June 26, 2015

What will the new league do for women's cricket?

Can it provide a viable new tier in addition to county cricket and the international game?

Will the WCSL be a reason to celebrate for women cricketers in England? © Getty Images

Last week, the ECB announced its intention to stage a Women's Cricket Super League (WCSL) in England from 2016, featuring six as-yet-unknown teams hosted by "cricket-minded organisations". The league has been described by the ECB head of women's cricket, Clare Connor, as "the most significant development in this country for women's cricket for a very long time". It's no wonder that the excitement at Loughborough, where the announcement took place, was so palpable.

There are countless reasons why a WCSL is significant for the women's game. But one in particular stood out for me. Connor in the press release described the ECB's vision for "an exciting, dynamic game which will inspire new participants, new fans and increased interest from commercial partners and the media".

The media. The same media who, to a voice, currently ignore women's domestic cricket altogether.

When's the last time you read a match report of a women's county game here on ESPNcricinfo, or on BBC Sport? When's the last time you watched more than 30 seconds of a women's county game on Sky? The answer is: never.

To read reports on women's county games, you would have to go here, or here, or here - websites run by fans of the women's game, who write about women's county cricket because they love it, with no hope or expectation of payment.

The huge increase in media coverage of international women's cricket in recent years is brilliant, but there's surely still a big problem if everything that happens below international level is totally ignored.

How will Sky's commentators on the women's Ashes this summer know who is in form, and who isn't? When the Ashes squad is announced, and one of the players outside the contracted 18 is included, how will the journalists assigned to cover the announcement know who she is? (In fact none of them seemed very aware of who Sonia Odedra was when she was selected last summer for the Test against India.)

How can anyone become aware of who the up-and-coming players are? And in any case, there are plenty of very good women's county cricketers out there who turn in week in, week out for their county, but who may never play for England. Do they really deserve to be ignored?

Six teams, featuring the most talented female players in the country, playing at high-quality grounds, in a semi-professional league. Not a bad way to awaken media interest in domestic women's cricket

Many of those reading the WCSL announcement were probably unaware of the current women's county set-up, and of the problems the ECB is trying to tackle head-on. Unaware that women's domestic cricket, despite having been in existence since the 1930s, has always been and remains totally amateur. Women's counties are still generally run by volunteers, with a fraction of the budget of their male counterparts. Match fees for players are a far-distant dream.

Yes, some of the men's counties are beginning to wake up and smell the coffee, but it has been a long time coming. Sarah Clarke - who has just become Surrey's all-time leading wicket-taker in the Women's County Championship - recently received her cap from Surrey CCC, before their Pemberton-Greenish Cup match against Middlesex at The Oval. It was a special moment, no doubt, but watching it, I couldn't silence the little voice in my head wondering why she had had to wait 16 years for the club to recognise her contribution.

The problem of trying to attract interest in domestic cricket has dogged women's cricket throughout its history. And the idea of a tier of cricket separate from county and international levels is not a new one. The first ever public women's cricket match in England was held at Beckenham in 1930, between the North and the South. A territorial system, whereby matches were staged annually between teams from the North, the South, the Midlands, the East and the West, was instituted by the Women's Cricket Association (WCA) right from the earliest days of its existence.

Then, as now, the aim was to have the best playing the best. That was the surest way to develop the sport, and to attract media attention. In fact, the Cricketer magazine contained a full report of the 1930 Beckenham game, concluding: "From first to last… the cricket was of a really high standard… The work being done by the Association is distinctly praiseworthy, if only because it is proving, and in no uncertain manner, that the game is suitable for women."

The problem for the WCA was always money. How do you support another tier of cricket when your players (many of whom have full-time jobs or families) don't have the time or the money to travel 100 miles to play in a cricket match?

The territories limped along until 1967. Then they became "playing areas". The strongest counties (Kent, Middlesex, Surrey, Sussex, Yorkshire) continued to exist in their own right, while the weaker ones banded together. It didn't really solve the problem.

Now, suddenly, the new Super League has the potential to do so. The ECB is investing £3 million in the new structure, and the hope is that hosts will gain commercial investment, in order to facilitate player payment for the first time in the history of women's domestic cricket.

Six teams, featuring the most talented female players in the country, playing at high-quality grounds, in a semi-professional league. It sounds an enticing prospect, doesn't it? Not a bad way to awaken media interest in domestic women's cricket.

So my hopes for the Super League are high. I hope we see the league covered by media outlets like ESPNcricinfo. I hope I can open a newspaper and read about it. And I hope that, for the first time ever, I might be able to turn on my TV and watch a women's domestic game ball by ball.

Raf Nicholson is a PhD student, an England supporter, a feminist, and fanatical about women's cricket. @RafNicholson