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An ICC for women? It might be the only way to save women's Test cricket

Women currently have little representation in the ICC's various committees that don't understand the distinctive history of the women's game

Raf Nicholson
Raf Nicholson
22-Jun-2022
The women's Ashes Test ended in a thrilling draw, Australia vs England, Only Test, Women's Ashes, Canberra, January 30, 2022

The 2021-22 Women's Ashes Test ended in a thrilling draw that added to the clamour for more games in the longest format for women  •  Getty Images

There is a lot of women's cricket happening in England over the next three months - the Commonwealth Games; the second iteration of the Hundred; an ODI against India at Lord's in September - but ask any England player which match they really, really want to play in, and they will all say the same thing: the Test match against South Africa at Taunton next week.
If you listened to the recent remarks from ICC chairman Greg Barclay, you might be surprised at that response, given that he has, effectively, proclaimed the death of women's Test cricket. "I can't really see women's Test or long-form cricket evolving at any speed at all," he told the BBC's Test Match Special recently. "That's not to say [members] can't choose to play Test cricket, but I don't really see that as part of the landscape moving forward to any real extent." White-ball cricket, according to Barclay, is "driving the money".
Men's Test cricket is also a loss-maker in most instances, but Barclay doesn't mind that because, according to him, "men's Test cricket represents the history and legacy of the game - it is what makes the game unique". The fact that women have been playing Test cricket since 1934 - far longer than men in Pakistan (first Test, 1952) and Sri Lanka (first Test, 1982), and almost as long as men in India (first Test, 1932), appears to have escaped his attention.
Barclay was simply reiterating an existing ICC policy. Since the ICC took over women's cricket in 2005, only 20 women's Tests have been played. The majority of those (11) have been between England and Australia; South Africa have played two, India seven, and New Zealand and West Indies none at all. Compare that with the first 71 years of international women's cricket, where multi-Test series between all these countries were the norm, and you realise that the ICC has done a very effective job, under its watch, of undermining the very existence of women's Test cricket.
The ICC's follow-up statement, issued to ABC after criticism of Barclay's remarks, suggests they are surprised that anyone is bothered about their lack of encouragement for women's Tests. "To focus on the lack of growth in Test cricket is to ignore a huge section of the sport," it says. "The growth of women's cricket is one of the strategic priorities of the ICC strategy and the game has grown significantly in the 17 years since its integration with the ICC… Test cricket can be played by Members, but the ICC has chosen to focus its investment on the white ball game to accelerate the growth and engage broadcasters and commercial partners so we can achieve a long-term sustainable future for the game." Pointing to success stories including joint T20 World Cups with the men, more broadcasting of women's cricket, and a packed-out MCG for the standalone 2020 World Cup final, the statement concludes: "This investment has been fantastic for the women's game." The undertone to these remarks is pretty clear: women's cricket should be grateful for what it has got from the ICC.
The players don't agree. For the England squad, thrilled at the prospect of their first Test against South Africa since 2003, as well as for players across the world, the idea that a bunch of men sitting on the ICC board can dictate to them that they shouldn't be playing cricket's premier format is infuriating.
Could there be a different way?
Sometimes I dream of an alternative universe, where the International Women's Cricket Council (IWCC) didn't vote to dissolve itself in 2005, handing over charge of women's cricket to the ICC. This isn't completely far-fetched. When discussions about working more closely with the men were first mooted, the IWCC, which had run women's cricket single-handedly since 1958, hoped it could remain in existence as a section of the ICC. Their 1999 governance report concluded that they could "move to becoming a sub group of the ICC board responsible for the development of women's cricket… A separate development officer and administrator for women's cricket would exist but would report directly to the [ICC] CEO."
Had that happened, it's likely women's Test cricket would have continued to be played across the world - albeit still with a reduced number of matches, given the subsequent rise of T20. An IWCC survey conducted in 2000, five years before the merger, showed that "all countries indicated support for a combination of Test and one-day cricket"; the Women's Cricket Association of India felt that "without Tests, women's cricket would be seen as having no Test players and the game would suffer" - a remark that has proved prescient.
In this alternative history, women's voices would have been heard much more loudly across the ICC. The IWCC Committee, which ran the women's game, was a women-only affair; men were not permitted to represent the IWCC or to act as delegates at council meetings. Those who were involved knew women's cricket intimately, having served at the coalface: the last president of the IWCC, Christine Brierley, had been president of the New South Wales Women's Association, had served on the Australian Women's Cricket Council for eight years, and had managed the Australian women's team. Compare that with the ICC's board of directors (18 directors, of whom one is a woman) and chief executives' committee (19 CEOs and ex officio members, of whom one is a woman) and the difference is pretty stark.
Does this matter? Well, given the critiques of the ICC outlined in the Woolf Report of 2012, and the widely recognised importance of diversity to good governance, the involvement of more women would almost certainly have helped grow the sport more quickly and more effectively.
What happened in reality? The suggestion that the IWCC might continue as a sub-group was firmly rejected by the ICC, who insisted on a full takeover. The problem with an IWCC sub-group within the ICC was that it would have too much independence. A joint ICC-IWCC report on women's cricket published in 2002 concluded with a stark warning to the IWCC, saying that as a separate entity women's cricket would struggle to be recognised. "The history and tradition of the IWCC are important, but if the IWCC resists change in order to maintain those, it is setting itself up to become an irrelevant body," the report said.
Those running the IWCC were therefore convinced there was no choice but to dissolve the body - which, as we know, took place on 31 May 2005.
In the end, what happened that year was a trade-off. As the ICC's recent statement makes clear, there have been significant advantages to its takeover of the women's game: not least professionalisation, and the kind of media exposure of which the IWCC could only have dreamt. But in exchange, women's cricket sacrificed its autonomy, and had to hand over ultimate control to people who - as Barclay's comments make clear - do not understand the distinctive history of the women's game.
The ICC's women's committee, set up in 2005, does contain prominent former players, and has been chaired by a woman, Clare Connor, since 2012. But far from reporting directly to the chief executive, as the IWCC had hoped, all its recommendations have to be approved by the men on the main ICC Board. How much influence does the women's committee have in reality?
Connor is a well-known advocate of women's Test cricket who a few years ago described the format as "sacred for the players". Those views have influenced the shape of the game within England, where Tests have continued to be on the agenda. But the men of the ICC have, it seems, paid little attention. It's pretty obvious where the real power lies.
It might be argued that all this is moot: there is no way of going back and redoing the 2005 takeover. But maybe it's not too late to give some power back to people who know and care about women's cricket? Maybe, with the recent resurgence of interest in women's Test cricket, and a women's game that can now fill the MCG for a World Cup final, it's time to break away again?
What might this look like in practice? I'm currently researching the history of sporting mergers, and I've been pondering this for a while. One plausible first step is devolution. In the same way that certain political territories are given legislation-making powers by national governments, the current women's cricket committee within the ICC could become the sub-group the IWCC originally asked for. Alongside it would be an equivalent men's sub-group. Both groups would have their own budgetary autonomy; both would have 50% representation on the ICC board. The women's group would discuss all issues relating to women's cricket, and the men's group would do the same for the men's game.
Should there be an issue which impacts both games, it could be discussed by both groups, who would submit their views to the overarching board for a final decision. But more usually, the new Women's ICC would have the ability to make decisions independently of those being taken in the men's game. The revenue from the newly unbundled media rights to women's cricket would be handed to this new Women's ICC, who would have the budgetary autonomy to distribute it to members as they see fit. Crucially, members would then be able to use some of this revenue to subsidise the playing of women's Tests, in the same way that some members currently use ICC funds (plus their own broadcast and commercial earnings) to, effectively, subsidise men's Test cricket.
In the short term, this new structure might create some complexity - individual member boards would have to liaise with a new Women's ICC and Men's ICC, rather than one organisation. But they managed this just fine in the pre-2005 days, so I'm sure they could cope. Besides, over the longer term, if all worked well, individual countries might well decide to adopt a similar model at national level. And given that there is resistance by some of the current national boards towards women's Test cricket - New Zealand Cricket, for example, is thought to be opposed to the format - a mandate from the new Women's ICC to play more multi-day cricket could have an important trickle-down effect on attitudes at national level.
Perhaps we should be looking at the ICC's reign as a 17-year experiment: does it work when men rule the cricket world? There have been some successes, yes. But wouldn't it be great to once again have people in charge of women's cricket whose priority is the women's game, whose vision for our sport is fully informed by its history, and who are 100% dedicated to its future?

Raf Nicholson is a writer on and historian of women's cricket. @RafNicholson