inzamam (or, you know, maybe a slightly slender version of Inzamam).

The problem is that in an era when girls grow up with IPL cheerleaders as the only women regularly on their cricket screens, women whose role is to fawn over the achievements of the blokes and look pretty in the meantime, female role models are still few and far between. I want my daughters to grow up wielding the bat, not looking on from the sidelines, like I did.

The way I see it, the contracts offered by NZC, and by Chance to Shine, are part of a process whereby we admit that enough talent has been lost, that enough girls have grown up not knowing the names of their women cricketers, and that when I was 12 I should have wanted to be Karen Smithies or Clare Connor.

The hope is that in ten years' time we'll have female captains of England, New Zealand and Australia who were inspired into the game by one of those contracted players, who once showed up at their school and let them see that women can play for their country as well. The hope is for a process that shows all national cricket boards the value of promoting their women cricketers, giving them the same profile granted to their male counterparts, and giving girls, like their brothers, something to aspire to.

The difference between a hero and a role model is the difference between admiring the impossible, and believing that if you worked hard enough, one day you could do it too. Maybe, just maybe, the cricket-loving girls of tomorrow can have both.

Raf Nicholson is a PhD student, an England supporter, a feminist, and fanatical about women's cricket. She tweets here