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These are exciting times for women's cricket. Taunton was launched as the spiritual and official home of the women's game today, as Jenny Thompson investigated
Jenny Thompson at Taunton
August 29, 2006
And now comes a massive psychological boost for the side - and for the future of women's cricket. Today, just before the start of the second Test against India, Taunton was launched as the spiritual and official home of the women's game. The ECB's chief executive David Collier attended, as did the other luminaries David Graveney and Rachael Heyhoe-Flint - the importance of this move, not to mention the excitement, cannot be underestimated.
This is no tokenistic measure. The women are being incorporated at every level, from the honours board decorating the England women captains, to the fact that they can call on Taunton as their first choice of venue. And when the £6m redevelopment of Taunton goes ahead, the women will be directly consulted as to the facilities.
The idea has been warmly received in Taunton itself, too, which is important. "The club and Somerset County Council are really up for it," beams Richard Gould, the Somerset chief executive. And so were the Tauntonians, who arrived in hordes once the sun came out.
Yet Taunton has had big crowds for these matches before. And the town is the ideal choice, too; cricket is the most prominent sport played in the area, and in the south-west of England too.
But isn't Taunton a little out of the way? It's 133 miles from the home of cricket, and its epicentre, Lord's. Well, Gould argues, being a regional outpost is actually a tactical advantage. "Down here there's less competition for media coverage than in London, or Birmingham. You can get more headlines in the regional press."
But aside from those extra headlines, and a benevolent glow from their philanthropy, what is the benefit to Somerset of offering themselves as the guardians of the game? "It opens up revenue streams," says the ECB's Gill McConway, a forward-thinker responsible for the branding of all England buses and for the innovative Super Fours that consistently unearths international-calibre talent such as Isa Guha. "I have no problem with that."
How did it all come about? "It became apparent the women were leading a journeymen lifestyle," said Gould, "going from pitch to pitch, ground to ground." And so, after just ten minutes of chatting to McConway during the women's matches here last year, the idea had been planted and he stepped in. "I suggested it would be nice if they had a home-from-home to first call on."
As McConway recalls: "He just asked a very casual question, did we have a base? My response was, 'I wish', and in the space of a ten-minute conversation the seed was sown." McConway, a key driver of the game, then approached some ECB board members, including David Collier, and Giles Clarke, the chairman of Somerset, thought it was brilliant.
England's women have come far on the journey already, since the ECB incorporated women's cricket nearly a decade ago. In that time the women they no longer have to pay for their own blazer nor contribute to tours. Far from it: they are funded by the ECB; have access to nutrition and fitness experts; have the same kit as the men and are sponsored by Vodafone and nPower.
At Taunton, it's not just the international side that will benefit. The pitch will be made available for all domestic finals, while the improvements will help to further develop the women's game in and across the south west. Somerset has historically looked after its women players and this year the county allowed them to have the same kit as the men, and offered use of the team coach and the facilities, and access to the physio, too. "They couldn't have done more," says Lucy Allison, Somerset women's manager.
There's even a girl on the regional academy which, as Gould points out, is a huge investment from the club. Funding Anya Shrubsole, a 14-year-old pace bowler who plays for the county boys' side, costs between £15,000 and £20,000 a year. She is unlikely to ever play professional cricket, so why are Somerset so keen to fund her? As Gould says: "It's all about investing in cricket."
There's a real buzz at Taunton. Even the sight of a dozen media crew swarming around - desperate for interviews and photoshoots - can't dim the smiles on the players' faces. Recognition has rightly come their way.
It's been a decent few weeks for the women's game in profile terms, with the announcement that this year the ICC are going to choose an International Female Player of the Year in their third annual awards this October.
This is one of the many benefits that the ICC's merger with the IWCC is having - and India's captain Mithali Raj confirmed today that their travel has been much improved and they are looking forward to better grounds when they return to India, as a direct consequence of the merger. Previously they had to settle for whatever grounds they could get.
These are exciting times for the women's game. Pleasingly, the once-belittled female form of the game is starting to establish itself in British sport. If the administrators and, of course, the players can continue their enthusiasm and dedication, the game really could be in good shape very soon. But this is just the beginning.
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