<
>

Bridging the gap with the Super League

Twenty-one-year old Linsey Smith (front row, third from left) was one of the finds of the tournament Getty Images

It's the second week of the new women's Super League. Southern Vipers are playing Yorkshire Diamonds at the Ageas Bowl and the game is finely poised, with Diamonds 32 for 2 after seven overs, chasing 119. Vipers captain Charlotte Edwards, unsure where to turn, brings a 21-year-old left-arm spinner called Linsey Smith into the attack.

Her first over is a wicket-maiden. Two overs later she removes Alex Blackwell with a brilliant head-high reflex catch. She finishes with 4 for 10, the best figures by any spinner in the entire tournament.

Smith has never worn an England shirt, probably never hoped to wear one. She was not even named in the original Vipers squad; there is no handy profile of her to be found. ESPNcricinfo still has her down as a medium-pacer, although she switched to spin a while ago. The BBC commentators are baffled.

Another day, another Vipers game, and an ECB employee - who shall remain nameless - wanders into the press box. After watching the opposition's innings, he turns to me and says: "Who is that keeper, and why isn't she playing for England?"

"That keeper" is 22-year-old Carla Rudd, who was dropped from the Academy last year and is now fighting to remain in England contention.

The Women's Cricket Super League was designed for players like Smith and Rudd.

****

"Bridging the gap" has been the Super League's catchphrase ever since its conception in June last year. "This is the game-changer," said Clare Connor at the tournament announcement, "for as many talented cricketers to be the best they can be; to drive a high-performance culture." Edwards agreed: "We've been crying out for this for a number of years, to bridge that gap between international cricket and county cricket."

To understand that gap, it is important to be aware of the current domestic structure of women's cricket in England. It is entirely amateur: no money to be made by players; none available for paid coaches, none for support staff. The women's County Championship is played on Sundays (because players have jobs or studies during the week), on club pitches that are often not of the best quality. Some of these players barely train during the off season. Indoor net sessions are expensive when you don't have a ground to call your own. It's hard to see this as a sustainable model to create the England players of the future.

Vipers coach Nick Denning, who had been the coach of Berkshire Women for several years prior to his appointment with Vipers, is well placed to compare the women's county set-up with that of the Super League: "Professionalism is the main difference. We get our strength and conditioning coach, we get our physio, we get all these extra coaches, we get great facilities at the Ageas Bowl. You cannot replicate that in an amateur environment."

Vipers' Georgia Adams put it more succinctly: "It's another level."

This is where the ECB's £3 million worth of investment has gone. This is money well spent. This is the start of bridging the gap.

It is not just about facilities. Connor has repeatedly said that the aspiration is for the Super League to provide a level of cricket that is semi-professional. And professionalisation is partly about pressure: how you handle it, what you do with it, whether it makes or breaks you in a match situation. The Super League provides that pressure.

It has a different feel to county cricket. The stakes are higher - prize money and match fees - and the crowds are far, far bigger. For Adams, playing in front of 2240 spectators during the first Vipers game at the Ageas Bowl was an incredible experience: "Looking out and seeing so many people, it's completely new to me. I've never played anything quite like this. It's brilliant."

Some players thrived under the spotlight. Adams made 41 in that first game at the Ageas Bowl. Loughborough Lightning's young allrounder Paige Scholfield followed her lead in Lightning's very first home game, against Lancashire Thunder, entering the fray at 88 for 7, with her team chasing 165. The third delivery she faced was cut for four; England seamer Kate Cross was quickly dispatched for four boundaries in an over; and then there was a glorious six off Deandra Dottin. Eventually Scholfield was bowled, and Thunder won by six runs. It could have been a lot more.

Scholfield admitted to being nervous walking out to bat in front of the 600-strong crowd. "But," she said, "the women's game is growing, so I guess we've got to get used to it if we want to play at that higher level. And it's nice to have the home crowd behind you. For me I was nervous at the start, but then once we got going, it was a good backing behind us, and it almost builds your confidence really."

Other players struggle to deal with the pressure. In Bristol against Western Storm, Surrey Stars lost a game they looked certain to win, thanks to a poor performance in the field: leaked runs and dropped chances. "Just at the end," said captain Nat Sciver as she reflected on the defeat, "when we needed a bit of composure, we put down a couple of catches. This has been a really good standard of tournament. It really shows what the step up is and for some of the county girls it is a little bit different. It is definitely a learning curve."

But she promised to "have a chat with the team and let them know that a bit of composure and calm can help", and in their very next game Stars pulled off three run-outs - the best a neat piece of work from 20-year-old Cordelia Griffith at short fine leg. The players were learning, game by game, what it meant to step up and deliver.

They also learned from their team-mates - the six international players (three England, three overseas) in each of the squads. "Sharing knowledge" became another Super League catchphrase - as exemplified in several of the opening partnerships across the tournament.

There was Adams, promoted to open with Suzie Bates at the last minute following an injury to Edwards. Adams paid tribute to Bates after the game: "Her knowledge of the game and of the bowlers that we were facing - it just helped so much to keep me calm, keep me level out there… Suzie guided me through that innings."

There was 18-year-old Bryony Smith, who looked in no way out of her depth alongside opening partner Tammy Beaumont as she played classical drives and cheeky ramp shots, taking on bowlers left and right, including the ferocious Katherine Brunt. "Being around some of the girls here is just amazing," she said, after making 31 at The Oval. "It gives you something to aim for."

And then there was Emma Lamb, also 18, who opened in every game for Lancashire Thunder alongside her captain, New Zealander Amy Satterthwaite, and who - with scores of 25, 26, 34, 27 and 10, all at a strike rate of over 100 - was the only non-international player to feature among the top ten group-stage run scorers. "To see the young ones like her blossom in this tournament has been really great," said Satterthwaite. "Bryony Smith played similarly for Surrey and that's just what England will want to see from those players."

These players were asked to shine among the world's best. Those who managed it surely are the stars of the future.

****

I spoke to Linsey Smith after her 4 for 10 for Vipers. She seemed shell-shocked, perhaps unable to quite believe that she was the story of the day. I might just have been the first journalist to ever ask her for an interview.

I won't be the last. Suddenly everyone knew her name. A review of the inaugural Super League is not complete without a mention of Smith. When she came on to bowl on Finals Day, everyone sat up, knowing that this was a player who could make things happen. It was the kind of scrutiny that some of these players had never experienced before, but which, as the women's game grows, they will need to learn to deal with.

Smith seemed to be handling it just fine, thanks. "I feel amazing," she said. "It's a massive honour to be part of the Vipers, with such a huge variety of players at such different levels, and some world-class players. To get out there on a big stage like this is great."

The Ageas Bowl, she says, is her new favourite cricket ground.

****

Some Super League players will grow into international cricket. Others will not. But all have had an opportunity never before on offer to English domestic female cricketers.

For Smith, nothing has ostensibly changed: she went back to county cricket last weekend, and is headed back to university in September. But everything has changed, too. "As a player," she said, "it has helped me get better and better. It's a huge opportunity."

That is the power of Super League. That is bridging the gap.