There’s increasing optimism that the new regional tournament for women’s cricket will offer a silver-lining to an otherwise tumultuous year for domestic cricket, despite the flagship Hundred competition being moth-balled until 2021.
This summer was supposed to herald a new era for the women’s domestic game, something that the coronvirus has put on hold, for the time being at least.
But even though the shape of the summer remains unclear across all levels of the game, there is a growing hope that the new eight-team regional women’s competition can get off the ground – and offer a window into a brighter future.
That’s certainly the hope of Danni Warren, who was appointed regional director of women’s cricket for the new London and East Region earlier in May, and David Thorley, North West Regional Performance Director of women’s cricket.
Between them the pair’s reach is enormous, incorporating huge swathes of the country in the brave new world of women’s domestic cricket.
How much cricket is ultimately possible by the time August rolls around remains unclear but both Warren and Thornley believe that the regional structure – which should ensure that as many as 24 women’s cricketers are now paid to play the game – offers an easily defined pathway all the way from the club game to the England team itself.
“The pathway has always been there, but it perhaps hasn’t been as visible as it is now,” says Warren.
“With a large number of county teams playing it has been difficult to make the best players visible and for them to then take the next step. This extra level gives aspiration to county cricketers, wherever they’re playing their cricket.”
It’s not just those played in the more established first class counties that have this opportunity. Women’s cricket has a rich history of developing talent from the national counties, with Charlotte Edwards – formerly of Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire – and Devon’s Heather Knight, two high-profile examples of players who went on to captain their country after coming through less-established routes.
Edwards’ former counties are in Warren’s regional patch, one which also covers Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex, Northamptonshire, the MCC, Middlesex and Bedfordshire.
“You go all the way to the top of Northamptonshire, right across to the top of Norfolk, down through Suffolk and then Essex,” she says. “On the west side, you’re down to the boroughs of Richmond and the bottom of Middlesex. It’s a large area, but that brings with it some great opportunities. The larger the area, the more talent you’re going to unearth.
“That’s a big driver behind the structure that will be put in place. You want everybody who has aspirations to have the opportunity through the pathway. It shouldn’t be based on where you happen to be born or happen to live. It should be based on talent. Good players will always migrate their way to the next level of the pathway but this will probably open our eyes to that talent a bit earlier.
“Devon have produced a large number of cricketers over the years and a lot of them have gone to play at the highest level. Teams like Berkshire have had a very good structure for a number of years as well. I think the regional structure will ensure more of a level playing field when it comes to identifying and nurturing talent.”
Thorley’s own area covers Lancashire, Cheshire and Cumbria and represents something of a homecoming for a man who left his role as Stadium Administrator and Deputy Safety Officer at Old Trafford in 2006.
Although the pair may be operating at opposite ends of the country, they both share the ambition of ensuring that the talent pool available to the national side continues to grow – and that the professionalisation of women’s cricket also maintains momentum.
Certainly, 1 June represented a significant milestone in turning that ambition into reality, with retainers for up to 24 women’s domestic cricketers coming into force. Something that Thorley acknowledges as a huge stride forward.
“That’s a big step towards the professionalisation of the women’s game,” says Thorley.
“They couldn’t go down the five full-time contracts from 1 June because of the current situation but this is still 24 players on-board. It’s a very strong statement by the ECB.”
Thorley is no stranger to rolling with the punches of professional sport. Unveiled in his post last month, Thorley’s most recent sporting assignment was as the Head of Talent and Competitions for England Boxing. Having seen more than his share of bouts close-up, he has been bobbing and weaving for three weeks in a bid to ensure that the women’s domestic season isn’t KO’d completely.
“From this week, we’ll have some players on those retainer contracts so we’re getting some momentum and getting players through the door – virtually at least,” he says.
“There’s an S&C programme and we can do an induction with them as well. It feels like we’re getting a bit more life into it. Then we can start looking at what the season might look like, what training we can get in and also what key staff we can bring in as well.”
Warren has been similarly busy, with Zoom calls replacing a lengthy commute around the nine counties in which she operates.
“I did imagine that I would probably have driven around most of it by now but I’ve metaphorically and virtually done it via phone calls,” she laughs. “If I had driven round it all I would probably have used up a fair bit of the expenses budget by now. Maybe the new world is going to beneficial in some ways.”
Hopefully that new world will also include some cricket, sooner rather than later.
“There is still a hope that cricket will be played,” says Thorley. “The ECB are working up various different scenarios to try and ensure that happens. Again, whether that will change from the original plan we don’t yet know.”
Warren remains in upbeat mood too.
“It’s vitally important that we survive this year in the best financial position possible, having played as much cricket as possible,” she says.
“There are tough decisions that will have to be made but they’re not made for the short term, they’re made for the long term. The commitment to developing the game at all levels is there – we just have to react to the situation.
“We’ll be back in much better shape because of the things we’ll learn this year.”
If the pandemic plays ball, then all that remains is for the sun to stay exactly where it is – all through August and September.