Twenty20 vision could boost women's game
England women are taking a leaf out of the Australian game, by playing exhibition matches on the same day as a men's domestic Twenty20. England will play an Invitational XI after Somerset's match against Northants at Taunton on June 24 and at Edgbaston before Warwickshire's game on June 26, where Northants are again, coincidentally, the opposition.
The aim is to showcase the women's game to a captive audience, which will be easier in the case of the Taunton fixture, as that is on a Sunday. The Edgbaston match, on a Tuesday, may attract fewer spectators for the noon kick-off; part of the attraction of the men's domestic Twenty20 has been, of course, that it can be fitted in after work. However, at least the women are getting on the billing - which is a praiseworthy, and encouraging, feat in itself.
The forward-thinking ECB executive director for the women's game, Gill McConway, has actually been hoping for this move for five years, long before Australia pipped them to the post. She nearly had her way in the first year of Twenty20, when Headingley agreed to host a match on the same day as the men's. However, that plan was scuppered when the match was transferred to Gloucestershire. "It was disappointing," said McConway, "but it's just terrific that we've got the matches at long last."
David Collier, the ECB chief executive, was instrumental in the process; he raised the suggestion at an executive meeting earlier this year. It is no surprise that Somerset leapt at the opportunity to host the game at the official home of women's cricket, Taunton, while Warwickshire's agreement to stage another is an added bonus.
The move follows on from a successful trial of South Australia playing Queensland before the corresponding men's state match in January. As Australia's captain Karen Rolton said then: "All the men's Twenty20s are sell-outs at the moment and the crowds have to arrive early I think it's a great way to promote women's cricket."
The idea is gathering momentum around the globe - with Ireland's manager Sandra Dawson mentioning her interest in the concept three years ago, and New Zealand's Rebecca Rolls calling for more of the same earlier this year.
The matches themselves may be billed as 'exhibition', but it will give the management team an early chance to assess the women ahead of New Zealand's arrival in mid-August. Whether the new coach - as yet to be appointed - will be in place by then is another matter, but the ECB are hopeful that Richard Bates's successor will be found as soon as possible.
Further plans for the Edgbaston match are to brand the day as Ladies Day, where there will be a Beauty Bus offering facials, among other things. The aim here is to attract women to watch the women's match, but to also interest the uninitiated in cricket as a whole.
The reasoning behind these moves is sound: the sports where women attract publicity generally tend to be held in and around the men's competitions. Athletics meets and tennis tournaments often have men and women competing at the same time, and their standard has caught the attention of the media as a result. McConway is hoping that a similar principle can be applied in this instance. And her ambitions for the game stretch even further.
If the idea takes off in England this year, then Durham may take on board McConway's proposal for an international Twenty20 at the Riverside next year. McConway has approached them to suggest that England play a game ahead of England men's tie with South Africa.
Jenny Thompson is assistant editor of Cricinfo