Emergency calls in prospect as Welsh Fire seek new women's brigade
Back to drawing-board for serial wooden-spoonists, but captain Beaumont stays upbeat
Last Friday night, Welsh Fire had almost finalised their plans ahead of the first-ever women's draft in the Hundred, as the bottom club from the tournament's first two seasons attempted to build a new squad that would enable them to compete in 2023.
But by the time they reconvened on Monday morning, Fire's brains trust had learned that Annabel Sutherland, the Australian allrounder, had pulled out of the competition. They had been allowed to retain four players before the draft but chose to keep hold of only three. Now, they had just two players left standing.
"We were back to the drawing board," says Tammy Beaumont, one of those two retained players along with West Indies' Hayley Matthews, and Fire's captain. "It's been a really new experience but it's been quite difficult.
"Every week, there's been a new draft list out. You get your ideas ready, then next thing you know, whoever was going to be one of your top picks has pulled out and you rip it all up and start again."
Fire's women have won only three of their 14 games in the Hundred, and have won back-to-back wooden spoons. Their early struggles, and the success of two-time finalists Oval Invincibles and Southern Brave, underpinned the ECB's decision to introduce a draft to the women's Hundred after an ad hoc recruitment process in the competition's early years.
The draft's primary purpose is to restore some competitive balance. "The teams did become slightly unbalanced," Beaumont reflects. "It's not great for the competition if a team always finishes down the bottom - why not mix things up and give them a chance?"
Fire's poor results have been replicated in the men's tournament, where a winless 2022 season cost Gary Kirsten his job - he has since been replaced by Michael Hussey. The new team's teething problems were summed up by Nasser Hussain on Sky Sports last year, after their final defeats at Trent Bridge: "There's neither been many Welsh nor much Fire."
"The Welsh are very proud people," Gareth Breese, Fire's women's coach, says. "I know that because my dad is Welsh, and I know what he's like. We had some really good crowds down at our home games last year but results do matter, massively, and we can't get away from the fact we haven't had those results so far."
Fire will make six picks in the draft - every other team will make four - and are the only team with two vacant spots at the top salary band (£31,250). Several England players, including Sophia Dunkley, Kate Cross, Danni Wyatt and Sarah Glenn, are available in the draft, but every team can use one 'right to match' card, which Breese anticipates will act as a "fifth retention" and could scupper Fire's plans.
"We've had a lot of conversations," Beaumont says. "What if this person gets taken then? What's our plan A, B, C, D, E? We have flow-charts for each and every eventuality, making sure that whatever goes on in the draft, we know where we need to go from there. It's really intrigued me - you get a bit of a buzz from it."
Various overseas players have pulled out in the weeks leading up to the draft, including Australia's Megan Schutt, Elyse Villani and Tayla Vlaeminck, and Fire's plans have shifted during the course of the planning process. They can sign two more overseas players alongside Matthews, and two more England-contracted players alongside Beaumont.
Breese is tight-lipped as to the identity of their first pick, but has sounded out the rest of his coaching staff throughout their planning for the draft. "With one of our players pulling out, we wanted to make sure that was still the way we wanted to go with that change," he says. "But we're pretty clear on the direction we want to go."
Beaumont's own move to Cardiff - she spent the first season of the Hundred playing for London Spirit - came about through a much more informal process.
After Spirit played Fire at Sophia Gardens, Beaumont caught up with Fire general manager Mark Wallace, who asked her off-hand what it would take for her to move west the following season. "Offer me the captaincy and we'll have a chat," Beaumont said, jokingly; a few months later, he did just that.
The system has changed quickly. "Speaking to some of the girls who haven't been retained, there's a lot of excitement and a little bit of anxiety around, you know, this time next week I could be at a completely different team," Beaumont says. "It's the way that the women's game is going."
There is some security for players who are not yet professionals, or who do not want to risk spending August travelling up and down the country: only the eight most lucrative contracts at each team will be filled on Thursday night, with an open-market recruitment system to follow before the tournament starts.
Beaumont's fiancé served in the Royal Welsh Regiment of the British Army; when she first moved to Fire, he told her that "Welsh people will fight for an underdog" and she believes that much was evident from the support they attracted in 2022, despite a run of defeats.
"There's a Welsh word, hwyl, which means hard graft, and I think the fans started to see that as a women's side, we were giving it good hwyl and throwing ourselves into it." But clearly, Fire's ambition is to build a strong team on Thursday - one which can string a run of wins together.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98