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Where are the female umpires?

Women's cricket might have come on in leaps and bounds in recent times, but there are all too few women in charge behind the stumps

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Umpire Kathy Cross signals a four, Australia v South Africa, Women's World T20, Magpur, March 18, 2016

Kathy Cross in the last women's World T20: "In men's cricket, the ball comes down a lot faster. Women are not fast but play the game with the same intensity"  •  Getty Images

It is 2017. A woman is in charge of the country with the largest economy in Europe. A woman was, till last month, chair of the African Union Commission. The CEO of General Motors is a woman, another heads Pepsico, and a third leads IBM. Women do everything from construction work to firefighting, but a female umpire has yet to officiate in a high-profile men's match.
Why? Well, it's professional sport and male-dominated professional sport, so what do we really expect? These things take time.
Female football referees are only just starting to become familiar sights, especially in South America, and in 2015, both the NFL and England's RFU added their first female officials. Cricket is also taking small steps. Women have officiated in the Women's World T20 Qualifier in 2015, and then in the main event in 2016. This month the ICC announced that four female umpires would stand at the Women's World Cup qualifier in Sri Lanka, with a view to them progressing to the Women's World Cup later this year.
The baby steps may seem condescending but it follows the structures the ICC has in place for all umpires, regardless of gender. As a member-driven organisation, the ICC relies on domestic umpire programmes to feed their panels. The more female umpires member countries have in their systems, the more female umpires the ICC will have at its disposal. The problem is that there just aren't that many going around.
In Australia, where there are 9168 active umpires, a little over 3% (278) are women. South Africa has close to 50 female umpires. Numbers elsewhere around the world are similarly low. Simon Taufel, who worked with the BCCI's international umpires panel, and the next three rungs, said to ESPNcricinfo that there were no female umpires among the top 110 officials that he had come into contact with in India.
So is it simply that female umpires, like female journalists in sport, are a small but growing number, or are they actively choosing not to become involved in a profession they feel will discriminate against them? Perhaps it's a bit of both.
"When compared to their male colleagues, there is a lot more pressure on a female official to get everything right because they are so easily identified and criticised"
Sean Easey, CA match-officials manager
"Females seem reluctant to get involved and that is something that we are trying to change," Sean Easey, the match-officials manager at Cricket Australia said. "There is a traditionally male-dominated environment in cricket, and the reality is that female officials subsequently stand out from their peers. For example, when compared to their male colleagues, there is a lot more pressure on a female official to get everything right because they are so easily identified and criticised. That will change as the ratio of male to female umpires improves, but it will take time."
Kathy Cross would know. She is the most experienced member of the four the ICC has chosen to stand in the Women's World Cup qualifier, and the first woman umpire on the ICC's Associate and Affiliate Panel, which she was appointed to in 2014. That made her eligible to officiate in World Cricket League matches from Division Three to Six, and she has since stood in a Division Five and Four event. She has also been involved in three women's World Cups and has presided over 39 women's ODIs and 16 T20s.
Cross' journey to the middle was much longer than that of many others, primarily because she only found a means to participate in cricket after she was married, with children.
"I was always interested in cricket but could not play the game in my early years because I went to a girls' school, which did not have a cricket team," she said. "It was only after my marriage that I got interested in cricket as my husband and three children - two boys and a girl - used to play at the club level. We supported our children and I started playing at the age of 30. I played women's local club matches for close to ten years."
By chance, the vice-principal of a college where Cross used to volunteer asked her whether she would like to go to an umpires' meeting "to have a better learning of the laws of cricket", and she agreed. She moved from playing to umpiring after 40 and then things sped up a touch. Cross had only been umpiring for a year when one of the umpire trainers suggested she try to become involved in the 2000 Women's World Cup, which was being held in New Zealand.
Although Cross did not stand in that tournament, she was in the background and quickly moved on to her first "big match" - a domestic women's game between Canterbury and Central Districts. She has since overseen much bigger events, including a Women's World T20, and admits there is a difference between officiating in a men's match and a women's.
"In the men's match, the ball comes down a lot faster. Everything is a lot quicker. Watching the ball is much different," she said.
There are also elements that are the same. "Women are not fast but play the game with the same intensity." Doubtless that means it requires the same concentration and the same presence of mind to make the best decisions in the moment.
Although Cross dreams of standing in a Test match, be it a men's or women's fixture, just like any other umpire, she feels "that is a long way away because women umpires will need a lot of experience before they can get there".
For a start, they would need to graduate to the ICC international panel, and Cross is not the only one to suggest it will take several more years, if not decades, before that happens. There is evidence to show how slow the progress has been. At member level, female umpires are battling to make an impact even in top-tier domestic matches of either gender.
Most umpires stand in club matches, men's or women's, and need to do their time there for seasons before progressing to age-group tournaments, provincial or state games, and eventually international matches. Australia have had two female umpires standing in men's matches: at Under-17 and in the Futures League - the 2nd XI competition. They have also had women performing third-umpire roles in the one-day tournament and in the Big Bash League. In South Africa, the highest-ranked female umpire officiated at the U-15 week, and although there was a woman who progressed further - to the U-19 week, club championships and the Varsity Cup - she left cricket to pursue other interests.
Although Cross dreams of standing in a Test match, be it a men's or women's fixture, just like any other umpire, she feels "that is a long way away because women umpires will need a lot of experience before they can get there"
Acceleration programmes are in place among some members. In South Africa, for example, they target the unearthing of umpires from disadvantaged backgrounds. CSA is also in the process of appointing umpire coaches, who will, among other things, focus on female recruitment. But like the women's game at large, it will need time to develop.
It has been scientifically proven that men's reaction times are faster than women's. Given that umpires occasionally have to take evasive action and are in constant danger of being hit, this would have a bearing on how many female umpires are put in charge of men's matches, although all the organisations interviewed, including the ICC, maintained that anyone who displays the qualities of an international umpire will be promoted regardless of gender.
CSA has found that there is a correlation between the number of woman playing the game and those who progress to umpiring. "For want of not making excuses, the fact that women's cricket is in its fledgling stage, when compared to men's cricket, contributes to the lower numbers in the associations," Karl Hurter, CSA's national match-officials administrator said. "As we see the number of leagues and the number of teams participating in those leagues grow, we expect that there will be an element of natural advancement, from playing to umpiring. Even on the male side, it is seldom that we have someone who has never played the game wanting to take up umpiring."
It is not essential that umpires have played at any level, but it does help add some weight to their cause. "Having some playing experience does help a match official within the sport," Taufel said. "The umpire should have a better 'feel' for the game, have a greater understanding of what the game expects in officiating terms, and is better placed to demonstrate humility and empathy with what the players go through.
"Playing experience is not essential when an umpire starts their career but is an advantage, and having played the higher levels of the game does assist with receiving a higher level of initial credibility with the players and other stakeholders. Having said that, just because you have played the game for a long time or at a high level will not mean you will be a good umpire. It is a very different discipline to playing."
And in 2017, we should all know that.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent