Pushing the boundaries
Ten years at the top brought Clare Connor fame, if not fortune, and took women's cricket to a new level. Jenny Thompson caught up with the recently retired England captain.
Michael Vaughan celebrated his Ashes win with a 12-hour champagne fest that bubbled over into Downing Street. His counterpart Clare Connor also toasted her team's success but had one glass and drove home from Worcester the same evening. As an English and PE teacher at Brighton College she had lessons to prepare.
At the victory parade through London back in September there was bemusement among the 100,000 fans in Trafalgar Square at some of those on the open-top buses. "Are they the wives and girlfriends?" No, they were the England women's team, Ashes winners no less and a proud measure of the progress made since Connor first played for England in 1997 when the Women's Cricket Association, an amateur body, was in charge.
On her first tour, to India, Connor had to pay £500 towards her blazer and travel costs. "There was no element of professionalism at all," she recalls. "No getting prepared as a team, talking about strategy, roles, goal-setting, scenarios. Nothing."
The ECB took over that year and the women became equals. Vodafone sponsorship and lottery funding followed, as did training camps and access to specialists and one-to-one coaches. Publicity increased too. "I thought, I'm going to make her into a star," recalls Andrea Wiggins, the ECB press officer, about meeting Connor.
That was in 2000 when England were still on a golden goose chase more than 20 years after dropping their captain and figurehead Rachael Heyhoe-Flint - paradoxically for being too famous. They were at their lowest ebb, crushed by a disastrous tour of New Zealand and Australia. Not that many people knew and fewer still cared. The game needed a hero, preferably an articulate and attractive one.
Enter Connor. Already a worthy understudy as vice-captain, she proved a natural leader. When she took her final bow six years later, her team had pocketed the Ashes after four decades and climbed from No. 5 to No. 2 in the world rankings. Women's cricket had a whole new image - and a new icon.
Not that fame drives her. "Celebrity status doesn't rock my boat at all," she says, preferring life at her old school, where she was the first girl to play for the boys' first XI and where she now spends her time correcting students' coursework and their delusions of grandeur.
Her sixth-form group were shocked to learn she earned nothing for her international services. "They said, 'What? You weren't paid lots of money to play for England?' The children don't know. They think it's all about posh frocks and awards dinners and endorsements and win bonuses. It's not."
Last summer's Ashes win fuelled that impression, although one pupil, 15-year-old Holly Colvin, was under no illusions. Connor's fellow Ashes winner, she grabbed a lift home from the celebrations with her teacher.
But even those dreamy days were ones of hazy distortion. For the women one-dayers are the prize, as Connor herself has admitted; no preparation goes into a Test. But that is not the public perception. "In terms of media recognition and profile, winning the Ashes has been more important than the one-dayers," she says.
Talking a good game beats playing one. As with such male counterparts as Mike Brearley, Connor's brain has made up for a lack of runs: she averages 16.46 in one-dayers, 20.07 in Tests. Her bowling stats are moderate: a one-day economy rate of 3.48 and a Test bowling average of 27.91.
But her pieces for The Observer and three summers commentating for Channel 4 are worth their weight. Playing the female card on TV would have been easy but Connor was scrupulously professional: no squeezing Mike Atherton's knee or Sue Barker-style fluttering. Why change the habit of a lifetime? Playing alongside boys from an early age, she never found gender an issue. "I look back and think, 'Clare, you played 25 games of cricket and didn't see another girl all summer.'"
Accidentally famous and accidentally feminist she may be but her image - and consequently that of the game - is deliberately professional. You rarely see her warmth or humour, which is a shame as she has both in spades. Just ask Prince Philip.
On the morning after handing Connor her OBE at Buckingham Palace in January he was widely reported to have made a classic gaffe; she admits otherwise. "It's a bit crummy," she suggested of the women's Ashes trophy, a lump of balsa-wood she described as a "CDT project gone wrong". But those quotes were attributed to him. When she hears this she gasps. "Oh God, I could get summoned for treason!" That is doubtful. She gets summoned only for tea and medals; 13 months earlier she went there to pick up an MBE. But is she stealing the limelight? Unlike the men's Ashes team, only Connor was decorated. "People like my mum say, 'It's for your individual contribution.' But I see it as collecting them on behalf of the team."
Her mum may be right. Years of soap-boxing finally forced her retirement in March, aged only 29. Even a two-year sabbatical did not help. Ironically it may have curtailed her career. "Michael Vaughan, he never has to talk about the state of cricket in schools for boys," she says. "It's been draining." She is now slumped in an armchair in the staff room, looking worn out. She also looks more relaxed than ever.
At least she had the choice to retire, unlike that other pioneer Heyhoe-Flint, who after years of tireless, groundbreaking work was dropped by a jealous WCA. "Mrs Flint has made women's cricket into a sport to be taken seriously," wailed the Birmingham Evening Mail. Her team-mate Jill Cruwys warned: "Without her at the top the game will go down and down." And so it proved.
It may be on the up and up again now but England must learn from history and, while a supportive ECB eased Connor's burden, they have not always been perfect. "Rod Marsh never said a word to us," she says, flatly. Fortunately the new head of the Academy, Peter Moores, is more encouraging. He has already discussed with Richard Bates which resources the women need and how they can learn from the men's game. "It's really exciting," says Moores. "Hopefully I can help. That's the plan."
But for the plan to come together England need the players. With whispers of frustration at having to put careers on ice, drastic steps are needed to retain the Ashes-winning players for the next World Cup in 2009. Summoning a rallying spirit to make Heyhoe-Flint proud, Connor has persistently lobbied the ECB with suggestions.
"Why not say, 'Look, here's 25 grand. It's a proper contract. You are employed by the ECB. You are England cricketers.' Use those girls and their skills so they can train properly. What are you talking? You are talking about a hundred grand. Are you telling me they can't find a hundred thousand pounds to ensure these players have a future?"
It is an encouraging sign of the times that £100,000 is not considered an unreasonable demand when 10 years ago cake bakes, raffles and begging were the order of the day. Yet much is still to be done at all levels. "They need to say, 'Let's think of ways now to be a bit different and move the game forward: motivational sessions with children who don't like sport, getting some government funding.'"
These concerns, and others such as knocking Australia off the No. 1 spot, are no longer hers. She has a new challenge, playing for the celebrity side Lashings, where she will continue as a role model. Other than that she has no cricket plans, apart from vague thoughts of coaching or managing - eventually. "I have to have a rest for my own sanity." She may not even watch England take on India this summer. "When the time comes I don't know how I'm going to feel."
It is not easy letting go, having given so much. "I won't be self-deprecating and say I haven't but I'm sure if it had been Lucy Pearson, Romper [Clare Taylor], Laura Newton, it would have been the same. They would have poured their heart and soul into it." But could they have done it so articulately?
She has doubts about her successor Charlotte Edwards - off the pitch at least. "Tactically we are very similar. But she won't be as confident with the media." Knowing this and her brand value cannot have made retiring any easier. She admits to plenty of tears in the "hours and hours" deliberating with her parents.
"Dad would say: 'Is it your job?' 'No it's not my job.' 'Is it injuries?' 'No, it's not injuries.' 'Is it a personal life?' 'No, it's not a personal life.'" There lies a dreadful irony: cricket, that great social game, put paid to a whole decade of socialising. There is no resentment. "I hate the word sacrifice. My mum uses it: 'It's been a huge sacrifice.' I've loved every minute."
But in the end she could do no more. "To be England cricket captain - woman, man; paid, unpaid; sacrifice, no sacrifice, it requires your all. It deserves that and I wouldn't have been able to do that."
Happily there are no regrets. How could there be? "When I'm 80 and I'm clearing out my bungalow and I'm pulling out my Ashes-winning shirt, I'll say: 'Crikey, 2005, I remember it like yesterday.'"
This article was first published in the May issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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