Women's game grows under the glass ceiling
On January 10 an England cricket team returns to the WACA for the first time since the Ashes urn was surrendered to Michael Clarke's Australia side, leaving England's men experiencing their most painful low since the whitewash of the 2006-07 series.
This time it is Charlotte Edwards who leads England out against Australia, with the defence of the women's Ashes on the line. The four-day Test marks the start of the multi-format points series, which was introduced in England last June. England won that series emphatically 12 points to four.
The Test, worth six points for a win, was drawn, with England losing the first ODI at Lord's before recovering impressively to win the remaining five games straight (two ODIs and three T20s worth two points each).
Should England succeed where the men failed and retain their trophy, the ECB is hoping a feel-good factor will permeate through the recreational game, leading to a boost in the number of women and girls wanting to play the game.
In the wake of the women's 2013 Ashes success, the ECB published encouraging figures about the number of females playing cricket, claiming the Ashes victory helped raise the popularity of the women's game, raising participation at grassroots level.
The game-wide study commissioned by the board concluded that 63,560 women and girls over the age of 14 had played cricket in the 12 months leading up to October 2013, and the number of clubs offering cricket for women and girls had grown from 90 in 2003 to more than 600 in 2013 - an area viewed by the ECB as the fastest growing section of the game.
"Three of our spikes in female participation have come after the Ashes win in 2005, the two World Cup wins in 2009 and, according to the most recent Sport England participation figures, on the back of last summer's Ashes victory," explains Clare Connor, head of women's cricket at the ECB. "We believe that creating role models alongside well celebrated success in major events creates the opportunity to grow the game."
"In the Under-13 and U-15 Lady Taverners competitions this year, we saw a participation increase of over 30% - with 13,610 players up from 10,330 in 2012. I am therefore full of optimism about the opportunities for girls to play cricket from a young age."
As part of the ECB's study, 1.2 million scorecards were analysed from Play-Cricket.com, 21,500 recreational cricketers across the country responded to a survey, and feedback was gained from 12 focus groups.
The figure of 63,560 makes up 7% of the overall grassroots participation. Not huge by any means, but certainly a growth area compared to what numbers have been historically.
Devon is a county that illustrates the growth in the women's game since England's glorious summer of 2005, when the women regained the Ashes for the first time in 42 years and shared a high-profile open-top bus parade through London with Michael Vaughan and his Ashes-winning team.
"Eight years ago there were very few cricket clubs that had an offer for girls to be able to play," says Matt Theedom, Cricket Development Manager for Devon. "There may have been one or two with a passionate parent who had a daughter who was into cricket, and they might have set up a team, but they were few and far between. However, if I look across the county now, I'd say there are 12 or 13 clubs that have a specific offer for girls."
The situation is reflected in Sussex where England wicketkeeper Sarah Taylor grew up. "When I first started, you would have had to travel miles to find a women's club to play in. I ended up in Crawley playing there, but for a boys team. They were very accepting though - they didn't see me as a girl, they just saw me as a cricketer, and if I was good enough then they were more than happy to leave out some poor guy that wanted to play, to get the best XI on the day."
Theedom puts Devon's growth partly down to the promotion of the women's game in the county by Devon's England opener, Heather Knight, and players such as Jodie Dibble from the England Academy. On top of that he has worked hard to impress upon clubs the benefits of having a women and girls section, such as expanding club membership and drawing in parents of girls who might otherwise not get involved. He is in no doubt, though, of what the greatest influence has been.
"We have had an absolute massive increase in the number of girls being exposed to cricket at school. That has been our biggest driver," he says emphatically. "Having more girls exposed to cricket at primary and secondary schools means a weight of numbers being pushed into cricket clubs, and clubs need to grow to accommodate that."
Exposure in schools has come about through Chance to Shine, the initiative set up in 2005 by the Cricket Foundation, the independent charity, to get cricket back into state schools. It employs several members of the England women's team as coaches and is about to deliver cricket to its one millionth girl. A specific focus on girls is aided by the spin-off campaign, Girls on the Front Foot.
While the growth at grassroots is unquestionable, the challenge now for the ECB is how to manage that expansion and ensure these girls are catered for when they get older. In October, ECB Chief Executive David Collier stated that, "meeting the rising demand for women and girls for more opportunities to play the game in teams at every level is top priority for ECB and a key element of our new strategic plan, Champion Counties."
At the moment though, girls who join a club and then want to take their cricket seriously after the age of 18 come up against some significant barriers.
"The finance around the women's game is very unequal compared to the men's," explains Theedom. "In Devon, at U-18 level, girls and boys are resourced exactly the same - so if you're a county age group U-15 boy or girl, you get the same kit, same access to the same coaches and the same quality of pitches. Because of this, the girls' game is quickly catching up with the boys', which is fantastic. When it comes to the senior women though, it is not. The funding available to the bottom ages of the game is equal. The funding at the top end of the game for women and men is unequal. Devon Minor Counties CC will get X amount of pounds whereas the Devon Women's Cricket Association will get Y and it's totally disproportionate, because the cost of running a game of cricket is exactly the same, yet the funding is not."
Devon's senior women have to pay for their own kit and accommodation if they want to play for their county, and the team are considering fund-raising activities such as bag-packing at supermarkets in order to fund their next tour.
"A senior county women's squad shouldn't have to fund raise," says Theedom. "For a woman to play the game it is far more expensive than it ever would be for a man."
An inequality of funding is evident from the very highest level of the game and was highlighted during the World Twenty20 in October 2012 when it became apparent that the international women's teams were given US$60 living allowance per day, whereas the men received $100 to play at the same tournament in the same country. Commercially, until the women's game can be seen to bring in higher returns, funding is likely to remain skewed towards the men's game. But there must be an element of chicken and egg to this, and at the ECB level, if large numbers of girls are to be encouraged to continue playing cricket after the age of 18, the funding situation will need to improve.
"This growth obviously causes a strain on local facilities, so we have to make sure that the supply really meets the demand to a high standard," says Connor.
"We also have a wonderful army of volunteers in cricket who do so much to support the recreational game and we have to cherish them as a critical part of our infrastructure. But it's not just about facilities, it's about making sure that the women's and girls' sections are fully integrated in the way the clubs operate, with well-run leagues and relevant competitive opportunities. This 'normalising' of the sport when boys and girls are at their most impressionable really does give us the chance to revolutionise our sport."
A revolution may be on the way, but it will still take a little while yet.