October 3, 2013

Ladies and gentlemen

Would playing more mixed-sex cricket be an advancement of the sport?

Even if it were possible for women to play alongside men on the same teams, it might amount to poaching from the women's game © Getty Images

I'd been out of competitive cricket for nearly a decade when I again picked up a ball and ran in to bowl, last year. This time on an astroturf pitch in the Tokyo Indoor Cricket League. My first delivery was a thing of beauty. Not the tentative dobber lobbed up in fear of my body breaking after a ten-year hiatus from that strange contortion known as the bowling action, but the exquisite cover drive played by a member of the Japan Ladies team.

Was the sex of the batsman (yes, "batsman", oddly, is the moniker, even when the "batsman" is in fact a "batswoman") part of this cricketing aesthetic that made me lament my exile from the beautiful - how football has stolen this label from cricket, I don't know - game?

No, it wasn't. It was the grace and timing of her shot, a textbook eloquence, that ascended gender.

Reprinted in The Story of Women's Cricket, the first-ever report of a women's match described a 1745 game between "eleven maids of Hambledon and eleven maids of Bramley" as "the greatest cricket match that was ever played in the South part of England". Contests between women from opposing villages were common, with rowdy spectators wagering large sums of money "besides the chance of seeing some inelegant and titillating scenes", said writer and Test cricketer Netta Rheinberg.

Of course, the betting circus and tawdry voyeurism have long since vanished from the women's game. And women's cricket is universally considered equal to men's, isn't it?

In a paper titled, "Look It's a Girl: Cricket and Gender Relations in the UK", published in Vol. 12 of Sport in Society (2009), authors Philippa Velija and Dominic Malcolm sought to explain why "despite organisational reforms, the number of females playing cricket in the UK has not significantly increased in recent years". A statement backed up by the fact that only 1% of the ECB's 533,000 members are women.

This paucity of women in the game seems unnatural, considering much of my early cricket was against my sisters. The oldest was canny enough to negotiate a trade-off before the start of play in our back garden Tests. In return for her lively medium pace (as coached by my father), I'd be contracted to play a board game with her in the evening. As I was more than happy to practise my ability for debt by playing Monopoly, my sister became a star cricketer at her school and would be first pick when captains chose their teams. But what can a teenager do with a natural cricketing ability when all her friends enrol in ballet class?

Despite the loss of sibling opposition to the dance studio, I'd soon be playing with and against women when the popularity of the 1980s indoor-cricket leagues spread to the warehouse across the road from my school. At break-times, and often during lessons, I'd scamper across the bypass with my cricket-mad friend (and future Leicestershire, Warwickshire and England player) Darren Maddy, and we'd net with the centre manager and left-arm swing bowler Jo Chamberlain, also later an England cap. In these competitive sessions there was no thought about gender. Jo bowled sharp induckers, and we'd return the bruised thighs with short-pitched cutters.

However, a year after that comeback delivery in Japan, where I again bowled at a female cricketer with a soft indoor ball, I was striding in with a brand-new Dukes on a lively track against Shepperton Ladies. And uncomfortable at bowling quick, a concern I'm not about to apologise for. If I have a greater sensitivity to hitting a batswoman than a batsman with a bouncer, then so be it. Novelist Kamila Shamsie would quote me in her chapter on women's cricket in The Authors XI: A Season of English Cricket from Hackney to Hambledon. When the young opener took guard I asked Kamila, fielding at mid-on, if it was "wrong to bowl as aggressively as possible", or worse, "to not bowl as aggressively as possible". She sharply told me to "put some testosterone in it".

And if I did hold back it was my error, as England hopeful Aylish Cranstone went on to make 50. By the end of the innings, needing the final Shepperton scalp to win, I was steaming in without regard for the sex of my foe - I could tell from the quality of former South Africa captain Kim Price's expansive first leave that I wasn't going to bag her wicket.

When the young opener took guard I asked Kamila, fielding at mid-on, if it was "wrong to bowl as aggressively as possible", or worse, "to not bowl as aggressively as possible". She sharply told me to "put some testosterone in it"

If this gentlemanly yet condescending behaviour when facing or bowling at women demeans the contest, despatching the man to the ropes or a short ball under his ribs soon reinvigorates the challenge.

Clare Taylor, batting in a game to commemorate the 150th edition of Wisden, quickly riled our masculine attack with her late cuts and skilful working of the ball on her way to a fine half-century. Considering the delicate stature of a genius like Sunil Gavaskar, or the fledgling miniature Joe Root, one might think biological differences in power are negligible when timing and technique are honed.

It may be that the greatest stumbling block to expanding the women's game into men's is not to do with playing against women but with women. I will now make the obligatory noises that I'm not one of these men, a Neanderthal who slips away at the weekend for man-time with the lads. Time away from his modern cave, to return to the primal call of nature, to the thrill of hunting with a group of other males - essentially, wielding clubs of willow to bludgeon leather is not that different from slaying a woolly mammoth.

In the previously quoted, "Look, It's a Girl", Velija and Malcolm highlight women's outsider status playing in mixed-sex teams, revealing that their "sense of exclusion came from what males said to each other in gossip networks".

Joking among friends. Banter. Boorish gags in closed company. My experience is that groups of men together speak differently, more directly. But this blokey atmosphere, like a red-blooded workplace or a laddish locker room, is an environment to be civilised, a barrier for dismantling.

If, that is, playing mixed-sex cricket really is an advancement of the sport.

Chatting with two aspiring England Ladies, and fellow Cordonista Raf Nicholson, I was admonished for my desire to see women play professional cricket ("men's", although one must note it is unlike football and rugby in that there are no restrictions on female participants) when it was pointed out that poaching the best from the women's game would hamper its development.

After apologising for having the best intentions, a wish to play against and alongside women, I now understand that women may not want to join in with the men anyway. And why would they? (Okay, apart from the money - Taylor's income reportedly dropped from £36,000 to £7000 when she became professional.)

Women's cricket is on the rise. Attendances and press coverage increase, and walking from the women's game into the men's might feel like leaving a roaring party with all your friends to drink flat beer with a bunch of lads who can't find the toilet.

Nicholas Hogg is a co-founder of the Authors Cricket Club. His first novel, Show Me the Sky was nominated for the IMPAC literary award