May 2004 May 6, 2004

If there's a Wie, there's a way

Golf has found a girl who may compete on level terms with men

Golf has found a girl who may compete on level terms with men. Could it happen in cricket? Tanya Aldred investigates

Michelle Wie: taking on the men on equal terms © Getty Images
Michelle Wie, with every step of her size nine and a half shoes, is changing the course of golf and stirring up the muddy flats of the sex war. It was 10 years ago that a tubby-legged Wie first picked up a club. Now she is 14, nearly 6ft tall and just so happens to be able to drive a ball more than 300 yards.

Early this year she became the first female teenager ever to play in a PGA tour event, at the Sony Open in Hawaii, and missed the cut by one stroke. The cameras and notepads devoured her. Jesper Parnevik, a five-times winner on the PGA tour, was so intrigued that for the first time in his professional career he joined the gallery and followed Wie's progress round the course. And, when she opened her mouth, this girl, who hates the shopping mall and finds boys annoying, said something that will have given the shivers to golf's misogynist mafia.

"The time is changing. Our state [Hawaii] for one. Our governor is a woman, Linda Lingle. And I think women are rising. Just because I'm playing in a men's tournament doesn't mean that it should become a trend but it's just what I'm doing as my hobby, what I want to do."

It is quite a rallying cry. The question is whether women like Wie and Annika Sorenstam, who played a PGA tour event last year, will change the face of all sport or just their own. Will cricket, a sport which has revelled in such bons mots as Len Hutton's "Ladies playing cricket - absurd, just like a man trying to knit" ever dazzle the world with its shining equality policies? Will - could - a woman ever play with men for Surrey or England?

Things have changed dramatically for women cricketers in this country over the last 10 years. In September 1998 MCC at long last voted to let women become members. It may have been only to open the door to lottery funding that would otherwise have been withheld but it was still a deeply symbolic move: the Lord's pavilion, the most famous in the world, was no longer a bastion of the moustache and blazer. The ECB and the Women's Cricket Association merged, women's cricket got lottery funding and for the first time players did not have to fork out for everything including their own sandwiches. Women cricketers started wearing trousers. The England team got a sponsor and a TV deal with Sky. Peter Roebuck, the editor of Wisden Australia, chose a woman, Belinda Clark, as the cricketer of the year in his first edition.

Girls now play Kwik cricket with boys at primary school and pony-tailed teenagers have broken a number of male fortresses armed with nothing but their whites. In 1999 the 15-year-old Laura Harper made the front pages of the broadsheets by being the first female to be picked for a male regional team, the West of England Under-15 Boys; in 2001 Kathryn Leng became the first woman to play in an inter-UCCE match, for Bradford-Leeds. There is more specialist coaching available for women players and more time for training. There is even a media profile: Clare Connor, the England captain, is a summariser on Channel 4 for the men's game.

But this is all flotsam to the fundamental question. Will there ever be a woman strong enough, fit enough, large enough, brave enough to challenge a man for an international place? Connor, who played for the Brighton College 1st XI for two years, and was the only girl on the school's tour of Zimbabwe, is no stranger to the topic.

"It is one of the questions I am asked most every year," she says. "And all men want to know is how good I would be if I played men's cricket, as if that is the only way of gauging your ability. It can be infuriating. But I am really curious as to how far you could go in a men's arena and I have had lots of heated debates about it. I think that the only way a woman could make it into a senior men's team is for a female spinner to come through the ranks as I don't think a fast bowler or batsman would be strong enough or quick enough.

"I think what Wie and Sorenstam are achieving is fantastic but I do think cricket is a bit different. Golf is a closed skill. When you tee off, you're not playing against a person, nothing affects you. Cricket is an open skill. You're affected by the pitch and, if you were to play a mixed sex game, you would be bowling against a man and batting against a man. But, that said, in sport you can condition yourself. If you put Charlotte Edwards in a situation where she trained and played with men every day for a year, who knows how good she would be? It would be a really interesting experiment."

Girls are coming through the ranks now who are making coaches pinch themselves. Take Johmari Logtenberg of Natal, a South African schoolgirl, who played against England last summer. Her mentor, who also coached Herschelle Gibbs and Daryll Cullinan, reckons she is better than either of them was at 15.

Belinda Clark: cricketer of the year in Wisden Australia © Getty Images
But Richard Smith, the physiologist at the England Academy at Loughborough, has his reservations. "When it comes down to physiology men have better genetics, not for all sports but for cricket and that sort of game. They are more predisposed towards explosive-style sports; they have speed, strength and a higher muscle bulk. For example, I would say that there will never be a woman who can run the 100m as fast as the fastest man.

"Men and women are anatomically and physically different, though from a skills perspective a woman can develop the same as a man and in cricket I'd say that time of equality is not far off. But I would hesitate to make the comparison between men's and women's cricket. You should respect each game on its own. There are even delicate issues such as hormonal cycles and how women respond at different times of the month. In the same way that you should not compare one animal with another animal, you should not try and make the two the same. And that is the way you should coach as well. Men and women are very different."

But does he agree with Connor that it would be possible for a female spinner to play men's cricket to the highest level. "Again it is complicated. You listen to spin coaches like Terry Jenner and he uses words such as `power' and `rip' in trying to add revolutions to the ball; that is the language of strength."

One look at Shane Warne or even at Muttiah Muralitharan's hefty arms and shoulders would prove that they have had to work hard in the gym. But surely there is a chance that a freakishly strong and anatomically perfect woman might come along? "Then you start to get into the realm of drugs," says Smith. "You just have to look at track and field."

In any experiment to test pure ability women and men would have to have equality of opportunity. But in the real world, whatever comparable level of cricket a woman and a man reach, the woman will have played only 1/20th of the amount of cricket, not to mention the stresses of trying to compete for a place in an alien and sometimes hostile environment. As Connor says, "When I coach, I do encourage girls to play competitive cricket with boys, not just for the development of their physical skills but also to toughen up mentally. If you're playing boys' cricket, you've got everything to lose as people are just waiting for you to fail."

So is there to be no Wie for cricket? Is it not possible that there is a four-year-old girl somewhere in the world who will watch India playing Pakistan or England playing West Indies on television this spring and pick up a bat this summer on the beach and just fly? Will no one say of a female cricketer as Arnold Palmer said of Wie: "She will change the scene, without question, with her golfing. She's probably going to influence the golfing scene as much as Tiger Woods or more. She's going to attract people that even Tiger didn't attract, young people, both boys and girls, and families."

The experts seem to think it unlikely, given that, as Connor admits, "no woman is ever going to mis-hit a ball for six". But 20, 10, even two years ago Wie would have been a pipe dream. Underestimate the young girl in the whites at your peril.

This article was first published in the May issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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