May 31, 2013

What price amateurism?

Playing for the love of the game is admirable but for those at the top of their sport, should it really still be necessary?

Doesn't Mithali Raj, the second-best batsman in women's cricket, deserve decent remuneration? © Getty Images

They say that the MCC abolished cricket's amateur-professional divide in 1962. They are wrong. Men's cricket at the top level may have become totally professional. But women's cricket has remained amateur.

Over 50 years on, I still cannot name a single fully professional female cricketer. No woman anywhere in the world has ever earned her living by playing cricket. Even the very best - like Sarah Taylor and Ellyse Perry - still play largely for the love of the game, not for their next pay cheque. In an era where spot-fixing and IPL auctions dominate the men's game, that is refreshing. But it is also problematic.

We want women's cricket to be exciting, and of the highest standard. But how much can we really demand from our women cricketers without remunerating them appropriately? How much time can they be expected to give to the game when they are also juggling other employment? And will cricket's biggest stars really remain in the game when other careers would pay them so much more? Why should Ellyse Perry stay in cricket when football is potentially much more financially rewarding?

The love of the game is worth a lot. But it doesn't pay the bills.

That is why Cricket Australia's announcement last week - that its top contracted female players will now be able to earn up to U$77,500 annually - is so important. It is a huge increase: the value of their contracts has increased from a minimum of $4800 to $24,000, and from a maximum of $14,500 to $50,000; in addition, tour payments for players have increased from about $96 to $242. (By comparison, England players earn on average $26,800.) The changes will make the players some of the best-paid female athletes in Australia. They also make the Southern Stars the best-paid female cricketers ever.

Not that there is much competition for that label. Up until very recently, it was not just a case of playing for love, but paying to play - and paying a lot. The first Australian tour of England in 1937 meant each player paying a $180 boat passage, which was the equivalent of a year's salary on a basic wage. By their third tour in 1963 players paid about $1050 to travel, still a year's earnings for most players. Teams were usually named up to a year in advance, in order to give those selected the time to fundraise, or in some cases to work two jobs. All players paid for their own playing uniforms. By the 1987 tour, sponsorship had been secured from Qantas, Puma and the Australian Sports Commission, but each player still had to stump up $1500 towards her costs.

This helps explain why England and Australia, who have been playing international women's cricket since 1934, have played just 18 bilateral series' in that time. Up to 2000, Australia had toured England only six times - in 1937, 1951, 1963, 1976, 1987 and 1998 - with more than a ten-year gap between each visit. Why? Players simply could not afford to do so more often, and neither the Australian Women's Cricket Council (AWCC) nor the Women's Cricket Association could afford to subsidise them. During England's tour of Australia in 1957-58, the AWCC shelled out $2200 for travel around Australia, $2400 for accommodation, $500 for catering, $210 for grounds and $73 for umpires expenses. This was as frugal as it was possible to be, but press coverage was poor, and gate receipts were almost non-existent. The AWCC ended up saddled with a deficit of over $2280 in the wake of the tour.

The International Women's Cricket Council (IWCC) wanted to arrange more tours. But by 1963 the AWCC was nearly completely broke. At the IWCC meeting held during their tour of England that year, it rejected the proposed increased tour schedule out of hand on the grounds that they "would require more time to finance the visit of an international team than the four years interval proposed". Such were the financial pressures of women's cricket in Australia in the 1960s. It's hard to imagine now, perhaps, but very real at the time.

This brought with it the risk of losing your best players. The Test match Australia played against India in 1977 is a good example of this. Two of their top players on the tour of England the previous year - Sharon Tredrea, who made two fifties over the five Tests and three ODIs, and Karen Price, who took 3 for 6 in 14.2 overs during the final Test at The Oval - did not play. Why not? They were quite obviously two of the best players in the country. The problem was they were broke, short of leave from work, and could not afford to travel to Perth for the interstate tournament. They were therefore ineligible for selection, regardless of merit.

For all these women, the idea of professional women's cricket was laughable. As it was for any woman playing international cricket until very recently. "Women will always play for the love of the game and there will be no professional female cricketers", wrote Rachael Heyhoe-Flint and Netta Rheinberg in 1976. That was just the way it was.

I say "the way it was". It's fair to say that the situation has been transformed in England and Australia since 2008, the year that the ECB and Cricket Australia introduced ambassadorial contracts. It is undergoing a transformation in New Zealand, with the first semi-professional contracts just recently announced by NZC. And this latest step from CA is fantastic, ground-breaking news. Perry will stay in the sport. So will many others.

But there is a caveat. The question now is how long it might take other cricketing nations to catch up. Worryingly, in a recent interview, one of the BCCI's vice-presidents, Niranjan Shah, stated that he sees higher player payments as unnecessary for improving the women's game in India. It's obvious where they stand on the issue. CA's Chief Executive James Sutherland asserted that in the Australian context, "the performances of our female stars justify this step". But doesn't Mithali Raj, currently ranked the second-best female batsman in the world, and fourth on the all-time highest run-scorers in women's ODIs, deserve decent remuneration? Marizanne Kapp made a unbeaten 102 in South Africa's 126-run victory against Pakistan in the World Cup. Where was her financial reward?

Fully professional women's cricket is the next logical development from here. But for it to be a viable prospect, we need more cricket boards to acknowledge the fact that their female players deserve payment. Until then, the amateur-professional divide, the one that supposedly disappeared long ago in men's cricket, will continue to engulf the women's game.

Playing for the love of the game may be admirable. But for those at the top of their sport, should it really still be necessary? Cricket Australia doesn't think so. Nor do I. And nor should any of the other national cricket boards.

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