Women's cricket in USA desperate for lift

Erica Rendler is a key figure in the efforts to keep the USA Women's program alive Peter Della Penna

At this spring's ICC Combines scattered across eight cities in the USA, close to 500 men in the junior and senior age groups took the field hoping to be noticed for a chance at inclusion in USA's Under-17 and senior men's squads. Such was the demand for competition that several hundred other male applications were rejected.

Officials had been looking to encounter similarly enthusiastic participation from women, particularly since there had been few opportunities for them in the USA since 2011, the last time the USA Cricket Association held a national women's tournament. Instead, there were approximately 45 women nationwide who signed up. About half came to the New York trials, while 16 came to San Francisco, leaving single-digit participation - or none at all - for the other sites.

"We're still learning how many women play the game across the US," Tom Evans, the ICC Americas high performance consultant who coordinated the ICC Combines nationwide, said. "They're a really passionate group, some of those girls, which is great, but it's not a huge number at the moment from what we understand. There might be more out there that didn't come to the combines and hopefully we can work them into some sort of talent ID process down the track."

Based on the numbers of that last USACA tournament in 2011, there were about 100 women playing across the country at that time. That has stagnated, or even gone backwards, despite initiatives such as the New York PSAL high school cricket competition, which welcomed girls to play as part of co-ed teams.

"At junior level we'd love to see more girls take up the game and build up the depth of that talent pool," Evans said. "But for the moment we'll work with the girls that we've got and there's some really talented and passionate girls in that group and I think with some good coaching and development work, that group could have some success."

Five years ago, the USA Women team was having its share of success and appeared to be on the rise. After taking two years to find its footing upon the women's programme initiation in 2008, they defeated Canada in a best of three series in Canada during the 2010 summer to be the region's representative at the following year's World Cup Qualifier in Bangladesh, something that would ideally lay the foundation to spur greater awareness and participation numbers.

The following summer, a private donor wrote a six-figure check exclusively earmarked for USA Women's preparation for Bangladesh. The men's team had never received such generosity in all its years competing in ICC events and such financial backing, if done on a consistent basis, could open up all sorts of opportunities for women.

However, that seed funding money had served mainly to sow discontent as petty squabbling between players and administrators broke out. The Bangladesh tour stipend offer to women players from the USACA was less than typically given to men players on tour. The USACA claimed that the lower stipend was tied to their destination, with the cost of expenses being lower in Bangladesh than a men's tour of Dubai. The women's stance was that it was discrimination.

Separately, the women were also unhappy that coach Linden Fraser, who also led the dominant Tri-State Lynx club team from which most of the USA Women's squad competed for locally, had been replaced as USA Women's coach by Robin Singh shortly before the final 14 to tour Bangladesh was expected to be picked. A standoff ensued: give us our money - and our coach - or we won't go.

The USACA called their bluff, despite a stern warning from the ICC to come to an amicable resolution with the players. The end result was that eight Tri-State Lynx players, all in their 20s, stayed home, and were replaced by women in their 30s, 40s, and even 50s. Outside of a shock one-run win over Zimbabwe, USA Women were trampled in their other five matches.

The repercussions continue to this day. After the 2013 Women's World T20 Qualifier, when Canada represented the Americas and finished tied for last in the eight-team event, the berth designated for the Americas region for the World T20 and World Cup qualifiers was withdrawn by the ICC. Despite announcements that it would stage women's tournaments, the USACA never produced one after 2011. Only a dedicated but small group of players in pockets around the country have kept the dim flame of women's cricket from being extinguished altogether, organising tournaments on holiday weekends in places like Atlanta, Georgia.

A hastily organised pair of matches last November by USACA against a touring Pakistan women's team were the first signs of life at the national level since 2012. However, the T20s were lopsided with Pakistan Women chasing a target of 57 in five overs followed by a 142-run win on Duckworth-Lewis. Mahika Kandanala, who was part of that USA squad but did not make the starting XI, says the experience highlighted how much work needs to be done to get USA competitive.

"I learned that the international standard is very, very high," Kandanala said. The 14-year-old, who plays in a boys' academy squad in suburban Dallas, travelled to the New York ICC Combine to compete with about 20 other women. "In order to get to that level, you have to work a lot. You have to practice almost every day and you have to be willing to try new things and see what works best for you."

Kandanala is waiting to take up the baton currently being carried by players like Erica Rendler, who was USA's second-highest scorer at the 2011 Women's World Cup Qualifier. At 31, it was only Rendler's second tournament for USA after the former NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) athlete had picked up the sport on a family trip to Australia two years earlier. Her future seemed bright, but last year's games against Pakistan and this spring's ICC Combine leading to the MCC tour next month are the first chances she's getting at serious competition after losing her prime years to administrative indifference.

"I was hoping to see a little more women participants out here," Rendler said of the New York Combine. She had flown out from California to participate in the New York Combine after being unable to attend the one in San Francisco due to work commitments. "I think we had a group averaging about 20 and that's the key takeaway, encouraging others to get involved and everybody bringing a cricketer out so that we can increase the talent pool and continue to build up the national programme."

Though she was one of the older players to show up at the combine at age 35, Rendler still comfortably had the best fitness of any of the women on the field and even beat former USA men's captain Steve Massiah in a timed 2K run. However, most of the other female players were charted well below the targeted guidelines, highlighting the need for elevated standards and a more competitive player pool to pick from.

The conundrum about participation numbers, though, continues to be a chicken versus egg scenario. Does there need to be greater investment to spur interest in terms of playing numbers, or will funding and fixtures increase only after the player pool rises? One way or another, players like Kandanala hope the commitment is there for women's trials and competitive opportunities on a regular basis.

"It was a good experience," Kandanala said. "If we do this every six months, it'll see this is how much I've done, this is how much I need to do."