Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Professional contracts: still a mystery?

The ECB has today issued a press release which states:

The England and Wales Cricket Board has announced that 18 players from the England Women’s Performance Programme have been awarded new contracts, which have come into effect from this month.

This has been greeted with universal acclaim on twitter, understandably. As I said in this Cordon article just after the contracts were first announced back in February:

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.

We cannot praise the ECB too highly for this decision.

But that is not and should not be the end of the story. What struck me about today's press release is simply this: aside from listing the players who will be awarded contracts (and I could have made a good guess at which ones they would be, even back in February), it tells us nothing we did not already know.

When the ECB first announced these contracts, we were promised that details would follow. Where are they?

Three questions in particular seem to me to be of central importance:

1) How much are the contracts actually worth? It's all very well to say that our female cricketers are now going to be professionals, but what does that mean in real hard cash terms? If we are entitled to know how much our male cricketers are paid, why does that not extend to the women?

One reason why this would be helpful is it would give us a point of comparison with the Australian system. CA's current contracts for its female cricketers puts its top players (Ellyse Perry etc) as earning something like $80,000 Australian dollars annually. These new ECB contracts are being billed as something over and above that, as a fully professional set-up – but are they? And if CA can tell us how much their top female cricketers are getting paid, isn't it reasonable to expect the ECB to do the same?

2) What, precisely, is happening with Chance to Shine now that the players will not need to supplement their income with coaching roles? I can take a reasonable guess that most players will be continuing with their ambassadorial roles, given that we have been given no evidence to the contrary, and some of the contracted players are continuing to tweet about their work, but it would be nice to have this confirmed publicly. How will it fit in with the new system?

This is also important because it begs the question: if England players are continuing with coaching work outside of training and playing cricket (and I'm not saying they shouldn't be, because their work as role models is obviously hugely important), are they really the professionals they are being billed as?

3) Finally, it's pretty obvious that there will be different tiers of contract under this new system. That is the way central contracts work: players are allocated pay according to their perceived value to the team. It's a fair assumption that Charlotte Edwards will, quite rightly, be earning more money under this new system than, say, Tash Farrant.

Which begs a whole set of new questions:
-What are the different levels of contracts, and how much will each type of contract be worth?
-In practice, how many of the 18 players are fully professional, given that some of them will be at a lower end of the pay scale than others?
-Who out of the 18 has a top-tier contract, and who doesn't?

There's evidently a debate to be had here about whether we, the general public, deserve to know what the ECB consider to be the perceived worth of each of the players. It could be highly embarrassing if a poor performance led to a player being “downgraded”, or even dropped off the pay scale altogether. Personally, I think that if we want the women's game to be seen on equal terms with the men's game, those debates should be taking place publicly. It will get people talking – and that can't be a bad thing for women's cricket.


You might think differently. Either way, the point is that ultimately, today's press release leaves me with more questions than it provides answers. Is this really all the detail we are going to get about these new contracts? Perhaps more importantly, is this really all the detail that the ECB think we deserve to know?


Amidst the showering of praise on the ECB which has greeted today's press release, no one – no one – has questioned the complete lack of new information surrounding the contracts. Blindly praising the ECB is not enough; goodness knows it wouldn't happen in the men's game. If we really want parity between men's and women's cricket – and we do, right? – we need to be asking these questions.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Women's World Twenty20 Preview


The Women's World Twenty20 officially kicks off today with the Australia-New Zealand game; for the first time, it will be contested by the top 10 teams, instead of the usual 8. Unlike in the men's tournament, there is no “pre-qualifying” round, which means, excitingly, that hosts Bangladesh (as well as the other “minnow”, Ireland) will each have the opportunity to play three of the world's top teams in the group stages. Whatever happens in the games, then, this is going to be a pretty historic tournament.

It's going to be historic for another reason, too. In 2009, in the inaugural WWT20 tournament, England played New Zealand in the final at Lord's, and strolled home to victory by six wickets. In the wake of their loss, New Zealand's then coach Gary Stead said: “today felt a little bit like the amateurs playing the professionals”. This is the first world tournament in which that will, in fact, be the case: over the last 12 months both Cricket Australia and the ECB have announced contracts for their female players which are lucrative enough to allow them to train and play cricket full-time. Suddenly, two of the competitors in this tournament are fielding groups of professionals – the first in women's cricket for over 100 years (and arguably ever).

Australia are the defending World Twenty20 champions, having beaten England by 4 runs in the 2012 final; and it is generally acknowledged that England and Australia are right at the front of the pack in terms of women's cricket rankings. The coming of professional contracts will, surely, only put them further ahead?

But there is one salient fact which glib, easy predictions of an England-Australia final tend to overlook: and that is that the top-ranked teams in women's cricket (England, Australia, and 3rd ranked team New Zealand) have no experience whatsoever of playing international cricket in Bangladesh. The conditions, and the pitches, will be completely alien to them.

Contrast that with the other teams in the tournament, and it's evident that in one respect at least, the lower-ranked teams are ahead of the game. The 2011 World Cup qualifiers (featuring West Indies, Pakistan, South Africa, Ireland and Sri Lanka) took place in Bangladesh; West Indies won all their matches. And Pakistan and India have both just finished T20 series' against Bangladesh, played at Cox's Bazar, with Bangladesh whitewashed on both occasions. Add that to the fact that Twenty20 is a notoriously unpredictable form of the game, and I genuinely believe that – as the 50-over World Cup did last year – this tournament could throw up some real upsets.


Group A
Australia
Australia may have come out on top in the T20 leg of the recent Ashes series (the scoreline was 2-1), but their recent problems with the bat cannot be ignored. Jess Cameron, their top-scorer in the 2012 tournament, averaged just 13 across the Ashes series and was dropped for the final T20 game; Ellyse Villani has suffered a similar lack of form at international level. And Meg Lanning, whose firepower will be crucial to Australia's chances, now has the added pressure of the captaincy to deal with, thanks to Jodie Fields' injury.

Australia may have the most talented all-rounder (Ellyse Perry) and spin bowler (Erin Osborne) in the competition, and a very experienced squad, but I don't think it's going to be as easy as all that for them. I'm left wondering whether their loss to West Indies in the warm-up match might be a sign of things to come.

New Zealand
New Zealand may have just beaten West Indies 4-0 in the T20 series, but that was in home conditions; I don't hold out huge amounts of hope for them in this tournament. Two of the world's top all-rounders, Sophie Devine and the incomparable Suzie Bates, may both be in form, and Morna Nielsen may have just taken 3-9 in the warm-up against India. But New Zealand demonstrated a shocking lack of batting depth during the October tri-series against West Indies and England, collapsing from 74-1 to 106 all out in one of their matches. They have followed this up in the warm-up matches by being bowled out for just 48 by England, which somewhat proves my point. If they reach the semi-finals, it'll be because this is the weaker group in the competition.

Pakistan
Pakistan have a top-quality spin attack which includes left-arm orthodox bowler Sadia Yousuf, who has 37 T20I wickets and took 4-9 against Ireland in the 2013 qualifying tournament. And having beaten England for the first time ever in a T20 at Loughborough last July (Nain Abidi made 45), and won the tri-series in Qatar in January against Ireland and South Africa, they looked to be on an upwards trajectory. But they have followed this up with a 2-0 loss to Bangladesh in an ODI series earlier this month. Frankly, with levels of consistency which mirror their male counterparts, it's difficult to predict how they might fare in this tournament.

South Africa
The South African team is a bit of an enigma. Filled with experienced, quality batsmen like captain Mignon du Preez and keeper Trisha Chetty, as well as the talented Lizelle Lee, who made her debut against Bangladesh in September last year, they have recently enjoyed an ODI series win against Pakistan. But in the 2009 and 2010 tournaments they lost all their matches, and given that they've never beaten Australia or New Zealand in an international match, and they finished fifth in last year's World Cup, it would be difficult to predict a different result this time around.

Ireland
Ireland are the real underdogs in this tournament, given that only three teams could progress from the qualifiers, and they came third. Their stand-out players are captain Isobel Joyce, whose 72* took them to victory against the Netherlands in the qualifiers and who top-scored for them in the recent Qatar tri-series; and Clare Shillington, so far the only Irish woman to score an international Twenty20 century. But they are a young, inexperienced squad (medium-pacer Lucy O'Reilly is just 14 years old; leggie Elena Tice is 16) and realistically are unlikely to win any of their games. Good to see them getting the opportunity to compete at the top-level, though.


Group B
England
England have the best captain, the best keeper and the best fielder in the women's game at their disposal: enough said, perhaps, especially given that Ashes-winning performance in the Hobart T20 from the aforementioned captain (92*). Australia may be defending champions, but England have just won the multi-format Ashes...twice.

And yet...they are coming into this tournament on the back of two pretty poor batting performances in those second two T20s (totals of 98 and 101), and in Bangladesh they will be batting on unfamiliar pitches. And given that spin is likely to be crucial in this tournament, the fact that England are still without both Holly Colvin and Laura Marsh has got to be a concern (the uncapped Jodie Dibble and Rebecca Grundy are in the squad as replacements). Edwards may be experimenting with herself as a third spin option (she bowled an over in the final T20 at Sydney), but relying on a bowler who prior to Sydney had not bowled in T20Is since October 2011 is not really ideal.

I hope I'm wrong, but as an England fan, I'm worried.

West Indies
It's pretty obvious that West Indies have the most dangerous two players in this competition: Stafanie Taylor and Deandra Dottin (whose 38-ball century, the fastest in all international T20 cricket, men's and women's, came during the 2010 tournament). But, as well as this firepower, they also have two of the most dangerous bowlers: offspinner Anisa Mohammed, and left-arm medium-pacer Shanel Daley, who is the 2nd-ranked T20I bowler according to the ICC's criteria.

They have a good track record in the World Twenty20: they reached the semi-final in 2010 having knocked out the defending champions, England, in the group stages. And this series is coming on the back of their appearance in the 50-over World Cup final, and a victory in the tri-series against England and New Zealand. Their one issue may be a lack of batting depth in their squad, aside from Taylor and Dottin. But they've just beaten Australia by 16 runs in the warm-up fixture, and I'm going to go right ahead and call it: I reckon they might just make their second successive global tournament final.

India
India, one of the traditional powerhouses of women's cricket, appear to be a team on the decline. Beaten at home in January by Sri Lanka, who won the T20 series 2-1, they are also entering this tournament having failed to reach the Super Sixes stage of the 50-over World Cup which they hosted. And thanks to the BCCI, who don't appear to give a damn about women's cricket, they have played very little international cricket over the past couple of years.

They do have significant weapons in their armoury: their in-form, elegant batsman and captain Mithali Raj; Jhulan Goswami, possibly the fastest bowler in the women's game; and left-armer Sravanthi Naidu, whose figures of 4-9 against Bangladesh earlier this month helped take India to a 3-0 victory in that T20 series. Even so, it's hard to foresee them getting anywhere near to the semis.

Sri Lanka
One of those “minnows” who can't quite be considered a minnow any more, in the wake of their victories against England and India at last year's World Cup, and their more recent T20 series victory against India in January. Their key player will be Shashikala Siriwardene, the captain and a talented all-rounder who is the only Sri Lankan to currently feature in the ICC's T20 rankings. I'm also excited to see how Eshani Lokusuriyage (aka Kaushalya), who was the star of their World Cup campaign last year when she hit fifties against both England and India to bring home victories against the top sides, performs. Given their experience of these conditions, I can see Sri Lanka causing a few upsets over the next fortnight.

Bangladesh
The hosts. Duh. Which presumably gives them some kind of home advantage, given how little international women's cricket has been played on Bangladeshi pitches. And in captain Salma Khatun, their leading wicket-taker and run-scorer in T20Is, they have a spinner who can exploit those conditions. Batsman Fargana Hoque, who has just hit 35 against Pakistan in the T20 series between the sides, also looks promising. And they did record their first ever ODI series victory earlier this month, beating Pakistan 2-0. Having said that, given the other teams in their group, I can't see them winning a match in this tournament.