Saturday, April 20, 2013

The longest journey starts with a single step, or four

Call me a philistine, but until a week ago I was unaware that our international women’s cricketers played almost solely for the love of the game. I assumed there would be a sizeable gap in remuneration between the men’s and women’s squads but for a country that prides itself on gender equality, I didn’t expect New Zealand would be languishing so far behind many of the game’s other nations, given we were the first country to offer a professional contract to a female cricketer more than 15 years ago.

Among a myriad of public relations bungles and the on-going, and developing, John Parker saga, New Zealand Cricket finally caught my attention for a win off the field. The announcement of ground-breaking contracts for four of our women’s cricketers should be celebrated – captain Suzie Bates, Sian Ruck, Sophie Devine and Sara McGlashan the first recipients.

Initially contracted for 12 months, the new roles will be two-fold – playing and cricket development. Each player is aligned to a Major Association – Auckland, Wellington (twice) and Otago the beneficiaries, with the other three provinces relying on NZC to subsequently increase numbers to include them in the scope of the change in the future.

Locally, the aim is to spread the cricketing gospel to a young female population with a growing number of summer sporting options, whilst mentoring and coaching the next crop of domestic and international cricketers – those who will carry the torch in the future. The first step in righting the ship is realising the value of developing the game from young girls up and showing that a cricketing pathway does exist. For each of the four, the contracts will afford them the opportunity to dedicate more quality time to their pursuits, not having to fit their training around work or study, as has previously been the case.

David White, NZC and the Players’ Association have made a start – would those who view the progress with cynicism rather we maintained the status quo? The contracts should be seen as the first step on a path to equality – while the rewards for the genders may never meet, the road to convergence has begun anew.

The contracts are a long overdue step in right direction – a tentative effort to getting New Zealand back to the top of the women’s game and building its profile and participation numbers. So many potential stars, at both domestic and international level, are initially lost to the game after they finish studying, and again when life intervenes – choices many men don’t have to consider; building a professional career over a cricketing future or the pull of family.  Without financial backing, the game has haemorrhaged women to life, lost to the game when they have the greatest potential to make a positive contribution on the game. Will these new contracts, and those to follow, signal a slowing of the exodus?

White Fern stalwart Amy Satterthwaite chose not to take up a contract though has left the door open to revisiting the professional route in 12 months’ time, while all-rounder Nicola Browne has chosen to follow a similar path. The cynical may see their reneging of the opportunity to make cricket a career, for 12 months at least, as a backward step when all women should be accepting whatever “opportunities” the national administrators put in place, but players, like the rest of us, still need to do what is best for them – there’s more to life than cricket, and how many of us would be prepared to accept a pay cut, or substitute one love for another, just to placate the naysayers?

If Jonathan Millmow’s assertion (on Stuff.co.nz) that the contracts are worth $37,500 is correct, then four of New Zealand’s top women cricketers are earning a little over 30 percent more than our minimum wage. For athletes at the top of their field, albeit a relatively small one (and including the player of the 2013 Women’s World Cup), that seems low but with no-one likely to confirm the amounts to a blogging hack, that figure is purely supposition.

Regardless of the number, the new deals aren’t a shadow of the men's contracts but that’s a moot point - cricket at international level is a business and contracts rightly reflect a player’s fiscal worth, in theory. Those banging the equality drum need to take a step backwards and look at the wider picture - cricket is a commercial enterprise, whatever romantic notions we all may have.

In New Zealand Cricket’s initial press release on the new contracts, largely published verbatim on a number of sites including ESPNcricinfo, there was no mention of Debbie Hockley, the first women’s cricketer to gain a professional contract globally, though it was mentioned by a number of informed pundits in Australasia. Given the contract was more an exception than the rule it may have been an oversight by New Zealand Cricket but trumpeting the contracts as the “first” was misleading at best, disrespectful to Hockley at the opposing end. To their credit, ESPNcricinfo amended their story to include a reference to Hockley, and rightly so – kudos to them; Hockley was a trailblazer in the women’s game and should be remembered as such.

Hockley was given a contract late in 1997 through to the end of the 2000 World Cup, allowing her to extend a playing career that would have faltered without the assistance. Juggling a full time job while training and playing international cricket isn’t tenable - the contract allowed her to increase her training in the twilight of her career.

The batting maestro was the game’s pre-eminent player at her peak, and held most of the cricket’s batting records when she retired. She was awarded New Zealand Cricketer of the Year, ahead of the men, in 1998 (her Australian contemporary, Belinda Clark, was named Wisden Australia’s first Cricketer of the Year in the same year) – a feat not matched until England’s Claire Taylor became the first woman named as a Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 2009. Hockley’s award was the first instance of a woman usurping the men globally – she was contracted a few months earlier, the first professional women’s contract anywhere in the world game. New Zealand were blazing a trail, as we so often have with women’s rights (spoken by a bloke, so make of that what you will) – it may have been viewed as little more than tokenism by a male dominated cricketing community but it was a bold move that showed significant forethought.

It makes the 15 year wait for the next step to established professional contracts a similarly large retreat. As other countries moved forward, our national administrators allowed the game to founder, dropping the ball after being the first to pick it up. While the four will earn a well-deserved salary, others on international duty will continue to receive no match payments, just tour allowances for food and daily expenditure.

But there has been evolution - before 1993 the women’s game was administered by the New Zealand Women’s Cricket Council, sitting as its own entity apart from New Zealand Cricket. It was an amateur organisation, run largely by volunteers, many of whom were still donning the whites. Players played for the love of our great game, as they still do, but there was no assistance – the game was amateur in every respect, not just financially. The amalgamation set out to change that, Hockley’s contract four years later was a momentous step - she noted to Cricinfo’s (in the day’s pre-ESPN) Lynn McConnell she “felt like we’ve been treated like princesses really, because we’ve just had so much offered to us”. The foundations were laid and nearly two decades later the walls may finally be built.

I mention Hockley and the administration to illustrate New Zealand’s previous efforts to set the bar and move the women’s game forward. That the new contracts took more than 15 years since Hockley broke ground is a travesty – for the sake of the game in  New Zealand, let’s hope this is the first of many steps not simply a toe dipped and then removed from the water.

What of other countries – the heavyweights in the women’s game? Is what NZC propose a step to creating an equal playing field, or will the quality of our individuals, and not the infrastructure, be relied upon to keep the White Ferns competitive?

Of the 10 sides with women’s ODI status, only three still have no contracting structure – South Africa, Bangladesh and Ireland still purely amateur. Like the New Zealand contracts, few provide a lavish lifestyle with many of the “professionals” still required to subside their cricketing income via other endeavours. A number are linked with industries, the armed forces or as administrators within the national bodies they represent.

The ECB seems to most closely mirror the redeveloped New Zealand set up, at the top end at least, though the money involved is vastly reduced here. Since 2008, a number of England players have been employed as Chance to Shine ambassadors – helping grow the game throughout the United Kingdom. They’re not centrally contracted with the ECB though they are offered support and the Chance to Shine work allows them the latitude to concentrate on cricket - they promote the game to all schoolchildren, but with a strong focus on girl’s cricket. While they are not provided full time playing contracts, over half the side have been involved with the programme since 2008.

Like any financial outlay, New Zealand Cricket will want a return on their investment in the women’s game, though it shouldn’t be judged on return on investment – the four contracted players are strong cricketers and equally fine people, but the successes must be judged on non-monetary results. At the very least, participation numbers and community programmes need to be far higher in Auckland, Wellington and Otago if the structure is to be replicated throughout the wider squad. Similarly, one would hope to see young domestic fringe players take large strides forward with more ready access to quality mentors they can relate to, though it would be unfair to judge the women on the performance of others.

New Zealand Cricket needs to look to grow the contracted group, assisting associations to create further developmental roles to help grow the game nationwide. However, unless the contracts are significant, which is unlikely, a number of players may still be better off working between cricket seasons, given its short duration.

Progress is in vain if it is only a short term fix, and regression then takes hold. NZC need to learn the lessons post-Hockley – while other nations recognised the importance of cricket to both genders, regardless of the fiscal inequality, NZC chose to bury their heads in the sand, throwing their lot in with a men’s side that has slipped further down the international rankings in all formats. These new contracts, while small though not insignificant, have the potential to kick-start a resurgence in our women’s game – from schools and clubs up. Many dream of a day when they are awarded as true professional contracts as in the men’s game, but at present that appears an unforeseeable nirvana.

For the future of the game in this country, and to keep pace in the international arena, these four women need to help realise almost immediate results. If they don’t, will NZC continue to invest in the women’s game? That’s a heavy burden for four young women to bear.

Congratulations ladies – go forth and conquer – you deserve every success.


This is not meant as a complete breakdown of the situation, I’ll leave that to the scribes. It’s an opinion – incorrect, incomplete or otherwise. If my facts and figures are wrong, or you have a better understanding of the contracts, here or overseas, please let me know. Donning the whites is as much about expanding my knowledge of our great game as it is a literary coup de grace. Thanks to those on Twitter with a wider gaze than I, I was able to get a base understanding on cricket’s global contracting for women, little more, but it was an enjoyable search – like a Wiki journey that sets off on the quest for a single truth and leads one on a path of cricketing discovery.

Post a comment below or tweet me @aotearoaxi.

If you’re a fan of the women’s game, or want to learn more, these are a good place to start:
  • Follow @White_Ferns on Twitter
  • Devour anything written by Raf Nicholson – follow her on Twitter, read her blog, peruse her writing in ESPNcricinfo’s The Cordon or a fine article in the first edition of The Nightwatchman
  • Keep up to date with the tweets of Mr Martin Davies, and follow his Women’s Cricket blog
  • Read through a selection of player profiles and interviews I did with the Northern Spirit
  • Discover the true genius of Debbie Hockley in an interview with Cricinfo’s Lynn McConnell prior to the 2000 Cricket World Cup
 

6 comments:

  1. The MCC also employ a team of young women's cricketers starting last year. In fact they are the first professional women's cricket team in the UK in that regard.

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    1. Thanks for the comment. I read a little of the MCC initiative but didn't include it - I was already heading toward a short novel. Does it run along similar lines to the youth scholarships to Lord's? If you have a link, please send it through.

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  2. The salaries at Chance To Shine are similar. See here:

    http://samebat.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/who-wouldnt-want-chance-to-shine.html

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    1. Thanks, Syd. Information is minimal at best on most of the women's issues, furthered by the realisation that they don't gain a lot of media so there are few in depth pieces.

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  3. You are bang on with the ROI and the evaluation of this initiative. Apart from the fixed contract fee, there needs to be adequate time, people, and other required resources for development programmes to take place throughout this contract period. And this can simply not be a short-term deal. Increase in participation numbers and better competition in the women's game can be seen only if such programmes are pursued over a relatively long period of time.

    I understand there was a women's club competition in Dunedin until a few years ago. Now, getting 15 players for a provincial squad seems to be a major challenge. How's the situation like in AKL? Getting enough players to run a competitive grade competition could be a KPI over the next few years.

    Anyway, hats off to NZC for this initiative. A step in the right direction indeed!

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  4. Thanks, sir. I'm not overly sure about the Auckland club situation. I know a number of the women in ND play in men's leagues as well. Otago couldn't ask for a better representative than Suzie Bates - I hope her strength of character helps the situation in the Deep South.

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