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The women's game is more marketable than ever in the wake of England's World Cup win
March 25, 2009
For a pleasant couple of hours on a crisp March morning at Lord's, sandwiched between his hasty return from Australia for IPL discussions and the disarming speed with which that trip was rendered redundant, Giles Clarke was able to reflect, with some justifiable pride, on a fortnight in which English cricket had made itself the envy of the world game, rather than the laughing stock.
Forget Allen Stanford, forget Pietersen v Moores, forget the men's unflattering tally of one fortuitous victory in 16 matches since September. As Charlotte Edwards led her impressively grounded squad of champions through the Grace Gates to deliver the women's World Cup to the ECB trophy cabinet, the rewards for investment and endeavour could hardly have been more tangible.
The preparations that went into England's World Cup win were so meticulous and groundbreaking, even the Aussies felt obliged to cheer for the Poms during their four-wicket victory over New Zealand in Sydney. "One ex-Australia player came up to me after the final and said that England winning will be the best thing ever to happen to the game," said Edwards. "It might just kick all the other teams into action, to replicate what we've done out there. That's quite a compliment."
"I think on the plane journey back home it all sank in, what we've achieved," she said. "It's great to be back home, but it's only now I realise there was a huge amount of expectation on the team - it's probably why I didn't sleep for two weeks. I always knew the team could do it, and it's always been my dream to lift the World Cup. We finally did it, and now I can sleep again."
Edwards won't be allowed to shut her eyes for long, however, because for the women's game, the real challenge begins now. Fast approaching in June is the ICC World Twenty20, a competition that takes place both on home soil and in conjunction with the men's game. Then, of less significance globally but still retaining considerable clout in the popular imagination, come the Ashes.
"The opportunity this success has given us is huge," said Clare Connor, who led the team to victory in the Ashes summer of 2005 before going on to become the ECB's head of women's cricket. Her appointment to that executive role in 2007, having previously spent two years teaching at Brighton College, was the first step in placing the women's game on an equal footing with the men's. The second step is the one that has to be taken right now, while the women are riding the crest of their World Cup wave.
"The World Twenty20 is a joint event which is setting a global sporting precedent, and the opportunity for double headers with the men's game is massive and something we want to do more and more of," said Connor. "We have to really have a clear plan how to capitalise on the victory, both in terms of promotion and in what we do internally and commercially. Our sponsorship deals will soon be up for renegotiation, so we have to be really savvy."
The women's game has rarely seemed more marketable than it does right now. Claire Taylor, the Player of the Tournament and the veteran of the side at 33, has played 123 matches in her 11-year career, but remembers from personal experience what the power of inspiration can do. She was there in the stands at Lord's in 1993 when England's women last won the World Cup, back in the days of skirts and knee-high stockings, and when women were still barred from the Long Room.
"I was up in the stands with my friends, and at the end we all rushed down onto the pitch and I grabbed [namesake] Clare Taylor and said, can I have my picture with you? I was 17, in the junior England set-up at the time, and thinking of perhaps playing senior cricket. That's the inspiration you can get, and hopefully we can get out and give the same level of inspiration as role models."
Clarke had no doubt that that would be the case. "I don't wish to take anything away from the 1993 team, but I was interested to be told by those who knew that team well, or played in that team, that nobody in that team would get into this team," he said. "That's not to denigrate that particular team - they were the best there was at that time. What I mean is that standards have risen so much, and that's very encouraging."
|"Until there's more interest, and we have more commercial partners, it's hard to see where the money for central contracts could come from, and even if it were an option, whether we would actually want to do that. We appreciate our more rounded approach to cricket, and having that balance in life" Clare Connor|
"The game has moved on massively," said Connor. "The tragedy in 1993 is that the team basically broke up afterwards, even though it got great coverage. They had no money to tour and played no international cricket for two years, so their opportunities were lost. This time we hope to keep building and building and building."
This time there is little danger of that happening, thanks to the innovative tie-in with the Chance to Shine project that has had rival boards queuing up to copy the concept. With 10 of the squad paid either as full- or part-time schools coaches, the ECB has hit upon the perfect vehicle with which to inspire future generations at grassroots levels, while at the same time ensuring that the current squad does not drift away for a lack of career opportunities.
"Just imagine the start of the summer term," said Connor. "Charlotte turns up at the breakfast club and there are 25 11-year-olds being coached by an England World Cup winner, with the trophy in tow. It's so powerful, and unlike the men, who have gone way beyond that level, it's something the women's game can still do. Our aim is to put more players on those contracts, and make sure that the relationship between the England team and inspiring youngsters remains really strong."
Taylor, who was living at home until the age of 30 because her cricket commitments prevented her from finding a full-time job, is one of the principal beneficiaries of the scheme. She is now a management consultant based at Reading University and believes a taste of the real world is an essential part of England's success. "That sort of maturity that comes with having a job, independence, and running your life brings a huge amount of perspective to individuals, and adds to the cricketers that we've got."
Perspective is one thing that the women's squad seems to possess in spades, and it is one reason why the prospect, however distant, of one day being brought under the auspices of the ECB central contract system isn't as tempting as it might once have sounded.
"I don't think they are out of the question," said Connor, "but until there's more interest, and we have more commercial partners, it's hard to see where that money could come from, and even if it were an option, whether we would actually want to do that. We appreciate our more rounded approach to cricket, and having that balance in life. We have lots of other stuff going on outside cricket, and if there were central contracts, I don't know if that would be the best thing."
All such issues will doubtless be mulled over by Clarke, as he seeks to savour an English cricket story that, for once, is unequivocally good news. "This is very exciting for cricket as a sport," he told Cricinfo. "Half the nation are female, and we're actually beginning to take advantage of that, and not just ask them to make tea."
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