March 6, 2008

Harder, better, faster, stronger

A look at 11 ways to improve women's cricket

In the last decade, women's cricket has had an extreme makeover so dramatic that even American TV producers would be interested. Skills have improved out of sight, but the problem is, public perception has lagged behind, with little or no awareness of the women's game. That's not the players' fault, as better promotion, among other things, is needed. Cricinfo looks at XI ways to get the best out of women's cricket.


Ellyse Perry could be the face of the future but cricket needs to act now to keep her © Getty Images
 

Pay the players
The game is in its best state ever but still mostly relies on the dedication of amateurs. It needs to wake up to the fact that it risks shedding its best players, unless, like the ECB, it begins to pay.

Johmari Logtenberg, South Africa's out-and-out star, recently decided to be a mug no more, and was the first in what could be a long line of refuseniks when she said she would not "play for charity", and blindly took up golf instead. Australia's Ellyse Perry could be next, lured by lucrative soccer.

Payment may be a bit of a prospective panning - tickets to women's matches are often free and the game is hardly marketed - but the likes of Perry and Co need to be retained while the game is worth watching, before they strike gold elsewhere. And we're not talking grand wading wads like in the men's game.

Payment of sorts already happens in some countries, but it is not enough in most for players to live on, leaving them in part-time temping limbo, unless they find exceptionally sympathetic employers. A full focus on cricket would improve the players' skills and open up a new market with fresh new enjoyable talent. The ECB has already taken this leap of faith by announcing ten central contracts.

Change the kit
The skills are there but before heavy marketing is undertaken, the kits must be as sleek as the players they grace. Women's cricket was given a strong identity when the skirts were ditched in the 90s and the men's one-day kits were brought in. But while the uniform has given the women a mental lift, as they feel part of a true international set-up, with proper sponsor logos and the like, they are unflattering. Some trousers even have a men's fly.

While it may rankle with the feminists, more flattering kit (perhaps sleeveless, collarless tops a la tennis players) could possibly help attract a larger audience. Making the clothes more feminine - as in tennis, netball, and even golf, which have seen upsurges in spectator levels - wouldn't even take too much tweaking. Designers should tailor the tops to women's actual shapes, rather than drowning them, and their attractiveness, in men's uniforms.

Promotion
This is vital, now the game is worth sharing. Cricket Australia had the right idea, designing a poster that mixed in the women with the men, but unfortunately it was nowhere to be seen. Channel 9 put on highlights of the recent women's Twenty20 - a giant leap for womankind, and at no extra cost, as the cameras and the rest of the infrastructure were already in place - but the plugs for that game during the men's Tests talked only of the India men. Joined-up thinking and taking the game seriously are needed.

More curtain raisers
The boards and ICC deserve a tick here: having the women play curtain raisers at men's games has already heightened awareness and is starting to entice a new audience. The women's game just needs one chance to get in front of new people to hook them.

The World Twenty20 is the best news the game has had in a long time and having the women play the middle game of three on a day would, if the proposal is approved, be a huge boon as the spectators are captive already.

The game can't compete with the power of the men's, but there is finesse on offer. The other benefits are a safe, family-friendly environment, a welcoming atmosphere, and better access to ever-obliging players.

Linked tours
So the Ashes clashes with the men's Ashes as happened in 2005. When England won, it was big for the women's game as media outlets took interest in a parallel unfolding - though, admittedly, some people thought the players on the women's bus were the wives.

Play ODIs the day before the main game, and have World Cups before the men's or immediately after, so the infrastructure is in place already and the media attention is there (as with the Paralympics, for example).

Attract more women spectators
To borrow another idea from netball, the women's game needs to have women's support as well. From a long-term point of view, get more girls involved in the sport from an early age. Get them to matches, but also get them to play at an earlier age by sending coaches into school and making the recruitment girls-focused.

Mixed showcase cricket
The men have plenty of demands on their time, so recently retired non-IPL players could be used, or men's domestic players. This already happens to some extent, but a lack of promotion means small crowds.

On another point, some would argue that getting the top women playing men's cricket as a matter of course would help break down the barriers and show many men that women can play. That could weaken the women's game, though. And facing balls which turn much more or arrive much faster, with a bounce you wouldn't get in the women's game, may not be so beneficial.

More academy link-ups
Some joined-up thinking around the world would not go amiss. The England game has had female players joining county academies, which has improved psychology and fitness. Academies have a drawback, though, because women are taught to play like men, and this is where the next point comes in ...

Coaching and handbooks specifically for the women's game
... as recommended by England's coach Peter Moores, who has coached plenty of women's cricket, including Sussex seniors. He believes, for example, that female batsmen usually play squarer than the men because there's less power, and that female players - many of whom come from hockey - should use more bottom hand in their shots. Manuals and practices could be tailored for their game.

Uniform Powerplays
Powerplays need to be standard throughout all cricket, even at the lowliest club level. This has helped the England women get on par with the other top countries, who were hitting out and over the top already as a matter of course. Also, adopting free-hits for front-foot no-balls (as in Australian women's club cricket) would discourage bowlers from bowling no-balls, while encouraging attacking play.

The English game can also learn from its sisters in using coloured kits at county level - as with Australia, New Zealand and India state levels - to help get them used to playing the white ball, as in the all-important ODIs.

Play more games at smaller venues
This worked very well last year with the Twenty20s at Bath. Ditch international and bigger country grounds and go back to the clubs. So if a club has a women's section or is setting one up, play an international there: it will encourage local participation and the club will do far more to promote it than the ECB, for example, ever will. Also, more people are likely to turn up as they don't get international men's cricket. Once the game has grown, international venues can be reinstated with - hopefully - fuller crowds.

Jenny Thompson is an assistant editor at Cricinfo

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