On March 8th 2020, over 85,000 people packed the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the final of the ICC T20 Women’s World Cup. It was the crescendo to a period of collaborative hard work from Australian administrators, for whom this showpiece event had been some time in the making. It was also a lesson to those watching, particularly on English shores, that, with the correct structures in place, women’s cricket can soar.
Last year the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) released their Inspiring Generations strategy – a framework for development over a period of five years which outlined specific targets. For the first time, women’s and girls’ cricket was included as a specific growth area, citing the potential to harness enthusiasm to increase representation of women in cricket at every level.
“The Aussies have just got real foresight” admits former England All Rounder Laura MacLeod who has been named the first Director of Women’s Cricket by newly formed West Midlands Women’s Cricket Limited.
“They have some really clever, strategic people. We do have to learn from them, but be mindful of bringing people along with us on the journey”
It was for this reason that elite domestic women’s cricket in England was restructured away from counties into regional hubs, each offering 5 full time contracts with the purpose of professionalising the women’s game.
The West Midlands region set to take part in the elite domestic structure encompasses Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire.
MacLeod, a Nantwich resident, said: “The ECB have really done their homework on this as to how a girl gets from that first feel of the bat and ball right through to being an England player.
“At the very top it will mean more girls knocking on the door for England places. We need an oversupply so that if Katherine Brunt or Anya Shrubsole retire tomorrow, we have quality players that could step into their shoes who don’t just have good potential, but good experiences”
A 50 over tournament was due to take place this year with the regional teams made up of the 5 fully contracted players, plus a wider squad on a player-as-they-play basis.
The players with full-time contracts have access to year round tactical, technical and physical conditioning, creating a country-wide network of 40 cricketers to provide a much needed pathway to national representation.
“We have been fortunate that the [England] team that plays at the moment is quite set. If retirements or injuries happen, then that could lead to a slump in performance”, MacLeod conceded.
“We need to be mindful of the fact that the Women’s Big Bash League in Australia is starting to develop players who can cope with the pressure, and that is what the regional structure needs to do. We need players who can play in front of 90,000 people and cope with that. On the flip side, if they don’t perform, they need to be able to cope with that mentally.”
Unsurprisingly the advent of the competition this season is in doubt due to coronavirus but with fixtures and venues only pencilled in, there is scope for flexibility. MacLeod, along with her team, is still set on ensuring she brings the most out of her native Midlands region, which, by her own admission doesn’t have the same richness of talent as some of the other regions.
“The 8 regions need to come together to make sure we have all of the available best players sitting in the regional structure because we have lots of talent sitting down south. There is a dearth in East Midlands but loads in Lancashire and Yorkshire.
“We are trying to work together, we’ve got to be sensible about it. If you ask any of the regional directors – if they know their patch, they will know who their five players are but my approach to it is for the head coach to own that process, and for the senior talent manager to be involved in that process.”
As important for MacLeod, who is also Chair of the MCC Women’s Sub-Committee, is the effect the new pathway will have in inspiring the new generation, a pillar at the heart of the ECB’s new strategy. Increasing participation is no easy feat, but is an area that the thinkers at the helm are working hard on.
“The benefit of us getting more contracted players is that we can get them to inspire the next generation. They will have public appearances written into their contracts. They need to be motivated to do this.
“The ECB has now got people in place who get what children need, and understand what we need to do differently. There are certainly people who work on the programme now who have a better view of how children consume and play sport. We have got the right things in place. It is only a matter of time before this will gain traction and it will start to snowball.”
Aptly, inspiring generations is a facet at the core of MacLeod’s coaching philosophy which has impacted many lives in the Midlands region, and despite entering cricket administration soon after retiring from playing international cricket, she is far from finished.
“For me, the best thing is developing children as people, developing their characters. I’m a real believer that sport and, in particular, cricket can have a great impact on lives. But, I think, while I might have done a lot, my work is not done, far from it. There is a lot more to do and a lot more girls to bring confidence out of, and to develop into the leaders of the future.”
It has come full circle for MacLeod who, as a youngster, followed her father to Crewe Rolls Royce, and made her debut as an 11 year old with the U18 boys (there was no girls’ team), and is now the heartbeat in ensuring that many more girls from the Midlands region have an opportunity to excel in the sport.