Girls don't just want to have fun
England's men are not the only ones on the rise. Jenny Thompson finds the women's team on the warpath for a third triumph
Unlike the men's team England's women have twice had their hands on the World Cup. But after they last raised it in 1993 their reputation began to unravel. By 2000 their worst finish - fifth out of eight - prompted Wisden to declare that John Harmer, then coach, would "need something of a magic wand to mount a meaningful campaign for the 2005 World Cup in South Africa".
Harmer and his successor Richard Bates have been assiduously sprinkling fairy dust ever since: England's sleeping beauties have risen from their slumber and made serious strides in the last two years to be lively outsiders in South Africa behind Australia and New Zealand.
The gradient has been steep since they were whitewashed by Australia in 2001. Fast forward three years, to last summer's one-day series against the world champions New Zealand, and England won 3-2. A fairy-tale ending is by no means impossible. So what has changed?
Much of the improvement lies with the innovative Super Fours, a tournament for the top 48 players in the country. The Super Fours has bridged the yawning gap between international and county level, not just in terms of playing standards but in on-pitch attitude.
Nobody embodies that change better than England's captain Clare Connor, who has given women's cricket an iconic face and a harder nose. She has also brought cohesiveness to a squad which has been welded from two different generations: Connor's equivalent of Michael Vaughan's PlayStation Generation - such as 18-year-old Jenny Gunn - mix easily with what the 39-year-old allrounder Clare Taylor describes as "the PG Tips gang".
Not that the bad old days have been completely washed away. Women's cricket may be more robust than ever but strains of the old, amateurish era remain. Taylor, who has played in both cricket and football World Cups, also works in schools and undertakes driving jobs and occasional speaking engagements. Imagine asking Freddie Flintoff to find time to deliver stock and work on his stock delivery while training to win a World Cup. And play football.
There might not have been a World Cup at all had it not been for a casual after-dinner chat between Rachael Heyhoe-Flint and Sir Jack Hayward, the godmother and godfather of the modern women's game in England. "Union Jack", best known for his patronage of the football club Wolverhampton Wanderers, financed most of the cricket World Cup - which took place in 1973, two years before the men came to the party - by stumping up £40,000.
Hayward had already financed two successive tours to the West Indies in 1969-70 and 1970-71 because, according to Heyhoe-Flint, "he loves women and he loves cricket, so what better than to support something that combines both?" Whatever his motivations, England beat Australia by 92 runs in the first final at Edgbaston.
England have always led the way in the women's game. In 1745, long before Captain Cook discovered Australia, the first women's match was recorded. The Reading Mercury described a game held at Guildford, between Hambleton and Bramley, as "the greatest cricket match that ever was played [in the South]. The girls bowled, batted, ran and catched as well as most men could." And, for the record, "the Bramley girls got 119 notches and the Hambleton girls 127".
As cricket took hold of the country, 18th-century matches could attract crowds of 3,000, with rowdy, rival supporters drinking and clashing. Such revelry was worsened by the heavy betting involved: £1,000 could be staked on one game as players competed for such prizes as gloves and pieces of lace. There was even a six-a-side match in 1775 where Six Single Women beat Six Married Women at Moulsey Hurst by 17 runs. And they were dedicated forerunners of fashion too, pioneering pyjama cricket with players wearing orange and blue as well as the traditional white.
Women's cricket was thriving but its progress was threatened two years later as the Industrial Revolution forced pace bowlers to become spinners, spinners to become weavers. Yet a more serene game arose, played by "Ladies of Fashion" in the grounds of stately homes. Cricket's popularity advanced further towards the end of the 19th century. Schools took up the game and the first club, White Heather, was established in 1887.
By 1890 cricket was seen as a commercial prospect. Exhibition matches were played around the country between the Reds and the Blues. More than 15,000 attended a match in Merseyside although, as the Liverpool Echo reported, "they came to scoff and remained in praise". But the managers absconded with the profits, the teams disbanded and - as cricket came to be seen as a sport for unmarried women in forbidding Victorian times - the game lurched on to the rocks.
Enthusiastic schoolgirls mounted a rescue act, gamely rolling and marking grounds themselves before play. And these girls grew up to be the women of a more relaxed Edwardian era, reviving the adult game until, with the founding of the Women's Cricket Association in 1926, cricket was back on the up.
Despite significant advances, "I didn't know women played" is a familiar refrain even now. Sky TV has done its best to raise awareness and their cricket producer Paul King is impressed with the standard. He went to see England play Australia on his day off, a stance which he proudly defended in the face of taunts from his friends. "I took a bit of ribbing", he says. "But I wanted to go and see how the series worked out, as we'd done the first two games."
Even though Sky are not covering the World Cup - it is not in their contract - they have asked Rosalie Birch to provide a video diary of England's preparations. "I don't think enough is known about women's cricket," says King, "and everyone should see they're a serious outfit."
Cricket is certainly a serious business in Pakistan. Their vice-captain Sharmeen Khan describes it as "a second religion" and the media have provided a lot of positive coverage. Sharmeen concedes this may be "because it's something new" but, with the media's support, they have been able to fight successful pitch battles for the use of grounds previously denied to them.
The game is equally popular in India but its long-term development is being hindered by Indian men wanting brides with fair skin, according to their captain Mamta Maben. "Because of Indian men's concept of beauty, so many talented players do not take up cricket," she says. "It is a gruelling sport and you are out in the sun for at least seven hours." No one wants to be the ugly sister. India's largest consumer company Hindustan Lever, attempted to cash in on this by advertising one of their skin creams using an aspiring female cricket broadcaster who lands a job after using the product.
Australia's captain Belinda Clark agrees that Indian sportswomen face more issues than her compatriots. "At home women's sport does not generally get the media attention or interest," Clark says. "But at the same time I think in our culture women have a more equal opportunity."
In England equal opportunity arose from the merger of the WCA with the ECB in 1997 which opened up an Aladdin's cave of opportunities. The female equivalent of centrally contracted players are the elite athletes. The 24 international players are Lottery-funded and each receives up to £15,000 a year towards developing her game. Taylor now has only to say "Open Sesame" and her wish for individually tailored coaching is granted. Or she can get nutritional and media relations advice from the English Institute of Sport. "A lot had to come out of your own pocket in the past," she says. "It's great to be able to go and train and not worry about the financial burden."
A glance through the history of women's cricket makes it look like one long fudge-making fundraiser. Only 10 years ago Taylor had to buy her own England blazer and contribute £500 towards the cost of a tour of India. Ireland's manager Sandra Dawson, who played in the last three World Cups, recalls years of "endless quizzes, cake sales and raffles" to raise funds for the Ireland Women's Cricket Union before its own merger with the Ireland Cricket Union in 2001. Whereas once players toiled to raise £100 from home-made nibbles, these days they can have their cake and eat it. An individual can now pocket £10,000 if, like Lucy Pearson, she scoops the Vodafone Player of the Year award, the same amount as the men's winner.
"England have a much better structure of professional people behind the whole set-up, rather than a lot of good-hearted, willing volunteers," says Heyhoe-Flint, England's victorious captain in the first World Cup in 1973. "The level of backroom staff these days is terrific, with their psychologists, their physiotherapists and their medical back-up and administration. It's bound to be because they're hand in glove now with the ECB, unlike in my day."
Equality is catching. The women's game is steadily embracing the harsh edge and physical fitness of the men's. It comes as no surprise that Australia lead the way when it comes to sledging. "They try to get under your skin and put you off and occasionally it works," admits Dawson. "The Aussies are near to the knuckle and it's done to get you out," adds Taylor. "With the others it's just light-hearted banter. But I would rather they chat to me. It just settles me down, especially if I'm batting."
Dawson thinks that fitness, both mental and physical, will be key to this World Cup. "Those who are mentally tough will overcome their opposition," she says. "In South Africa it's going to be a tough schedule. Fitness-wise we will have the edge."
"You have to have a good squad around you," says Taylor, a winner in 1993. "That year we had a great team spirit and players did jobs that were out of their comfort zone. Carole Hodges wanted to play orthodox. We talked about getting unorthodox - like hitting to cow corner - and she bought into it and it was brilliant. She scored a brilliant century against Australia. She did it for the team and not for Carole Hodges.
"We had players batting in positions they didn't want to. Now I think we have a squad again that are prepared to do that. Rosalie Birch opens the batting at club and country but is prepared to go in at No. 6."
Off the field, though, progress is still to be made. "The game has a stigma," says Dawson. "We all know that in certain areas of the men's game a wry eye is cast when people find out you play cricket and that can raise a large question mark against your sexual preference. It's a barrier that has to be broken down for the future progression of the sport and to attract sponsorship. Hopefully plenty of role models will be on the world-class stage to settle that score."
And if more women join men's clubs and play in school teams, such smirking questions as: "Are you a boy?" might be avoided. Dawson believes linking the men's game with the women's is crucial at all levels. She suggests that England's women should play Twenty20 matches before men's Twenty20 games.
The biggest impact, however, should come when the merger of the ICC with IWCC is ratified later this year. "I'm all for it," says Heyhoe-Flint. "When I was playing, I kept on saying: `Why don't we merge fully with the men's game?' because they're so much longer established. They've got far greater numbers, they've got far more business acumen. I could see the full benefits of being merged with the game that carries the full strength and power throughout the world." If that happens, then the women's game really will be able to take its pick from a global Aladdin's chest. In the meantime everyone is eyeing just one piece of silver.
Jenny Thompson is assistant editor of Cricinfo.
This article was first published in the March issue of The Wisden Cricketer. Click here for further details.