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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • chaitanya on May 21, 2014, 11:35 GMT

    Nothing to comment on the article itself, but just wondering whether the author or the people who commented above know who Masaba Gupta is? She is the daughter of the great west indian Sir Vivian Richards and the Indian Actress Neena Gupta...

  • disco on May 21, 2014, 4:32 GMT

    "the dividing portion hung down between the legs like a baby's nappy", in case no one has noticed, this 'nappy' looked has returned to mainstream 'fashion'. Having said that, women are better off wearing similar kit to men. This is Test cricket, not a tennis fashion show for primadonnas.

  • Sevarino on May 20, 2014, 22:11 GMT

    Skirts in cricket is an automatic failure. we want the sport to eveolve but we keep running back to old ideas. the WNBA, FIFA, womens Soft ball all these sporting diciplines the women dont wear any skirts. The female anatomy yes differs from the men but why should their uniforms be any different. What we need to be focusing on his having integrated matches where teams have both men and women playing together. It will be Fun to see Taylor clobber some of Malingas deliveries. But we want to change women's uniforms. As a fan i must say cricket is the least innovative sport, nothing new is being created besides the rule changes. Colored bats, Home and away uniforms (dare i say it), higher camera angle on the stumps, Super slow motion for runouts, celebrities to open matches, all star week, Year round champions league involving clubs from the top eight countries. BUT NO THEY WANT TO CHANGE THE UNIFORMS ON THE WOMEN HOW PEACHY.

  • Dummy4 on May 20, 2014, 17:39 GMT

    It'd be amusing to go and interview Karen Smithies now and ask if she thinks the female game is poorer since the WCA disbanded in 1998 and the ECB took control. Has women's cricket been subsumed?

    Nope. It's now better than it has ever been. Better training, better opportunities, better funding, and better games full stop. I'd suggest reading Claire Taylor's article 'From culottes to contracts' from the 2012 Wisden as it details the changes.

    Let's stick to the current kit. Charlotte Edwards is more than yummy in her England gear and doesn't need to be strapped into Maria Sharapova's cast-offs.

  • Harold on May 20, 2014, 8:39 GMT

    First and foremost, the gear has to be functional. It has to be comfortable. Before they are women, while on the cricket field, they are athletes, competing to get the best result. Sort that out, and once you know what the players need on that account, make it as marketable as possible. Make it feminine, have the players wear bunny ears or whatever. I couldn't care less, as long as the players are given the best possible chance to achieve the most on the field. This past year the NBA tried sleeved jersies as a marketing ploy. It worked great for marketing, but then players started to complain it's effecting their game. And you know what? Without those players there is no game. So after less than a seasons tryout, those sleeves are out. Always ask the players what they need to perform.

  • Dummy4 on May 18, 2014, 22:24 GMT

    I'm interested to see how this turns out, it could be a step forward or one back. I'm sure there will be differences of opinion amongst female players. Why not give them the option? Team colours are enough to distinguish which side players are from, so why not have the option of trousers, shorts, culottes or skirts?

  • Dummy4 on May 18, 2014, 15:12 GMT

    it's all in the marketing. Women's cricket will continue to be a top-class sport, and I doubt anyone is seriously contemplating skirts.

    Raf's million dollar question is a hard one to answer; perhaps the best answer would be "both" or "neither". Clearly women's cricket is CRICKET and I've been shown the dressing room often enough by the girls at my old club that I take it very seriously! But clearly women's cricket is also WOMEN'S cricket, or they'd all be playing for such clubs and women's competitions would be redundant.

    I hope that a costume change isn't so dramatic as to force this issue, because women's cricket deserves to develop organically and at its own pace. Unfortunately, these days high professionalism in sport tends to be linked to ridiculous marketing schemes.

    That being said, if they want cheerleaders, I'll volunteer!

  • Dummy4 on May 18, 2014, 8:47 GMT

    the idea of wearing skirts need to be put down as it will make their fielding clumsy but i also agree that women's cricket needs an outfit change in order to appeal to a larger audience beyond hardcore cricket fans. that's what made women's tennis popular. what about regular short tops and leggings? its not at all demeaning but nevertheless makes them look pretty as well. i dont want to sound chauvinistic, just put forward a realistic outlook to create a larger fanbase.

  • Dummy4 on May 18, 2014, 7:40 GMT

    I watch cricket for skilful play. Playing in skirts would get in the way of cricketers playing to the best of their ability. It's a funny double standard - female cricketers have to look feminine and impair performance but male cricketers don't have to do the same (by trying to look masculine).

    I'd quite like a WICL to watch - but if they have to wear demeaning clothing to sell it, I'm out.

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