Women's cricket November 12, 2015

Robinson looks to restore England's belief

The ECB have made a significant appointment for the women's game and ahead of a crucial 18 months which includes a World T20 and a World Cup, new coach Mark Robinson and head of cricket Clare Connor discuss the challenges

It tells you something about the current state of women's cricket in England that the new coach of the national team admits that, despite 30 years in the sport, he was introduced to the women's game by his daughter about five years ago.

And it tells you a little more about it that, at his first press conference in the role, many of the questions put to Mark Robinson were not about his plans for women's cricket, but how his appointment might impact his future in the men's game. The implication is that women's cricket has a long way to go until it is considered on an equal footing with the men's game.

But the appointment of Robinson as coach is the latest significant step in the development of the women's game.

Robinson, as a vastly experienced county coach, is probably the most high-profile appointment in the history of the game in England. And if his softly-spoken demeanour and ambivalence for the spotlight render him lower profile than some unsuccessful candidates for the position, his record demands respect.

Sussex, the club he has twice led to the County Championship, are the only non-Test-hosting county to have won the title this century. Only 18-months ago he was interviewed for the coaching role of the England men's team. He has impressed in spells as coach of England Lions and England Under-19s and defeated a strong field of candidates for this role that included several overseas applicants and one woman. It reflects the growing status - and growing financial power - of the women's game that such a coach, a role he describes as "vocational", has been recruited.

He was not about to be sacked by Sussex. While it might be fair to say that, after 15 years on the coaching staff at a club that had just been relegated, he felt the need to explore new challenges, he would have warranted an interview for almost any domestic coaching job for which he applied. His appointment really can be seen as a coup by the ECB.

Robinson credits his 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, for introducing him to the women's game. Ellie is a seamer who has developed through the Sussex ranks and whose development has necessitated Robinson taking an ever closer interest in the game. "She brought me into this world," he says, "and opened my eyes to it."

Yes, it's a professional sport now. But we want to keep some of the innocence - some of the genuine love for the game - that made them want to play in the first place. We never want to lose that
Mark Robinson

He is not the first high-profile men's coach to move into women's cricket. Australia appointed Matthew Mott, who once coached New South Wales to the Sheffield Shield and had been an assistant coach to Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL, to their equivalent position in March. As money comes into the game, it will surely happen more often, though he may prove to be the last man appointed to the role.

"At the moment there are no female coaches in cricket out there who have the skills and experience to be in this role," Clare Connor, the head of women's cricket at the ECB, said. "We hope there is a time in the not too distant future when a former female player, probably, can be the head coach of the women's team. It is something we need to proactively support if we are to succession plan for players to transition into those sort of roles."

But it will surprise some that Robinson would willingly make such a move and surprise some that, for the first time in English cricket, a job in women's coaching might be viewed as a promotion on a job in county cricket. Whether it comes to be seen as a step on the rung to the men's coaching job remains to be seen, but it is not impossible.

But Robinson explains it simply. "I was never lucky enough to represent my country as a player," he says, "so to lead an England team is hugely exciting. International sport is the highest level and the prospect of leading a team to World T20s and World Cups is a thrill.

"I don't look at it like that - as a promotion - from a personal point of view. But the more I looked at the opportunity the more exciting it was. With the explosion in women's sport over the last few years, it just felt instinctively right. There is such a high ceiling, that's what is so exciting."

That ceiling is nowhere near touching distance as yet. After a four-year spell when they could claim to be the best side in the world, they did not reach the final of the 2013 World Cup, were beaten in the final of the 2014 World T20 and, in 2015, lost the Ashes. As Connor puts it: "We should be a sport that is aspirational for an athletic girl. I don't know that we are at the moment."

But Robinson's appointment is but one step in a steady progression that, 18-months ago, saw the ECB embrace professionalism in the women's game and, in the next few months, will see the launch of a Super League. It will take time to narrow the gap between a domestic game that is all too often played on poor surfaces and with a shallow group of top players and the international game, but action is being taken. For the first time, there is a pathway to a career as a professional player for women.

That is not specifically Robinson's area. He has been employed to coach the England team and will not, like some of his predecessors, have a role that involves re-structuring or engagement with grassroots schemes. His role is to coach the first team squad and he will have, in time, the scope to assemble a team of coaches around him to assist. If success inspires a new generation of girls to watch and play the game - and there is surely no better way to do so - he will have done the game a great service.

' International sport is the highest level and the prospect of leading a team to World T20s and World Cups is a thrill' © Getty Images

He is, at this stage, unable to answer many bread-and-butter questions about the team. Immersed in his job at Sussex until the last couple of weeks, he does not currently have, in Connor's words, "the breadth of knowledge" required to identify promising players or fix faults. He spent Wednesday afternoon getting to know Charlotte Edwards and will spend much of the next few weeks pouring over DVDs of his new players in action.

But his great skill at Sussex was to fix players, broken either in body or mind, and instil in them new belief and enthusiasm. It bodes well for an England side that has looked, of late, short of both. Indeed, it has looked as if professionalism, in the short term has held them back, with a fear of failure replacing the joie de vivre of earlier teams.

"They've stumbled of late," Robinson says. "But that's okay. That's how you learn.

"From watching this summer, I thought there were times when they didn't realise how good they were. It looked like they didn't quite believe in themselves enough to let themselves go. It looked as if there was doubt in the mind and sportsmen all play best when the mind is free from doubt."

The advent of professionalism has brought increased scrutiny. Alongside the sponsored cars and full-time salaries has come an expectation that results should improve and, in the summer of 2015 as the Ashes were relinquished, it was noticeable that the team were subjected to more criticism - "most of it fair," according to Connor - than at any time in their history.

While Connor welcomes such scrutiny as a sign of acceptance into the world of professional, international sport - "we should be in every global final," she says - it may well have come as a shock to some players or look as if they froze at times. But, perhaps that's where Robinson can make a difference.

"I hope that's an area I can help. Just because we give them more money, it doesn't instantly make them better players," he says. "It's a new era, with new possibilities and new pressures. It's magical, but it's brutal, too. There is more expectation.

"They are all new to this world of professionalism. Not all of it is lovely; some of it is quite hard. The media is not a bed of roses. There isn't an Ed Joyce, who has been beaten up by the press and come out the other side, in the dressing room, to show them the way. I hope I can help them understand accountability.

"But it is a privilege to be involved in professional sport and playing for your country is the highest honour possible. We should never lose sight of that and they haven't. They still have that pure love for the game.

"We want the players to go out and express themselves, so we can't shoot them if they get caught in the ring. We can't have it both ways. We saw from the men's team in the World Cup what happens. We need to have an environment where it's okay to make mistakes.

"Yes, it's a professional sport now. But we want to keep some of the innocence - some of the genuine love for the game - that made them want to play in the first place. We never want to lose that. You see it in the men's game sometimes: those over 30 start to play so well, as they see the end in sight and start to play for the right reasons. We mustn't lose sight of where we came from and what's important."

Calm but demanding. Patient but expectant. Experienced but still excited by the challenge. There are still relatively early days in the development of women's cricket, but as England look to nurture a team through these tricky early years in the professional world, the ECB may well have recruited a gem in the acquisition of Robinson.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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