"End of an era" is a phrase bandied around a lot in cricket: generally whenever a great player (often these days it seems to be a bloke with the name Graeme) retires. The historian in me is always sceptical about such claims. Sometimes, though, the term is apt; and though it may have slipped under the radar, as so much in women's cricket seems to do, I think it's pretty clear that we have just witnessed the end of an era for English women's cricket.
Just a couple of weeks ago, the ECB announced that it will be introducing the first fully professional contracts for England women. Though full details have not yet been revealed, the ECB's directors have agreed that a proportion of their future revenues will be used to provide the women's team with "a major pay rise" as well as a bonus to reward their recent Ashes win in Australia. Giles Clarke described the pay rises as "significant... we are proudly creating the first group of full-time women's professional cricketers."
It's not that no one saw this coming, seeing Cricket Australia introduce what amounted to pro contracts for some of their women cricketers last year; or that it wasn't the next logical step in a process of professionalisation that has been ongoing since the ECB took over women's cricket in 1998. And yet this was still by no means inevitable. In 1976 England captain Rachael Heyhoe-Flint, dealing with speculation about the future of women's cricket, wrote: "Women will always play for the love of the game and there will be no professional female cricketers." I have read countless variations on the theme since, most reaching the same conclusion.
You can understand why. In the entire 80-year history of international English women's cricket, its practitioners have plied their trade without any hope of financial reward, and with very little job security. In 1934, two of the English players who went on the first-ever international women's cricket tour came home without jobs to go back to. And this continued to be an issue throughout the game's history. Until the late 1960s, when the first government help was made available, any woman who wanted to play cricket for England was entirely self-funded, and reliant on a benevolent employer to let them have time off to tour. When Sue Metcalfe, who represented England in the 1997 World Cup, was selected for England's 1991-92 tour of Australia, she had to give up her job because her employer refused to grant her leave to travel.
And while it is often assumed that the situation instantly improved when the ECB took over, that isn't the case. Claire Taylor, one of the best batsmen the world has ever seen, was forced in 2001 to quit her £38,000 job as a manager for Procter & Gamble, switching it for the £7000 she was making annually through cricket, because the pressures of work and cricket were simply incompatible. Just a few months ago we saw Holly Colvin make the opposite decision to Taylor and retreat from the international game to pursue other career options. Money may never have been the reason women played the game - but a lack of it has often meant they had to choose between making huge financial sacrifices and leaving the game altogether.
"In the entire 80-year history of international English women's cricket, its practitioners have plied their trade without any hope of financial reward, and with very little job security"
Suddenly - for the top players, anyway - that stark choice between earning a decent living and representing your country at cricket will no longer exist. The day those contracts were agreed upon is probably the biggest in the history of English women's cricket since the day in 1926 when some women on holiday in Colwall decided they wanted to form a Women's Cricket Association.
It's the end of an era all right.
Just ask Arran Brindle, who announced her retirement from international cricket only four days after the ECB announced these new professional contracts. Brindle's career has spanned almost 15 years. She retires having scored 2852 runs in 134 international matches, and with 57 international wickets to her name; an impressive record from a supremely talented cricketer who will be sorely missed by her England team-mates. But the timing of her retirement is also somehow appropriate, coming as it does as we wave goodbye to the era of amateur English women's cricket.
Arran first played for England in 1999. That may not be all that long ago, but in women's cricket terms, it's a lifetime ago: a time when England players paid for their own kit, funded their own travel up and down the country to attend training, and were still fully amateur. For Arran, that meant juggling an international career firstly with her studies, and subsequently with her teaching job (as well, of course, as being a mother). While players had always played without pay, when the ECB took charge they consistently demanded the absolute maximum they could from their players - and then some. In 1999, for the first time ever, an England player (Sue Redfern) was dropped for failing a fitness test: playing under the ECB meant training six days a week, relentlessly. It also meant travelling to England sessions in Birmingham or Loughborough once a week, juggling club, county and England training, and getting leave from work to go on a six-week tour every winter and play for two months in the summer.
Lottery money and Sport England funding, and finally direct financial recompense from the ECB, allowed players to cut down on their working hours; but it was still impossibly difficult to find an understanding employer. In 2002, back when Arran Brindle was Arran Thompson and was breaking the record for an opening stand in women's Test matches (200, with Caroline Atkins, against India), England drew the Test but lost the ODI series 5-0. They were missing six of their top players, whose universities and employers had refused them leave to tour.
The Chance to Shine contracts, introduced in 2008 to allow players jobs within cricket that would give them the flexibility to train and play on a semi-professional basis, were a player-led initiative - the response to the pleas of a group of cricketers who could barely manage the kind of time commitment that the ECB required. These helped matters enormously; but they did not cover all the players. When Brindle returned to international cricket in 2011, after taking five years out to have her son, she continued to balance playing cricket with her job as a teacher, right up until the end.
When I heard the news about her retirement, here is what struck me: that Arran Brindle is the vanguard of a generation of England cricketers who trained and played as hard as professionals, but were never paid as such; who always did it for love, not money.
Out of the 15-player England squad who are about to begin their World Twenty20 campaign in Bangladesh, only four of them remember an England playing career that did not involve a Chance to Shine contract; and bar Charlotte Edwards, none of them ever walked onto a cricket pitch clad in anything other than trousers which someone else had paid for. Brindle is almost the last (Edwards really is the last) of the generation of players who remember a time when the vagaries of employers and personal finances dictated your opportunity to represent England at cricket. Thanks to the ECB, that period will soon be consigned to just being a memory.
Historians love a happy ending, and when someone (ahem) writes the definitive history of women's cricket, this latest decision by the ECB is certain to feature heavily. So I guess I should thank it for providing such an obvious conclusion to my PhD thesis. But, above all, I'm thankful that the new era will make things that much easier, in every respect, for the Arran Brindles of the future. My feelings towards the ECB may be somewhat complicated at the moment, but for this, it deserves one huge pat on the back.