When the sun set over the Regency suburbs of Hove last Sunday (September 1) evening, it brought the lights down on not just an enthralling Women’s Cricket Super League Final, but it was also the end for a tournament which, in four short years, has helped transform women’s cricket in England.
Even as Western Storm, who have dominated the competition – reaching all four Finals Days – celebrated their second title, skipper Heather Knight acknowledged the bittersweet nature of the moment. Next year The Hundred, a controversial new 100-ball competition will take centre stage, with player registration opening later this month.
That there is much still to do to win public support was evident from the boos which rang out around the First Central County Ground that evening when The Hundred was mentioned during the presentation ceremony. The fondness for the WCSL and regret at its passing is striking given it started from scratch just four seasons ago.
Coming just a few months after the inaugural Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) in Australia, the tournament was a bold idea in England where cricket had always been centred around the traditional county structure.
Six brand new WCSL franchise teams would face each other in a round-robin tournament at the height of summer with a Finals Day akin to the men’s T20 Blast. Each franchise would feature three or four players contracted to the England women's cricket team and three overseas international players. Importantly, they would also provide opportunities for county players outside the international set-up to play alongside these big names.
Intended to bridge the gap between women’s county cricket and the international game, the ECB set out to reach a new audience (“a more diverse, family-focused audience”), to see performance standards rise across more players, to give more players the chance to earn money playing the game, and to give younger girls an aspirational pathway up to a semi-professional women’s competition.
The ECB backed the project with a £3 million investment with £25,000 on offer for the winners of the inaugural tournament. However, setting a league up from scratch posed immediate challenges.
“When we started it was just literally a team name,” Lisa Pagett, Western Storm General Manager, told Women’s CricZone. “That was it. There was no logos, no players, no anything.”
Knight remembers: “It’s built remarkably, looking back at the start of the competition, it was very much amateur, like trying to find hotels and training grounds and stuff like that.”
That more than 15,000 fans watched the 15-group stage matches in the first year was a sign of how much was achieved so quickly. The following year the WCSL received a further boost – and greater visibility – when the ECB announced six domestic “double-headers” between the WCSL and the men’s T20 Blast. Those back-to-back games were all televised live on Sky Sports, with ball-by-ball commentary also available on BBC Radio.
That year provided an unprecedented opportunity to raise the profile of the women’s game in England with the hosts winning the ICC World Cup in front of a full house at Lord’s. It was a triumph that some of those present attributed to the impact of the WCSL.
Georgia Elwiss, Loughborough Lightning allrounder, told the BBC at the time that it would have been a lot harder to have won the tournament without the experience of the WCSL: “We've learnt a hell of a lot from the KSL. I've learnt loads from the overseas players coming in and seeing how they go about their business.”
“But also it's bridging a gap and it's brought younger players through, who have performed on that stage and then performed for England, so it's been instrumental in our success.”
Katherine Brunt, England and former Yorkshire Diamonds all-rounder, agreed: “Including this new tournament was a massive shift. The improvements in the standard are really showing. The skill-sets and the power of each team now is two, three or four times what it was."
Western Storm, who won their first title that year, are a good example of the wider benefits of the competition, says Pagett. She has worked hard to develop new talent and establish regional development squads of young players.
“To look back four years on to see what's been achieved and the amount of followers we’ve got and the amount of on field success we’ve had but also a lot of the community work we've done as well with the girls’ camps, and the different initiatives we've done, there’s just so much to look back on and feel proud about.”
“The girls have been amazing on the field, but they've also been incredible off it. They've all bought into what we've been trying to do as much as the staff have. It's been a great unique group of people that have put together something quite special. A lot has happened in those four years!”
Pagett argues that Storm has been successful in raising standards and giving opportunities to those directly outside the immediate England squad. She cites the example of 23-year-old fast bowler Freya Davies who was in the England Academy when she first came into the Storm set-up.
“She's now been picked up on an England contract which is a testament to what the KSL platform has done for her. But also really good players out there who maybe haven't been picked up in the system before like a Claire Nicolas who’s been a really strong performer in the county circuit for such a long time and it's given her the platform to show that she's a little bit better than that and given her an opportunity to perform. And people like Sophie Luff and some of the youngsters coming in— Danielle Gibson's a good example.”
“That's been great and with the experienced players that we had in the side it's been a really good environment to bring those people in.”
“If you look at the makeup of our side, we’ve had Heather as England captain and Anya Shrubsole as vice. We've had Stefanie Taylor for many years who is West Indies captain, Rachel Priest who’s captained in the Big Bash. And so, there's lots of leaders and that's a great environment.”
Knight highlighted the roles played by Davies and Fran Wilson this season as well as Storm’s middle order depth with Somerset county skipper Sophie Luff and Deepti Sharma playing key roles.
“I'm really delighted for the girls. The way we've played throughout the season has been outstanding,” Knight said, shortly after the final. “The belief we've built, the fearless cricket we've played and the way people have stepped up. I’m particularly pleased for Fran Wilson. It’s been a real breakout season for her and Freya, they’re really knocking on the door in terms of England for the winter tours and the way they’ve put in performances consistently throughout the summer has been great.”
Storm has also prided itself on the continuity of its squad, overseen by head coach Trevor Griffin.
“Trevor has been amazing putting the squad together,” says Knight. “No one works harder as a coach than him in the early summer, going to see players playing in county cricket and assembling the best squad we could.”
Griffin has worked hard to ensure a stable squad across the four years of the tournament. It’s been a deliberate approach.
Pagett explained: “You're not starting from scratch then again each year. You're building rather than restarting. That's definitely helped us. We’ve had quite a stable staff group as well. We've added and tweaked where we've had to, but in essence each year we're coming back not from a position of a blank start but having stayed in touch with players over the winter and ready to take off quite quickly.”
The franchise model has also seen cooperation between regional partners across county boundaries. Storm, for example, is a partnership between fierce local rivals Somerset and Gloucestershire and the University of Exeter.
“It’s a unique model,” says Pagett. “I guess on paper in the men's game, you wouldn't expect to see something like that happen. But I think that's where the women's game is great is that there's a slightly blanker canvas. There's a lot more openness to do things differently because I don’t think it's entrenched in the history that the men's game has quite so much. So, you can be a bit innovative and certainly make things happen and it's been great.”
“The three partners working together, it takes a bit of coordination and management on my perspective to get everyone on the same page and things, but it just shows the collaborative kind of approach can really work with the right sort of coordination and leadership.”
“Things like social media if we do a web story it goes through Somerset’s and Gloucestershire’s channels and so the reach of what you can do when you’ve got that behind you is so powerful. And we've been able to dissolve some of the county boundaries as a consequence of the identity that we've got. So, it feels like the whole like the whole region is behind us which is quite a special thing.”
Clare Connor, ECB Managing Director - Women's Cricket, looked back on the success of the WCSL when she spoke to BBC TMS. She also cited the importance of regional partnerships: “We’re really, really proud of everything the Kia Super League has achieved. It was an unknown journey when we embarked upon it and when we got the ECB to approve it and back it.”
“It’s taught us a great deal about working with counties and working with the game to build something from scratch and some of that will be really valuable as we start to do the same with The Hundred. We’ve achieved everything that we wanted to achieve with it. Everyone who has been involved should rightly be really proud.”
Despite the satisfaction at a second WCSL title, it was an emotional few weeks for the Storm squad.
“We played our last game in Taunton,” said Pagett, “and then winning at Hove was obviously the cherry on top of a brilliant four years.”
“I said to the girls, it's the last time probably as a group of players and staff we’ll all be together and it's the first time probably in the women's game something's being changed when it's working. Normally we're adding things in because nothing's existed and so there's gaps to fill. Whereas for the first time it feels like, there's something that's really powerful, that's working, that could grow more but it's being changed… But I also do understand the reasons why it is changing as well. So mixed emotions about everything.”
For Knight, Sunday’s winning moment was bittersweet but she was pleased that the WCSL had the final it deserved after four successful years.
“It was an awesome final and credit to the Vipers for playing the way they did to put on a great show.
“To see it blossom into a truly semi-professional set-up gives the girls below the opportunity to push for an England place and train properly and to show off their skills.”
While the competition has undoubtedly raised standards and attracted a growing and devoted fanbase, it’s true that England have failed to push on following their 2017 World Cup victory. Australia, meanwhile, whose state cricketers enjoy professional contracts, were utterly dominant throughout this summer’s Ashes series.
So, change is imminent. The ECB is emphasising the importance of eight new regional women’s & girls’ Centres of Excellence geographically aligned with the eight teams that will compete in The Hundred. These centres will be comprised of a partnership of counties in each region. They will replace the County Championship with domestic players gaining semi-professional status. At county level an amateur-level T20 competition will continue for the next two years.
Knight is looking forward to the new initiative: “I'm excited for next year, not purely The Hundred which people seem to focus a lot of attention on, but more so in terms of the domestic set-up that’s going to come in.”
“We don't know exactly what that's going to look like yet, but I’m sure it will become clearer in the coming months and it's going to produce hopefully a lot of semi-professional women's cricketers in this country. Hopefully the aim is to make a fully professional competition below England which I think is a brilliant thing for English cricket.”
Pagett agrees that the Centres of Excellence will be a positive step: “Anything ultimately that's going to create more players who are able to commit to cricket properly is probably a good thing.”
“Like any new thing, there's probably going to be some teething problems and some stuff to iron out just like there was in the Super League when it started. But I think if we can get everyone on the right page, it’s the right thing to do for the bigger picture then I'm sure it will be successful.”
Connor expanded on the new competition: “The KSL final marks the end of something very special and rewarding for all of us who have been involved in the KSL.
“We have huge confidence that the KSL will act as the springboard for the next exciting phase of women’s domestic cricket in England and Wales. The KSL has proved that ambitious plans and innovative ways of working can deliver fantastic outcomes and we will take those learnings forward with us over the coming years to ensure that more women and girls can aspire to play cricket at the highest level.”
Each of the 18 First Class counties will be represented through The Hundred according to an ECB announcement this week.
Speaking to BBC TMS Connor explained: “We’ll be taking that competition to all the counties and therefore taking that new competition and growing that new audience more further afield than perhaps the eight men’s venues are able to do by virtue of the fact that they’ll be playing all their games in those eight stadia
“That’s a real positive about the Women’s Competition and we’ve seen that with the Kia Super League. We’ve used over 25 different venues for the KSL across the four years, First Class county venues but outgrounds as well, big stadia and smaller stadia. We’ve seen amazing appetite and interest in it in some of the places more further afield that we’ve been. So, we’re really looking forward to that and being able to talk more widely about those venues and where the Women’s Competition matches will be played.”
Connor declined to go into detail about salaries but argued that for a five-week competition it would pay very well, having benchmarked it against other domestic women’s competitions in cricket and other sports, including football.
“We’re confident that we’re pitching the salaries for the Women’s Competition at a really good level. Obviously with all of this there’s still a way to go to close that gap with the men’s game but we’re taking big steps all the time in that and that will be the same for the coaches and the support staff, as well.”
Connor said that the ECB are attempting to present a competition that is for both men and women from the outset with dual announcements on coaches.
“I think it’s looked really good when we’ve seen teams announce their men’s and women’s coaches side by side,” said Connor. “I’m really pleased with the number of female coaches the competition has attracted. We know we’ve got loads to do in that space around developing more women, or attracting and recruiting more women, into the game in wider roles other than just playing so from that regard it’s pleasing as well.”
For now, though as autumn draws in and the England players take a well-earned break before a busy winter, there is time to reflect on a success story. The Super League has given women’s cricket in England a new identity, greater visibility and a showpiece televised final. It also raised standards and contributed to a World Cup victory.
Much scepticism continues to surround its successor and the ECB will need to make sure they build on the strong foundations established over the past four years if they are to win hearts and minds for the new venture.