May 18, 2014

Do female cricketers care about how they look on the field?

Functionality, femininity, comfort, appearance - what matters to them when it comes to uniforms?

The Women's Cricket Association felt the need to have uniforms that demonstrated their difference from men © Pitcure Post/Getty Images

Those of you currently glued to the IPL may not be aware that there are plans afoot for a women's version, to be run on similar lines: the Women's International Cricket League. Many of the details surrounding the WICL are still unconfirmed, but what caught my attention a couple of weeks ago was a press release announcing Indian designer Masaba Gupta as the WICL's official "design partner". Gupta, according to this latest information, will be designing a playing and training kit for the players involved in the WICL (rumoured to include Ellyse Perry, Meg Lanning and Alex Blackwell). Getting one of India's most exciting young designers involved, suggests the press release, is just one further part of the WICL's mission to "bring about meaningful change to the traditional limiting perceptions that exist about women's cricket".

It all sounds desperately familiar.

Back in 1934, when the Women's Cricket Association (WCA) was trying to decide on an official England uniform for their first tour of Australia and New Zealand, a special committee was chosen to select a suitable playing outfit. Eventually, after much thought, they settled on white blouses, white divided skirts (or culottes, as you might know them), and white knee-length socks. It was specified that the skirts should be no shorter than four inches from the ground when kneeling.

Unfortunately these original skirts lost their shape quickly and for much of the tour, apparently, "the dividing portion hung down between the legs like a baby's nappy". But why had so much thought been put into the question of uniform in the first place? It seems that members of the WCA, just like those involved with the WICL, believed that the image of female cricketers was vital to perceptions of their sport. All too often, newspapers in the 1930s featured photographs of women playing cricket in bathing suits, or other completely unsuitable clothing. Partly as a result, women's cricket was often perceived as a bit of a national joke. As Marjorie Pollard, one of the WCA's founders, wrote: "How necessary these pictures make it for those who really try to play cricket, to play in something that is above criticism."

By 1936, such perceptions were changing, but Pollard still complained about players who refused to comply with the WCA's uniform regulations, arguing that "the fight we had to get ourselves accepted as cricket players was based on certain simple principles - dignity, circumspection, caution and submission to public opinion". She recognised that the supporters of women's cricket were directly invested in the players' appearance, something that was hugely important to a group of women who were seeking for the first time to stage public cricket matches.

Arguably it is still the case today that the general public care deeply about the appearance of their cricketers on the field; this is equally the case in the men's game. A good example would be the Twitter storm that surrounded the England (men's and women's) new ODI and T20 kits over the last year. The change from the traditional blue to a red ODI kit last summer, and to a "fiery red" (orange to you and me) T20 kit in Bangladesh seemed, to put it mildly, not particularly popular with England fans.

The difference? These critiques seem to be purely aesthetic ones; I haven't seen a single person suggest that they dislike the new kit because it alters their perception of the players. For the WCA - and perhaps this applies to the WICL too - a lot more was at stake than just aesthetics. Skirts, divided or not, were clearly not the most practical thing to be playing cricket in (ever tried fielding in shorts?). But the WCA wanted to stress that they were not trying to copy men, and to do that, they needed to demonstrate their "femininity". What wearing skirts did was to emphasise that women cricketers were exactly that: women.

This clearly applied to cricketers in other countries too: both Australia and New Zealand quickly followed suit in adopting the divided skirt as their official team uniform, and when the Western Australia side wore trousers during the 1934-35 tour, the secretary of the South Australia WCA called it a disgrace. "We women don't want to ape the men. We want to play the game and be as feminine as possible." As a result, for decades afterwards, the top-three-ranked countries in women's cricket played all their representative cricket in skirts.

Perhaps it comes down to whether they consider themselves to be women who play cricket, or just cricketers who happen to be women. And, related to that: is women's cricket simply cricket played by women, or is it a completely different sport?

It might surprise you to learn that this uniform, in the English case, lasted right up until 1997: Charlotte Edwards played her first international for England clad in skirt and knee-high white socks. Trousers were not introduced until August 1997, in an ODI against South Africa in Bristol. It was a women's cricket revolution.

Why the change? It seemed that the WCA's ideas about stressing the difference between men's and women's cricket had become outdated: what was needed now was to provide the sport with a more professional image. This went alongside bringing the sport under ECB control, meaning that more resources were poured in, and that women's cricket became increasingly athletic. Skirts were rendered both impractical and, arguably, irrelevant. Since 1997, the England women's kit has been almost identical to that of their male counterparts, with the idea being to place the women's game, at least visibly, on a more equal footing. Other countries have followed suit.

In the light of this, the wording of that WICL press release was particularly interesting: "A small panel of international players will work with Masaba to design playing and training gear that will be functional, feminine and different." The implication is that the game has gone too far the other way: that in order for women's cricket to increase its commercial attractiveness, the WICL uniforms need to once again highlight the differences between male and female cricketers.

This actually isn't a million miles away from some of the things the ECB has tried to do with women's cricket since the late 1990s: top designers Paul Costelloe and TM Lewin have both designed official outfits specifically for female players to wear off the pitch; and there was also, a few years back now, an ODI shirt that left very little to the imagination.

Is there anything wrong with this? I guess I'm worried about going backwards. Do we really want to risk a return to the days when, as they did during the 1993 World Cup, sections of the press choose to focus on the red miniskirts of one of the teams rather than the action on the pitch? The other problem, of course, is how the players might feel about it. That incredibly unforgiving ODI top surely can't have been too popular? And just ask Edwards about wearing a skirt to play international cricket. It isn't one of her fondest cricketing memories.

Having said that, there is a myth that has developed surrounding playing in skirts: that it was "demeaning" and loathed by all the players. But if you ask anyone who played international cricket before the late-1990s, they will tell you that this is completely untrue. In a 1993 interview, Karen Smithies, England's captain between 1993 and 2000, was asked about wearing trousers. "Some of us would look like men if we wore trousers on the pitch," she said. "I see no reason for us to change. With culottes, you can tell from a distance that it's a women's game."

Smithies, and others, liked being distinctive; they did not want their sport subsumed within men's cricket. Femininity was important to them. Maybe it's important to today's female cricketers, too?

According to the WICL, they are "committed to the best players in the world having input into what they wear and how they look and feel on the field as it is all part of high performance delivery". As mentioned above, there will be a panel of players who will decide exactly how they want to look on the field of play. It will be fascinating to see what they come up with. Will it really be that different from what they are playing in at the moment? What does a uniform which is both "feminine" and functional look like?

Perhaps it comes down to whether they consider themselves to be women who play cricket, or just cricketers who happen to be women. And, related to that: is women's cricket simply cricket played by women, or is it a completely different sport?

Now that really is the million-dollar question.

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