Congratulations to the England women’s cricket team, who yesterday beat Australia by 61 runs in the Ashes test match at Perth. They’re now in pole position to retain the Ashes overall: the trophy is contested on a points system across different formats.
But here’s my problem with Charlotte Edwards’s side, and the women’s game in general – and it’s nothing to do with the intrinsic merits of either the team, or the sport.
How do you promote women’s cricket, and develop its fanbase, without sounding patronising?
The BBC’s coverage of the sport involves the wielding of a double-edged sword. Without the airtime and energy the corporation expends on the endeavours of the female England team, we’d barely be aware they even exist, never mind be conscious of their results and progress.
The ECB therefore owes a huge debt to the BBC for the exposure they provide. But the flip side is that that coverage often feels rather desperate in its earnest exhortations to take the sport seriously.
“Don’t forget the women’s cricket! Don’t forget the women’s cricket!”, the Five Live sportsreader seems to almost scream out of the radio, begging you to pay attention. “It’s as important as the men’s game, and the quality’s as good too – really”, is the apparent undertone.
When it comes to a choice of sport or entertainment, the one thing guaranteed to put anyone off is the notion that it’s good for you – which is how much of the promotion of women’s cricket often feels. The subtext is that liking women’s cricket is a virtuous and improving thing to do, and that failure to oblige places you at risk of the charge of chauvinism.
I’m talking here about the subtleties of tone, because these messages are not overt or strident. But they’re real enough, and they not only encourage condescension, but are counter-productive, because they deter you from paying attention to women’s cricket, rather than the opposite.
No one begins to like something purely because they’re told to. You need to have a direct and affecting personal experience, and one which makes you care about what’s at stake. And this is a difficult problem to surmount for all fringe or marginal sports, including most top-level women’s pursuits.
The same issue affects women’s football. Through no fault of the players, the promotion and media coverage is too earnest, and anticipates a chauvinist reaction. If you don’t like this, it’s implied, you must be sexist.
Some of the general apathy towards top-level female cricket, football, and golf, is indeed probably to do with sexism, but that only tells part of the story – because if anything, women in general are less interested in women’s sports than men.
For example, how many women do you know who have any meaningful awareness of women’s football, and actually watch it for pleasure, of their own volition? It’s anecdotal, I know, but to buttress the point, of the people of my acquaintance who have some knowledge of women’s cricket, all of them are men.
Women have been playing official test cricket since 1934 and the female World Cup (which began in 1973) is two years older than the male version. But in terms of general public perception, in Britain at least, it’s a new sport, as it’s only received significant media exposure in the last ten years. And it’s that factor which poses the toughest handicap.
People in this country don’t like new sports, and almost never are they able to secure a robust berth in our national consciousness – cycling being the exception-proving rule.
Just ask the proponents of basketball and ice hockey, who’ve repeatedly tried and failed to launch them in the UK. Even the NFL, despite its awesome financial and marketing muscle, remains on the periphery.
New sports struggle to hold our attention because they lack two crucial elements. One of those is history – the backstories of rivalry and combat which provide the emotive pull, and the reason why we English will always care more about a cricket series against Australia than Sri Lanka, irrespective of the teams’ strengths. The second is a cast of well-established characters, the dramatis personae who supply the human narrative – the heroes and villains we rally to or against.
Women’s cricket, at least in England, finds itself exactly thus deprived, because to the general public it has no heritage, and therefore little context. And neither does it have personalities who resonate widely – no Graeme Swann, KP, or David Warner.
And herein lies the conundrum for the women’s game, because only wider consumption can propagate those indispensable attributes of story and cast. But to return to where we started, how do you encourage people to take an interest without putting them off?
One approach might be to have less “tell” and more “show”. It’s one thing hearing reports from women’s matches on Five Live, but they’re rather abstract compared to witnessing play in the flesh. The ECB need use more imagination to get bums on seats for major women’s matches. Couldn’t they try more vigorous ticket promotions and giveaways, with a focus on schools? Although in a sense that could appear to debase the fixtures, it might be worth it in the long term.
More effective still, surely, is to grow the participation base. It’s not particularly easy for a schoolgirl to find the opportunity to play meaningful cricket, never mind a grown woman. How many schools offer cricket to girls? How many clubs organise colts teams for (or including) girls? How much of the ECB’s Sky money is targeted at recreational – as opposed to elite – female cricket? Whatever the numbers, more could be done if the people in charge really wanted it to. And it would make a difference, because doing something is always a more powerful experience than hearing about it.
Much of this would take some time to achieve, but in the short term a more tangible and precise prize is at stake – the women’s Ashes. Let’s all wish Charlotte Edwards the best of luck for bringing home the urn – and I really hope that doesn’t sound patronising.
Update – 16th January
Clare Connor, the former England captain, Tweeted to say that this post was “poorly researched” because I failed to mention that more than a million girls have played cricket in schools since 2005 through A Chance To Shine. Fair enough, but I stand by my point, which was that the ECB, who have huge amounts of money, ought to pull their fingers out – rather than leave it to a third party. And those million girls – how many of them have been since been able to develop and progress their cricket through colts and clubs?
Raf Nicholson, a blogger specialising in women’s cricket, Tweeted to describe this piece as “a load of shite”. I’m fair game for brickbats, but I can’t help but argue that one is a bit harsh, when the whole point of this post was to get people thinking about how women’s cricket could evolve and grow. If I felt in any way negative about the instrinsic merits of women’s cricket – either at recreational, spectator, or international level – then it’s a bit odd I would have written this.