January 7, 2014

What have the men got to do with it?

Female cricketers are often asked to place their performances in context with those of their male counterparts. Is that even fair?

Meg Lanning has said Australia's women will want to emulate Clarke's team in the return Ashes © Getty Images

Back in the heady days when England looked capable of winning a Test match (oh, how long ago that feels), I wrote a piece exhorting Australian supporters fed up with the Ashes situation to: "Go and see your women's team play… and watch some actual competitive cricket."

I think it's fair to say that the shoe is now firmly on the other foot. As one of my most irritating friends is at pains to remind me: "It's the chicks that now have to restore English pride." Maybe the Barmy Army should get themselves along to Perth on January 10.

It's a big weight to carry, though, and it didn't exactly work out too well for the Southern Stars over the summer in England. They were overwhelmed, lost the series 12-4 on points, and England, for a short, sweet interlude, held both the men's and the women's Ashes. Not anymore.

Now the Southern Stars are hoping for the same kind of revenge that the men have inflicted on England. Meg Lanning, their newly appointed vice-captain, has said that they will be looking to emulate Clarke's team. "I think it'll have a really positive effect," she said a few days ago. "It's been amazing to see how quickly they can turn things around, and that's certainly something that we'll take into our series. They've been really aggressive and shown a lot of passion, so we can't wait to get out there and do the same."

Now that women's cricket is receiving more media coverage, it has become common parlance in interviews for female cricketers to be asked to contextualise their performances within those of their male counterparts. It is assumed that if Australia's men have just whitewashed England 5-0, this success will automatically carry over into women's cricket. But I often find myself wondering when these questions are asked: is that really the case?

Take, for example, an analysis of the England-Australia rivalry. Historically when the English or Australian men's team holds the Ashes, have the women been a great deal more likely to also do so? The simple answer is no. There have been 19 women's Ashes series* since women's Test cricket began in 1934-35. On ten of those occasions, the team holding the Ashes at the end of the series corresponded with the team who then held the men's Ashes.

Digging deeper, it is evident that there have always been periods when one side or another dominated, and their male/female equivalent did not. During the 1960s, for example, England's men did not win a single Ashes series. England's women won in 1963 and then proceeded to hold the Ashes until 1984-85. Perhaps this is not surprising, given that the men's and women's set-ups were completely separate during this period. Why would Rachael Heyhoe-Flint have been affected by the pain Lillee and Thomson were inflicting on England in the 1970s? Did it really have anything to do with her?

It's interesting, though, to ponder how much this might have changed in the last 15 years - that is, in the period when for both countries the governing body of women's cricket has been merged with the men's. This occurred in 1998 in England, and in 2003 in Australia (though in both cases it was an ongoing process over several years). Since that time, on five out of seven occasions - namely in 2001, 2002-03, 2005, 2009 and most recently 2013 - the Ashes results have mirrored each other.

With the same organisational structures in place, suddenly it seems that it is everything to do with England Women when England's men lose. Funding, sponsorship and media coverage can sometimes hang on such events, and arguably, especially given that the teams are now much more likely to socialise with one another, a negative team culture could very well carry over from one to the other. Perhaps suddenly it becomes worth making the comparison?

I'm still not sure. Did, for example, England Women crumble watching the men get whitewashed in Australia in 2006-07? It seems unlikely. Just over a year later, they flew to Bowral, played the game of their lives, and won their first Test in Australia for the first time since 1984 and with it the Ashes. Defeat is not always followed by defeat, nor victory by victory.

This may all seem obvious, but not, apparently, to the many, many journalists whose default approach is to compare everything the national women's side do with everything the men's side has just done. I'd have much less of a problem with the compare-and-contrast approach if I didn't suspect that what lay behind it was shoddy journalism, plain and simple. If the first question out of your mouth is: "What do you think about the men's team?" it generally means you haven't bothered to do your research, and know next to nothing about the cricketers who you're actually interviewing. I've said it before, and I'll keep saying it: don't we want women's cricket to be covered on its own terms?

Here's a thought: say Australia win the women's Test in Perth this week. Will any journalist be asking Mitchell Johnson if he thinks the momentum from that victory will carry over into the men's ODIs and T20s? And if not, why not?

Media training aside, I'd love to know how the teams really feel about these endless comparisons. If the default is for them to continually have to hold up their own achievements against their male counterparts, doesn't it devalue them somewhat? And if they always go into an Ashes series being expected to win like the men have just done, or expected to not lose as badly as the men have just done, doesn't that put them under incredible amounts of misplaced pressure? I'm not sure women's cricket has come all that far in this respect since Betty Archdale and her England team in 1934-35 were blamed by the Australian media for Bodyline - a tactic that, quite obviously, had nothing whatsoever to do with them.

Perhaps, though, these comparisons really do sometimes come down to national pride, and maybe I'm a bit of a hypocrite. Because as an England supporter I can't help hoping that Lanning, Jodie Fields and the rest of their team-mates don't emulate the achievements of Australia's men when the women's Ashes starts this week. This particular Pommie girl doesn't think she can handle watching any more English cricket teams getting battered by Aussies for a while - thanks all the same.

*I realise that the women's Ashes did not officially exist until 1998. This analysis is done, though, on the basis that when a series was drawn the "Ashes" were held by the previous victor, as is the case with the men's equivalent.

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

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