A question of confidence
Recently, I picked up a bat for the first time in four years, and strode (well, wandered nervously) out to the wicket to bat for Shepperton Ladies, who were playing the Authors CC in a friendly game at Chiswick. I had turned up to watch, and was drafted in at the last minute because Shepperton were short of players. The tension of that walk - knowing you are about to reveal to a whole group of people precisely how terrible you are at the game you claim to be competent at writing about - is difficult to describe in words. But if I was to attempt it, "confidence" would not be one of the words on the list.
I made a nine-ball duck.
Graham Gooch once said: "When confidence is undermined, a player's whole game can be shot to pieces". From time to time, confidence eludes even the best cricketers. For some, the problem is more fundamental than that. For some of us, the problem is having the confidence to pick up the bat in the first place.
I didn't play in a Proper Cricket Match until I was 18. Somewhere out there is a scorebook that records that on May 8, 2007, in Oxford University Women's Cricket Cuppers, Merton College v Lady Margaret Hall, Nicholson R hit 7 not out and did not bowl.
It was a terrifying experience.
The standard of Oxford college women's cricket, alongside statistics showing the numbers of males and females who are participating in cricket by the age of 18, suggest that my experience is not uncommon to those of my gender. If I'd been a man, it's unlikely that my first experience of playing in a match would have come so late. And with match experience comes confidence.
But there is a deeper issue here. Generations after the feminist revolution, studies continually show that women are still, on average, less confident than men. This helps to explain the gender pay gap (women don't go for promotions because they don't consider themselves qualified; they don't barter with their bosses for a pay rise because they don't feel they deserve it), and other things, like the phenomenon known in Oxbridge as the "finals gap", in which men outperform women in written examinations, supposedly for a variety of reasons, but most likely because of their enhanced ability to BS. Unsurprisingly, much of this lack of confidence carries over into the sporting arena.
I am not, nor will I ever be, a decent cricketer. But I've been struck recently, chatting to former England women players, by how self-effacing even the best female cricketers of their generation can be. "We were just playing cricket and enjoying ourselves", wrote the first England captain, Betty Archdale, of her experiences on tour in 1934-35. It's a fairly typical attitude, and not a sentiment, I'd imagine, that you'd be likely to hear from, say, Douglas Jardine.
Arguably, there is a generational shift taking place. The Australian team of the late 1990s, which featured the fearsome Cathryn Fitzpatrick, Karen Rolton and Belinda Clark, blew everyone away with their attitude to the game. Pete Davies, watching them play in the 1997 World Cup final, wrote: "No one had ever played women's cricket with this degree of urgency, intensity, athleticism, and sheer in-your-face confidence as this side did. As a result, they were terrific to watch - and so good that gender simply stopped being an issue."
The steady professionalisation of the game in England in the past few years has produced a similar attitude; I'm not sure anyone could ever describe Katherine Brunt as lacking in confidence. The difference, perhaps, is that their achievements are being recognised by the media, and the general public at large. Confidence, after all, is intimately bound up with self-worth.
Nonetheless, even as studies show that the "confidence gap" is narrowing for young women at certain times, in certain places, it remains an issue on the cricket pitch. Last week, in that Authors match, I wasn't really supposed to be playing. Eliza, aged ten, was due to play, but she did what I had been planning to do, and watched instead. I have no doubt that she would have been far more of an asset to the team than I was. Between overs, when Shepperton were fielding, I watched her bowl at her dad. She was good. She could be great. But she couldn't quite summon up the confidence to go out there and bowl an over.
My worry is that her experience is not uncommon: that even girls as talented as Eliza don't share the confidence of boys their age. Without it, getting them into and keeping them in the game is going to be next to impossible. In the words of Matthew Hayden: "When you have confidence you feel like you're never going to lose it; when you haven't got it, you feel like you're never going to get it".
Ironically, studies show that girls and women who play sport have lower levels of depression, a more positive body image, and generally higher levels of self-esteem than those who don't. Certainly that was my experience of Oxford cricket. Yes, I was terrified, during that first game. But playing cricket took me out of a very dark place, that first year as an undergraduate, and though it was not by any means the highest standard, it was the most fantastic fun. I remember how proud I was of that 7 not out.
Much has changed for women's cricket in the last decade, but some problems persist. Eliza's confidence had, when I met her, recently been undermined by attending a coaching course full of "boys who talked about wee". According to the coach, she was just as talented as any of those boys, but that didn't stop them telling her that girls couldn't play cricket. This was inevitably the case back in the 1930s, when it was common for men to churn out newspaper articles complaining that women's cricket was a ridiculous waste of time. But the fact that it's still common in 2013 makes my blood boil.
Eliza is experiencing cricketing opportunities I never had as a young girl; she'd probably already be more comfortable out there in the middle than I was at 18. The ICC's Females in World Cricket strategy, in place since 2011, aims to get a million females playing the game globally by the end of 2015 (currently, numbers are estimated at around 700,000). And charities like the UK's Chance to Shine scheme are doing great work in introducing cricket to girls in state schools.
But it's not enough just to offer those opportunities. If the perception that cricket is a man's game persists, as it sadly seems to be doing, there are whole groups of girls who are going to miss out on the cricket party. If confidence is the key to producing good cricketers, it's up to all of us to ensure that we embrace female involvement in cricket, and get rid of that outdated perception, once and for all.
Raf Nicholson is a PhD student, an England supporter, a feminist, and fanatical about women's cricket. She tweets here