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Women's cricket 'fundamental' to ECB's future despite Covid financial crunch, insists Tom Harrison

Chief executive says commitment to the women's game remains "as strong as ever"

George Dobell
George Dobell
Tom Harrison has insisted the ECB's commitment to the women's game is "as strong as ever", despite the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Harrison, speaking on the day that England's women played their first match on the BBC since 1993, said he believes that 2020 "could have been a year of oblivion for women's cricket" but has instead been "positive." In particular, he welcomed the visit of West Indies - which ensured international cricket for the England side after other series had been cancelled - the launch of the Rachael Heyhoe-Flint Trophy and the implementation of retainer contracts.
But while he welcomed such advances, Harrison accepted there was "a danger that women's cricket's development becomes isolated in the strongest countries" and feels the ECB must be "a leading voice" in the continued growth of the sport.
"For us to get the West Indies over was hugely important," Harrison said. "We just couldn't have a situation where we didn't play international women's cricket here. I'm really pleased to see this series come together.
"I'm probably even more proud about the Rachael Heyhoe-Flint Trophy and the implementation of a professional set-up, the retainer contracts that we put in place for the 25 professional players, the commitment to, next year, take that on to 40 professional players plus the centrally-contracted players. We feel like there's momentum building up and we feel like 2020, when it could have been a year of oblivion for women's cricket, has been a net positive. It's something we are very proud of.
"But there is a danger that women's cricket's development becomes isolated in the strongest countries. With the stress on the finances of global cricket, you can see countries around the world really feeling the pressure not to invest into what they see as development areas as opposed to commercially generating areas.
"I do think that's an area of focus for the world game. And I think the ECB will be a leading voice in saying work needs to be done here to ensure the women's game continues to be funded and the funding generated from the women's game goes into the development of the women's game, which is not always the case."
But while Harrison said that "ring-fencing" funding for the women's game is "the kind of language" required, he conceded that "nothing can be ring-fenced" at present.
"People have often talked about ring-fencing and that's the kind of language that needs to be attributed to the women's game," he said. "The reality is the impact of the pandemic on our finances is massive.
"We're in a position where nothing can be ring-fenced but don't read that into that any dilution on our commitment. None of our ambition is being diluted by the pandemic's impact on our finances.
"It is a really, really tough moment but our commitment to the women's game is as strong as ever. You'll see a continued to commitment to growth in this part of the game which is so fundamental to our future."
With all national cricket boards struggling with their finances as a result of the pandemic, Harrison accepted there would be increased pressures on funding. But he insisted that the sport will prove more relevant and more commercially viable if it embraces the women's game.
"There are some serious financial challenges going around the world of cricket at the moment and that is not going to help women's cricket," Harrison said. "But I think the women's game has a real role to play in the re-emergence of the international game as a much more globally relevant sport that can help us look at the next 100 years of cricket as an exciting opportunity.
"What we need to be doing is passing on the evidence that the women's game can generate two things: firstly, commercial value and secondly, a sustainability plan for your sport when it's asking questions the financial crisis will inevitably ask. We are working on a big piece of work to understand how we commercialise the women's game."
Harrison also reiterated his commitment toward greater diversity - both in terms of gender and ethnicity - at all levels of the game, including within the administration of the ECB. But he did hint that more progress was required at county level, or from "our stakeholders" as he put it.
"Where this comes is demonstrating our commitment to accessibility across the board, whether it's the men's or women's game; girls or boys," he said. "It's about creating an environment where everybody feels they have a place in the game. That is the most important piece of work we have to do over the next 10 years in this game and I'm absolutely committed to achieving that.
"I inherited a team where there was very little diversity of any kind in my leadership team but we've gone beyond the Sport England governing code. We have a fully independent board and we are benefitting massively from the kind of experience and balance and decision-making [that] proper diversity can give you. I have three women in my senior team. We've work to do on the BAME diversity and we're working on that right now.
"I welcome the pressure on this. It helps us put pressure on through the game which is where I think more work needs to be done through our stakeholders where progress is a little slower.
"There's a journey we're on and I'm extremely passionate about the inclusion of the diversity agenda. We've already made progress but there's a lot more progress required. The ECB's improving dramatically in terms of its gender representation."

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo