Should women's teams be coached by women?
At the end of last month, following England's poor performance in the Ashes this summer, the head of England Women's Performance, Paul Shaw, announced his decision to step down at the end of the year. Over the next three months the ECB will be searching for a suitable candidate to take on the new role of head coach, in a move back towards a more traditional coaching structure.
It is as yet unclear who the new coach will be. But there has been speculation over the last few days that Peter Moores, who was fired in May from his role as coach of the England men's team, may be a likely candidate for the women's role. That aside, given that Clare Connor this week told the BBC that "the qualities and experiences we are looking for are going to be found more than likely with a coach who has worked at as high a level as possible in the men's game", the likelihood is that the new appointee will be a man.
Indeed it seems that this is the direction in which women's cricket is now heading. When England Women appointed their first permanent head coach in 1988, they selected Ruth Prideaux, a PE lecturer at Chelsea College, who had herself played international- level cricket. She introduced an intensive training programme, incorporating both sport psychology and physiological testing, widely acknowledged to have been years ahead of its time and to have contributed to England's World Cup victory in August 1993. Prideaux retired in the wake of that tournament. Three years later another ex-international, Megan Lear, was appointed head coach. Yet in 1998, when the ECB took over the administration of women's cricket in England, Lear was replaced by Paul Farbrace. Since then, England's head coach has always, without exception, been a man.
Meanwhile prior to the Ashes series Cricket Australia replaced Cathryn Fitzpatrick, who had served as head coach since 2012, with ex-state cricketer Matthew Mott. New Zealand, who in April this year appointed ex-international Haidee Tiffen as their new coach, taking over from Hamish Barton, are bucking the general trend.
Does it matter? Should women's cricket teams be coached by women?
Cricket Australia has made it clear that it doesn't think so. Belinda Clark, the former Australia captain who now works with the board and the ICC, when asked about the fact that the roles of coach, assistant coach and chair of selectors for the Southern Stars are now all filled by men, said: "We're trying to create a pathway for male and female coaches that operate as part of both the male and female game. What you're seeing now is the start of that. We're trying to strip away gender."
This is interesting because it implies that there are no differences between the women's and men's games, and that coaches should be able to move interchangeably between the two. Yet insights from coaches who have experience of both games contradict this suggestion.
Female cricketers generally require a different communication style to their male counterparts. They will handle defeat differently. Even at international level, they will be less able to deal with the scrutiny that comes with the sudden recent influx of media attention. A coach needs to understand all this.
This is not to say that a man cannot be an extremely effective coach of women's cricket. There are plenty of excellent male coaches working in the women's game. But a man who wants to coach women's cricket, and do so well, needs to know the women's game inside out, and to be aware of and appreciate the differences between the two games. Does Moores, or any other coach who has worked exclusively within men's cricket, understand this? Surely this kind of knowledge would come more intuitively to a woman who has herself played international cricket and understands its unique pressures? It is also probably fair to say that there are very few full-time professional male coaches - certainly in England - who are familiar with the players in the women's set-up, as a head coach inevitably needs to be.
There is another important reason why all this matters. If we are trying to promote the idea that cricket is no longer a male domain, and if we want more women to play and be involved in cricket, then surely it helps to have women in leadership roles within the sport? If all international coaches are men - even in women's cricket - what kind of message does that send out?
The problem is that there is a distinct lack of female candidates who have the high-level coaching experience that would be required for a head coaching role; very few women, for example, currently hold the ECB's top Level Four coaching qualification. This is one reason why it would be wrong to say that a man should not be able to coach women's cricket: it would be tantamount to denying the women's game the best possible candidates for the job, and the game would suffer as a result.
Mott's recent success with the Southern Stars is a case in point. In the wake of their Ashes victory, captain Meg Lanning stressed his influence over the team throughout the campaign, and attributed much of their success to him: "He's been excellent, for the team and me personally," she said. "He's such a relaxed guy that he really gets the players in a really good headspace about their game." Had CA been intent on a programme of positive discrimination, Mott would have been passed over for a job to which he seems eminently well-suited. But if positive discrimination is not the way forward here, then what is?
Perhaps it is time to begin addressing why the current system produces such a dearth of suitable female candidates for top-level coaching positions. Why do so few ex-international female cricketers go on to take up coaching roles when they retire? What is it about coaching that seems an unattractive proposition? And how can cricket boards facilitate a pathway into coaching for women?
Just over a decade ago, the NFL introduced the "Rooney Rule", requiring teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching roles. Is it time for the ICC to consider establishing a Rooney Rule in women's cricket? If boards had to interview at least one woman when seeking to appoint a new coach, perhaps then they might have an incentive to examine their coaching structures and work out exactly why it is that women are not progressing through the system to snatch top jobs.
Ultimately the first step in solving a problem is to recognise that it exists. As in any other walk of life, visible role models are an important means to change outdated perceptions of cricket as a game exclusively for boys and men. We need female administrators, female umpires and female coaches. Only then can we really begin to "strip away gender" as Clark suggests.
Raf Nicholson is a PhD student, an England supporter, a feminist, and fanatical about women's cricket. @RafNicholson