Clare Connor July 30, 2012

'The women's game is headed the T20 way'

Clare Connor, head of the ICC's women's cricket committee, talks about strategy and funding plans for women's cricket, and the decline of their Test game

What is the biggest challenge facing women's cricket today? Is it a lack of recognition, a lack of visibility?
I think those are the challenges that have always existed. I won't say they are the most significant challenges that the women's game faces.

It's probably better to look at the opportunities the women's game has got, especially with what the T20 format has brought to the game in the last few years, the growing numbers of women and girls that are taking up the game globally in really exciting pockets of the world that have never experienced cricket at all before. Those are huge opportunities for growth.

The obvious opportunity that we must capitalise on is the decision the ICC board has made to commit to the ICC World Twenty20 being a joint men's and women's event moving forward. That is a huge opportunity to drive the profile and exposure for the women's game.

Obviously, funding is going to be an issue, with ever-tightening budgets across all sport and across all businesses, so the opportunity to find funding through non-conventional sources, through government funds, corporate social responsibility funds, different commercial opportunities… we have to really explore what those are.

What were your immediate objectives when you took over as the head of the women's cricket committee at the ICC in July last year? You've also spoken about the ICC's strategic plan for women's cricket - could you share that with us briefly?
One of my short-term priorities when I took over a year ago was to really get our teeth firmly into the Females in World Cricket strategy, which the women's committee has been working on for the last 12 to 18 months. There are five pillars to the strategy.

One is growth, in terms of participation, so the number of females playing the game globally grows, but also growth in investment.

[Second is] the performance standards of the women's game at the highest level, so we're really trying to push the number of highly competitive women's teams. We just don't want to rest on a strong five or six; we need a game that is strong across the globe with more and more international games being played.

Profile is another pillar of that strategy, so trying to drive the profile of the women's game through broadcast rights, negotiations, double-headers in the T20 format, and for more of our Full Members to have female-specific promotional plans in place.

There are two other key pillars. One is around integration and influence. How can we, as the ICC women's committee, really help the full integration of the women's game? The main way, we think, is through influence - so having more champions for the women's game across the globe, having regular international forums focusing on females in cricket, keeping the engagement of key staff through the ICC's senior management, and also across the Full Member level, on everything related to the women's game - that's a really big piece for us. From my experience with the England and Wales Cricket Board, which is my day job, the better integrated the women's game becomes, the more natural it becomes for all members of staff to see women's cricket as the same entity as boys' and men's cricket. Obviously there will be some subtle differences, but in terms of driving opportunity, participation, income, setting budgets, coach education, all of those areas, we have to get as integrated as possible.

The final pillar of our strategy is around optimising the enthusiasm for cricket in Asia, especially with the World Twenty20 coming up and the women's World Cup coming up in India in February 2013, and the next World T20 for the men and women being in Bangladesh. So we've got a big opportunity there to engage with Asia and a growing passion for women's cricket in that part of the world.

You spoke of funding. Women's cricket doesn't have the kind of viewership among TV audiences that men's cricket does. What are the sources of funding that women's cricket receives?
Each member funds women's cricket differently, so it'll be hard for me to generalise. As you rightly say, a huge importance is placed on broadcast rights, and one of our aspirations is for all ODI members to include women's cricket in their next broadcast rights negotiations. I don't think that's too lofty an ambition.

We have to look at non-conventional sources of income, so looking at the activity agenda, the obesity agendas, health agendas, other government funding streams which might be out there - they certainly exist in England and I'm sure those opportunities exist for other members as well.

I think there is a lot of partnership work that can be done. I'm sure with some creative thinking and some partnership thinking, there are funds out there.

"One of our aspirations is for all ODI members to include women's cricket in their next broadcast rights negotiations. I don't think that's too lofty an ambition"

We've had about five seasons of the IPL now and one of the things people say is that it has drawn more women and children to the game. If I were to flip that around and ask you, what does women's cricket need to do to attract more men to watch the format?
It's brilliant to see loads and loads of young females having a great time at IPL matches, but what we need to focus on is not how do we bring more male or female spectators in; we just have to appeal generally by having good, competitive matches, focusing on where we stage those matches.

I think we have to appeal to families. That way we attract young people and we attract men and women. It's just a case of having a good product, having good competitive teams on display and the importance of maximising the opportunity to play double-headers alongside the men's game.

There have been some key tipping points. For instance, the semi-final of the World Twenty20 in 2009 between England and Australia women, which was played just before the men's semi-final. Many male cricket fans came out, and cricket writers such as Mike Atherton, Mike Selvey and Nasser Hussain - lots of those guys came out and said that that game of cricket between England and Australia women, where England chased down 164, was one of the games - if not the game - of the tournament, regardless of whether we're talking about men's or women's tournament.

If we put a good product on and if the skills are high, the athleticism is high, we all know that that will appeal to men and women alike.

Speaking of having double-headers, is the women's cricket committee considering having something along the lines of the FTP that the men have?
We do have something similar in place. It's not a legally binding contract, as it is in the men's game, but when the women's committee meets, that is something on our agenda - to look at the FTP in the women's game, how much is being played.

One of the things we have done in the last six months is increase the number of the minimum standard regulations, the number of games - bilateral cricket - that must be played in the ODI and T20 format. So that's something we've been constantly looking to address - really encourage as much bilateral cricket as possible, so that players have the opportunity to play in all different sorts of environments and all different sorts of opposition. What we don't want is for members to become too reliant on the ICC events.

Women haven't played a Test match since early 2011. Why is that?
This is a really difficult subject. As you rightly said, the only Test cricket that remains in the women's game, or has been over the last few years, is between England and Australia. The Test you mentioned was the Ashes Test - it was a one-off Test match in Australia. It really polarises opinion. For me, personally, I would hate to see Test cricket disappear for women.

However, the reality is that since the T20 format came into being in international cricket in 2004, there has barely been any Test cricket. That's because the T20 format gives us that platform. It's a shorter format, it's more likely to grow the game from a participation perspective and from a commercial perspective. It gives us probably more opportunity to get on television, and I think that is the way the women's game is headed. That's the reality and we have got to embrace that, and we are, with more and more double headers, as we talked about.

But I do believe there is a place for women's Test cricket. I've played the game myself and some of my greatest memories as an international player were of Ashes contests between us and Australia. I think until the women's game is fully professionalised and players can afford to be on tours of up to two or three months, like the men do, it's very hard to fit in all three formats. The reality is: if we don't play Test cricket, if Australia and New Zealand, for instance, are no longer going to play Test cricket, in the period of time needed to play a Test match, they could play three T20 games. They can get them on television and they can play alongside the men, and that's a huge opportunity.

Speaking of wanting to professionalise women's cricket, in a lot of countries women still have alternate careers alongside playing cricket at the highest level. Is there much being done by the ICC to incentivise women's cricket a lot more, drive more women to take up cricket as a professional career? England and Australia came out with contracts for women in 2008. You do have a contracts system in place in the West Indies.
I do believe the ICC can advise, in terms of the governance areas of women's cricket, the performance standards and participation and all those things that we've talked about. So long as there is a really healthy bilateral FTP in place and so long as the ICC sees that the performance standards in the women's game are going up, I don't think it's up to the ICC necessarily to legislate on whether the women's players should be fully contracted or fully professional. In an ideal world, yes, we would see that, but I don't think we are probably ready for it yet, and I don't think there are enough countries ready to fully professionalise the women's game for there to be enough women's cricket to be played that is commercially viable, if you like.

Lots of members are making really good strides with different types of contracts, whether they be central contracts or coaching contracts or part-time contracts. One of the best cases of how that's helped improve standards has been the West Indies, who in the last four years have really shot up the rankings and are a force to be reckoned with. There is the evidence there to show that some form of contracts is really useful and can be beneficial, but I don't think we are in a position yet to fully centrally contract across all teams, and I don't think it's the ICC's decision to force that implementation.

Finally, if you were to talk of expanding cricket beyond the traditional cricketing world, how has the reaction been among women taking up the sport in Associate countries and other countries? Has the ICC been involved in development programmes in these countries?
Yes they have, and the work that's being done by the regional development teams across the world is staggering, and I can now see that in the position I now hold on the ICC development committee. I had no idea, really, if I am honest, until the last 12 months, of the fantastic work being done across the regions in terms of developing the women's and girls' game.

What's really exciting and provides the women's game with a huge opportunity is taking cricket to new territories - for instance to Papua New Guinea or to Thailand. What you can do there is grow the women's game as quickly if not more than the men's and the boys' game because it's completely new in itself anyway. It's a new activity, a new opportunity, and whilst boys and men might have lots of other team sports in which to participate, cricket provides women and girls with a whole new opportunity that they possibly haven't had before.

The numbers, the growth we're seeing in places like PNG, EAP, in Thailand - the women's and the girls' game is growing far more quickly in Thailand than the men's and the boys' game. We have to really harness that enthusiasm, look at why it's working, what is driving that growth and enthusiasm in those areas, and work to share that best practice in other regions for whom it might also be relevant. That, for me, is certainly one of the most exciting parts of the experience I've had in the ICC in the last 12 to 18 months.

Siddhartha Talya is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo