ECB’s rescue act in the summer of 2020

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The summer of 2020 was meant to be a landmark season for women’s cricket in England with a new professional elite domestic structure and the excitement of a build-up to the next World Cup. The game had just enjoyed its biggest ever global audience with a record 86,000 strong crowd watching the T20 World Cup final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

By mid-March though those halcyon days seemed a distant memory. As the world grappled with the horror of the coronavirus pandemic, there was a real fear that the growing momentum in women’s sport would be lost or even reversed with a growing disparity across the cricket playing nations.

Amidst the pandemic, issues of racism and lack of diversity in the game rose to the forefront of public consciousness, as the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum around the world. Alongside powerful personal testimonies from Ebony Rainford-Brent and Michael Holding came an unprecedented show of support from players and a renewed ECB commitment to diversity and inclusion.

That the women’s summer was eventually salvaged with a domestic regional tournament and a T20I series against the West Indies led ECB Chief Executive Tom Harrison to reflect: “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, which is something we are very proud of.”

Women’s CricZone examines the events of this most extraordinary summer.

The changing shape of England’s international summer

England’s international summer had been due to begin with a tour by India in July. When that was ruled out due to the pandemic, the ECB proposed a tri-series with South Africa to be played in September.

India however were forced to pull out, citing travel restrictions in the country and lack of time to make arrangements and get players match-fit.

Plans were then put in place for an extended bilateral series against South Africa, but with just a few weeks before the series, the Proteas too took the decision to cancel.

Behind the scenes the ECB were already engaged in contingency planning. With a full men’s programme already underway, the ECB refused to accept the unthinkable prospect of a summer with no international cricket for Heather Knight’s side.

Harrison explained: “Right at the start of the pandemic when we were looking at the strategy for getting through this summer, at that point, it became very clear that we were going to need to commit very early to ensure that the women’s game had a portion of the summer where we could focus on it.”

The ECB used the opportunity of the cancelled series in July to do something different, proposing a #WomensCricketMonth in September with an international series and a regional competition that put domestic cricketers on the national stage.

Plans were thrown into disarray with the withdrawal of India and South Africa. England’s players were already in their first training bubble in Derby when they found out first that the 2021 World Cup had been postponed and then that South Africa had pulled out. The ECB were able to once again call on the support of Cricket West Indies. The Windies had sent the first men’s side to tour England under new bio-secure conditions in July and the two boards had established a strong degree of trust. It enabled a schedule to be drawn up for a women’s T20I series in late September at just a few weeks’ notice.

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“There’s an element of pride associated with that,” said Harrison, “because we just couldn’t have a situation where we didn’t play international women’s cricket here.”

“For us to get the West Indies over was hugely, hugely important. Huge thanks to Cricket West Indies for their support throughout this whole summer in terms of understanding the importance of getting cricket up after running both from a men’s and certainly from a women’s perspective, where obviously, they had a very, very short window to get it arranged.”

While the games were played in some of the coldest conditions imaginable, they had the largest audience for women’s cricket in England in 27 years. The third T20I was the first time women’s cricket had been broadcast live on BBC free-to-air terrestrial TV since the World Cup Final in 1993. Sky Sports Cricket also showed the series live as well as streaming it on their YouTube channel.

No dilution of commitment

At the beginning of the pandemic, with no prospect of any cricket, the ECB warned of losses approaching £300 million. After a full international summer, that loss was mitigated to £100 million: still a huge financial hit which led, eventually, to redundancies at the ECB.

While Harrison admitted that the ECB was not in a position where it could ring fence investment, he insisted no-one should read into that any dilution of its commitment to the women’s game.

“There are different ways of achieving a result. You either do it yourself, which normally means that you’re ending up paying for a lot of things, or you can enable things to happen through partnership, through working with others, through creatively challenging yourself to come up with a different way around achieving the same outcome for less money. That’s some of the thinking that we’re having to do across the board at the ECB.”

“None of our ambition around Inspiring Generations is being diluted by either pandemic’s impact on our finances, it does mean we have to be an awful lot smarter about how we how we deploy our resources, both in terms of money, and talent, and people.”

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Clare Connor (L) and Tom Harrison. © Getty Images

Clare Connor (L) and Tom Harrison. © Getty Images

“It’s a really difficult time at the ECB with many people’s jobs at risk and going through this extremely difficult process. It is a really, really tough moment. But our commitment to the women’s game remains as strong. You’ll see a continued commitment to growth in this part of the game, which is so fundamental to our future.”

Work to understand how the ECB can further commercialise the women’s game is also underway, not just from broadcast rights, but from a sponsorship and partnership perspective.

Recognising a government focus on growing women’s sport, the ECB has also begun conversations in Westminster about possible help in this area.

Diversity and inclusion

The Black Lives Matter movement, prompted honest conversations in the cricket world about racism and a lack of diversity in the game. Ebony Rainford-Brent, the first black woman to play for England, rued the lack of diversity in cricket and called for action plans to improve participation of women and girls from diverse backgrounds. She joined co-commentator Michael Holding to deliver a moving, hugely powerful message on Sky Sports Cricket about the racism they had endured and expressing their backing for the Black Lives Matter campaign.

Heather Knight lent her support, stating her belief that cricket needs to encourage the involvement of people from more diverse backgrounds to take the game forward.

“It’s a conversation we need to have as a team,” Knight told Sky Sports News. “It’s massively important; I have been following the news and what is going on. As a women’s team, we’re not massively diverse, which needs to change. The ECB are aware of that.”

“Cricket knows it needs to attract more females, more diverse groups of people and that links in with the Black Lives Matter movement.”

To help address the problem, Rainford-Brent, as Surrey’s director of women’s cricket, launched a scholarship program to increase participation among the local black community, something Knight would like to see spread out across the country.

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Speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live, Rainford-Brent said she was “very jealous” of the minority representation in football.

“When I listen to football with all its problems, I am still very jealous of the sport because we see representation,” she said. “I think the mass level of it means it has a lot of issues that get thrashed out in the media.”

“We have to look at the pipeline – are any players coming through? There is no diversity in women’s cricket, really.”

In early July, the ECB announced a set of measures as part of its commitment to strengthen inclusion and diversity.

The ECB will seek to improve Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) representation among board members. They will also work with First-Class county boards to support them reaching the representation targets, to have at least 30% women and a BAME target – depending on the make-up of the local community – as soon as possible.

Ahead of the West Indies series, Knight said her side would show their support for the Black Lives Movement by taking a knee if that aligned with the wishes of the touring West Indies and reached out to Stafanie Taylor to discuss. The players also wore the BLM logo on their shirts during the series.

Speaking to Women’s CricZone during the series, England opener Tammy Beaumont said: “We really wanted to do something. We really wanted to make a stand for Black Lives Matter. It was a really powerful moment. I think it’s really important for anyone with any kind of platform to stand up for what matters.”

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Tammy Beaumont belts one over the top. © Getty Images

“Certainly, for me, I feel like I’ve personally been educated since what happened in America and it’s really opened my eyes to some the kind of white privilege that I get every day. For me, it’s really important that we kind of address this issue and stand together.”

Looking back over an historic summer, Harrison underlined the ECB’s commitment to creating an environment where everyone feels they have a place in the game.

“That is the most important piece of work that we have to do over the next 10 years in this game, and we have a huge opportunity to be able to do that. I’m absolutely committed to achieving that,” he said.

“If we get it right, then the BAME representation of the women’s game won’t be a problem. It will simply be that everyone feels they have an opportunity to play a role in the game. Let’s make sure that the game is answering that fundamental question about whether we are the game we say we want to become right now, which is a game for everyone.”

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Harrison also spoke about the steps the ECB had made in terms of improving gender representation through its organisation including at a senior level, although he admitted there was still more to do.

“We’ve got work to do on diversity in terms of BAME representation and that is something that we are working on right now. So, we’re acutely aware of that, and also with respect to the programme of redundancies that we’re currently undertaking, the question of diversity and opportunity is one that we’re aware of going through that process. So, there is a journey that we are on. I’m extremely passionate about the inclusion and diversity agenda.”

Domestic cricket

Despite the continuing uncertainty over the shape of the summer, some 25 regional retainer contracts were awarded at the beginning of June – the first professional domestic women’s contracts in England. The move was intended as an interim solution with the intention to award the planned full-time contracts later in the year. The recruitment process was driven by the eight new elite regional centres and their respective Regional Directors of Women’s Cricket.

In early August, the ECB unveiled the domestic 50-over competition as the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy in honour of England’s pioneering World Cup-winning captain. The special-edition tournament was created for this summer to ensure women’s domestic cricket was played despite the challenges of COVID-19.

Teams from the eight regions competed in two groups of four with a final at Edgbaston televised live on Sky Sports Cricket. Much of the tournament was also streamed on YouTube.

It formed a key part of #WomensCricketMonth with an additional focus on recreational cricket and opportunities for youngsters inspired to get involved in the game.

The prolific run scoring of England fringe players like Georgia Adams and Sophie Luff and Scotland international Sarah Bryce lit up the tournament. Few will forget spinner Charlotte Taylor’s match-winning six-fer in the final which was a standout moment among many.

For Harrison, the regional tournament and the implementation of a professional setup was the achievement he was most proud of this summer. He reiterated the ECB’s commitment to field 40 professional players next year in addition to the centrally contracted England players.

“To get that up and running has been super important to us” he said. “It’s started to achieve some of the things that we need so desperately to achieve for the women’s pathway.”

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Southern Vipers had an unbeaten run in the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy. © Getty Images

The competition has been a huge boost for domestic players, offering an elite level of cricket to aim for and excel in.

Talking to Women’s CricZone about the future, winning Southern Vipers captain and player of the tournament Georgia Adams said: “It’s so exciting. I’m just so pleased and grateful to the ECB for the support that the women’s game has received, especially in times like this moment, where women’s sport in general has been neglected a little bit.”

“We’re in a really great position, and we’ve got loads of support. It’s going to be a really exciting summer [in 2021]. With this regional competition, hopefully, COVID permitting, with the structure of it all, they’ll find ways of making sure that the England players can play in as much of it as well.”

Global disparity

Speaking to BBC Sport during the West Indies series, England director of women’s cricket Clare Connor aired her concern that some nations would not be able to invest the same level of finance, focus and commitment because of the pandemic.

Connor, who also chairs the ICC’s women’s committee, said such a scenario was high likely.

“It’s worrying. Some boards will struggle over the next year if they’re not already struggling already. It is a concern. Unless we get international women’s cricket played regularly across 2021, we’re going to be facing the same concern going into 2022.”

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England head coach Lisa Keightley is fearful that the pandemic could arrest the momentum that has been building in women’s sport.

“From a cricket perspective, it will be the countries that maybe can’t afford to do what the ECB have done and what Australia have done to host New Zealand,” she said.

“Cricket for the countries that may not be financially in the same position as Australia and England at the moment is probably the biggest concern – that they actually get to play some cricket and they don’t go for long periods of time.”

“All the teams were really improving and on the way up. The cricket was really competitive, so hopefully we can move forward and look forward to playing some cricket soon.”

Harrison too acknowledges a danger that the development of women’s cricket could become isolated in the strongest countries with others feeling the pressure not to invest in what they see as development areas as opposed to those which generate revenue.

He said the ECB would be a leading voice in championing continued funding for the women’s game and in ensuring that funding generated from the women’s game goes into its development.

Pointing to how events such as the Women’s Big Bash League and ICC tournaments now stood on their own, he said the next important staging post from an ICC perspective was about the next media rights process.

“We will need to generate revenue for the women’s game from the [ICC] women’s events, instead of it just being part of a global set of events that are sold for a couple of billion dollars globally, and then it goes into the big wash.

“We need to absolutely ring fence – and I use that word carefully – at ICC level, the ability for that revenue to go into generating excitement around the women’s game specifically. That starts to send the expectation to investors that what we want to see is proper investment in creating the conditions under which the women’s game can grow.”

Harrison emphasised the need to commercialise the women’s game globally in a more creative way and to share evidence about how it can generate commercial value and interest.

“We have the evidence now in terms of the audience figures that women’s cricket generates. Not just in this country, but whenever we play a World Cup, the audience figures are fantastic. We can start to show evidence that it is generating new audiences as well, not just repeat audiences from the men’s game. That work now needs to be done at global level to start to generate what those numbers look like.”

The ECB’s own experience is that it is unthinkable now for commercial partners to invest only in the men’s game. That means ensuring that money can flow into the women’s game from traditional commercial partnerships.

 

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Happy England, successful England. © Getty Images

“That’s the conversation that we’ve started with our commercial partners,” explains Harrison. “It’s a conversation now has real credibility.”

He also believes the women’s game is crucial to the long-term sustainability of cricket.

“I think that the women’s game has got a real role to play in the re-emergence of the international game as a much more global and much more globally relevant sport that can help us look at the next 100 years of cricket as a very different looking and exciting opportunity for us.”

What about the future?

While the immediate future is uncertain, 2022 is shaping up to be the biggest year ever in women’s cricket. As well as the rescheduled World Cup, England’s players will compete in a World T20, the Commonwealth Games and an Ashes series. The ECB are already discussing the scheduling with the ICC.

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“We were all upset about losing the World Cup for 12 months, because it’s another blow and it makes it makes 2022 the biggest year of women’s cricket that you could ever imagine,” said Harrison. “We’ve almost got too many things to focus on. It just feels like an enormous year that maybe just needs a bit of reshaping in order for us to not put too much pressure on our players for one year, where we’ve had a couple of years where there’s been less things to focus on.

More immediately, the ECB’s mantra is about making lots of plans for 2021 and deciding late what they are going to do. Four times the amount of usual planning is underway for a variety of scenarios. Current plans see England and Australia visit New Zealand early in the New Year for a tri-series. Then next summer there are plans for South Africa and New Zealand to tour England.

“There are other conversations going on to enable us to build some more momentum, especially with 2022 looking like such a big year,” said Harrison.

“We’ve got to be playing more against the best teams in the world to prepare Heather and the girls for the challenges ahead in 2022. We need to be playing those top teams a lot of the time and competing and winning series against them.

“We found that that’s the way you perform better going into these major global tournaments. So, there’s an awful lot of planning to go through, but we won’t be in a position where we can suddenly say, here’s the plan for 2021 because of the uncertainty.”