Clare Connor March 15, 2009

'Going professional isn't the first priority'

The former England captain has been a tireless campaigner for women's cricket, but she doesn't think paying the players is the next step just yet

Fans of the Terminator films will know that Connor girls are bred tough. Clare Connor, the ECB's head of women's cricket, is no exception - much to the great advantage of the women's game at large.

The sport needs such players as Ellyse Perry for its on-pitch pin-ups, but such advocates as Connor, herself a one-time articulate face of English cricket, are absolutely crucial to make sure the game's structure and development are as strong as possible. In late 2007, when she was appointed in the ECB role, Connor - the former England captain - seemed a bit surprised to be asked. If she was, she was the only one.

No stranger to hard work, Connor had already combined the England captaincy, and being its blonde, serious representative in the media, along with teaching English and PE. She led England to the 2005 World Cup semi-finals but at 29 she retired from cricket, exhausted. Ever passionate, she continued to battle on behalf of the women's game for improved conditions such as contracts.

Then came the chance to make the difference, which she surrendered teaching to take up. Once in charge she set about restructuring county cricket, helped introduce the Chance to Shine contracts (supported by the Cricket Foundation), and assisted in the appointment of some key coaches. She also sits on the ICC women's committee and the Sussex board.

In Sydney to see the current fruits of her labours - and those of the team and support staff - she is impossibly fresh and articulate despite just having arrived from London. She's enthused by England's World Cup campaign so far. "We've tried to steer clear of the favourites tag," she says, trying to contain her excited hopes. "But if you're looking at the number of wins in a given period statistically, and with Claire Taylor and Isa Guha the best in the world at what they do, and Charlotte Edwards, Sarah Taylor and Holly Colvin also up high in those rankings, if you step back and you're completely objective about it, then we have come into this tournament with a really, really strong chance."

Appointing a full-time strength and conditioning coach has helped England gain the athletic edge on even Australia, while the influence of full-time coach Mark Lane and his part-time assistant Jack Birkenshaw is not to be underestimated. Lane, a former Kenya men's assistant, has coached women for many years, including Taylor, Edwards and even Connor. Under him, Claire Taylor went from being "quite limited" 10 years ago to the world's best batsman. "She was a hockey player, very bottom hand, very strong but quite limited. She didn't have by any means the all-round game she's got now."

"Do we need to go to national netball finals and give out flyers about cricket? Do we need to go to national hockey competitions and say, 'Come for a taste, see whether you like it?' "

Lane complements Edwards, the captain, well. "They're both very much heart-on-their-sleeve kind of people, setting high standards. The girls know exactly where they stand with both Lottie and Mark - there's no grey areas." Best of all, Lane isn't using women's cricket as a stepping stone to higher honours with the men. "He's wanted this job for a number of years," Connor says. "The impact he's had speaks for itself."

As for Birkenshaw, the former Leicestershire spinner, "He's got those completely undefinable qualities that come from experience, coupled with passion, real cricket knowledge and humour. He's very highly thought of everywhere and in any cricket circles back home, he spreads the word. He tells people how good these girls are, how hard they train, how committed they are - which the girls massively value in someone of this calibre."

The players themselves are feeling more valued thanks to their contracts. "The contracts have made them feel they've got a real role to play within the game and the ECB and the Cricket Foundation. They've been able to have a much better work-life-training balance, rather than this crazy life I used to lead trying to have a full-time career."

Now they can dedicate much more of their time to cricket. Some took extra winter training in Bangalore - "It was no holiday, it was eight hours of hard work a day" - where they faced spin from male net bowlers all day. Some also went to Australia to play. "There's pros and cons to the girls playing overseas," Connor says. "It's harder to monitor them, not in a Big Brother way but in a technical, 'What's their game looking like? How are they playing the cover drives? How's their slower ball?'" A few players stayed in home nets, working every week with Lane, with positive results.

With the current England side in safe hands, Connor knows what she wants when it comes to developing the next generation. "If someone said to me, 'Okay, you've got another half a million in your budget, would you pay the players?' Well, probably not, no. I don't think there's anything to be gained from saying 'Is the next step for it to go professional?' It probably isn't. It's to work out how to develop the next wave of players, the next high-potential 16- to 21-year-olds for when those other players go. You can't afford to have a big transition.

"From my own experience and lots of girls I played with, you got picked for England but you didn't perform for England for years because you hadn't been in the right environment for long enough to go straight in. You've got so few players to pick from, so you spot some talent and you spot some commitment and you stick them in an England shirt. Certainly I was given that opportunity far too early, and I'm sure lots of my team-mates would agree themselves."

Edwards is one of the strong exceptions; she made her Test debut at 16 and her first hundred in her second one-dayer, and her average has been consistently in the late 30s ever since.

Talent identification interests Connor hugely and she admits that at the moment picking the best juniors would be "a bit hit and miss."

Looking at other sports is one option. "Do we need to go to national netball finals and give out flyers about cricket?" she wonders. "Do we need to go to national hockey competitions and say, 'Come for a taste, see whether you like it? Not to poach them from other sports, obviously," she adds quickly, smiling, "because that wouldn't be a good move as a national governing body. Whilst we're doing loads to develop girls' cricket in schools and clubs, if girls are already very talented, have got very good hand-eye co-ordination, with good power and agility and good speed in other sports, then maybe some skills are transferable."

When talented players are attracted to the game, providing a supported path is the next vital step - "Not a rubbish experience, with filthy changing rooms and a club which doesn't really want them and being put on a rubbish wicket and being given bad officials," Connor says. "None of this is acceptable. It's got to be a quality experience that they rave about and that they stay involved in during their slightly tumultuous teenage years."

With Connor on board - and feeling "lucky" to be in such a position - women's cricket has every chance to get stronger and stronger. It's not just England who have good support and funding, however. Such are the strides of top sides such as Australia that the gap between them and the rest is being dangerously widened. It is in her capacity as Europe representative on the ICC committee that Connor can help.

"It's a global challenge to make sure some of these really exciting teams in Tanzania and Zimbabwe and Japan have got real opportunity to go through [ICC] regional tournaments and to have a goal of the World Cup qualifiers. What I'm doing in my job is with the ideas of pathways and making sure they are proper, whether it's a 14-year-old girl down in Devon or whether it's a 24-year-old in Pakistan. That's our biggest challenge. Everyone's got to have something aspirational, don't they?"

On that note she goes back outside to watch England beat New Zealand and further their own hopes and desires. And if Connor has her way, the next global generation of female players will all one day be able to reach out for even better support and touch their own dreams.

Jenny Roesler is a former assistant editor at Cricinfo