Friday, January 18, 2013

"The all-male cricket party is over"

There has been a lot of discussion over the past few days regarding the news that Sarah Taylor may play some matches for Sussex (men's) 2nd XI this season, as a reserve wicket-keeper. Much of this has been along the lines of praising the development as being welcome and, indeed, far too late in coming - see:

But if Taylor's selection, and the idea of mixed cricket generally, is such a positive move for female cricketers, why did the Women's Cricket Association (WCA, the governing body of the sport until it merged with the ECB in 1998) ban matches with men until 1970?

The WCA sets its face inflexibly against cricket with men. (1934)

Might there be another side to this story of seemingly linear progress towards fully mixed cricket?

The WCA's ban on official mixed cricket matches was enforced right from its formation in 1926. One of the founders of the Association, Marjorie Pollard (by all accounts an extremely formidable woman), wrote a book in 1934 entitled 'Cricket for Women and Girls' in which she outlined the reasoning behind this policy. There were three main reasons why Pollard felt mixed cricket would be a bad thing for the women's game, and all three still hold true today.

Firstly, Pollard was keen to stress that the pioneers of women's cricket in the 1930s needed to "develop a style and a game of our own".

No one tries to bowl as fast as Larwood, no one tries to hit like Constantine...the standards are different.

Imitating the men's game was not going to cut it. These pioneers of women's cricket needed to work out their own ways of playing the game they loved, to adapt it to their own needs. As Pollard put it:

batting for women is different - the strokes that we need are drives, and pulls, or anything that really hits the ball.

The bowling was also different. Less fast-paced (even less so in the 1930s than now), and therefore a need for more skilled placement of the ball.

This is still the case today; the biggest fans of women's cricket would not deny that it is a different game in many ways to men's cricket. But note that Pollard did not say that the women's game was in any way WORSE than the men's game. In fact, she argued that in some ways the "outlook, attack and method of self-expression" of the women's game led to a greater focus on skill and less on physical intimidation, which she saw as positive (and indeed was recognised as such by many English commentators at the height of the Lillee and Thomson era!) The problem with mixed cricket is that it suggests precisely the opposite to this: that the women's game is inferior to the men's game, and that female cricketers should in some way attempt to match up to the men. As Selma James states in this article,

Women who have broken through the glass ceiling in other areas have changed our perception of what women can accomplish. But it has rarely changed the rules and possibilities for most of us. We prove we are as good as men, and men are once again the standard that women must strive for.

Do we really want women cricketers to be striving to be "as good as" male ones? Do we really want the media coverage of women's cricket to be dominated by men talking about what a "big step up" it is from the women's game to the men's game, and how they'll never be able to cope with truly fast bowling? Don't we want women's cricket to be covered in its own right and on its own terms? The WCA did.

Pollard's second, related, point was that in order for women's cricket to be taken seriously by the general public, women needed to be seen to be playing the game in a meaningful manner. For the decade after the formation of the WCA in 1926, female cricketers faced a huge amount of media ridicule. Letters and articles in national newspapers described women's cricket as "a joke", and "a sacrilege". The type of mixed matches which were taking place at this time would only have enhanced this ridicule: for example, in men v women matches, the men often batted with broom handles or with one hand tied behind their back. Pollard and the WCA wanted to move way from the perception that women were this laughably inferior to their male counterparts. They wanted, more than anything, to be taken seriously and considered as cricketers in their own right. As Pollard wrote:

it is so often cropping up in the Press. We are told that we shall never play cricket like men...Men will not realize that we do not want to play like men.

This statement seems to me equally applicable in today's media climate. For the last few days, in every single discussion I have heard on this subject, the same questions have come up. Won't Taylor's male opponents feel they have to slow down their bowling when she faces them? How will she possibly cope in such a fast-paced game? And the old chestnut, what if she gets hurt?! (Because there's clearly more of a risk to Taylor than there was to all those England players facing Lillee and Thomson in 1974-5 WITHOUT HELMETS.) There is a danger with this kind of coverage that it becomes extremely patronising (some of it has been, some of it less so). But this type of coverage also, to reinforce the point I made above, takes the focus away from the actual cricket. Will the women's World Cup make it on to the front page of the Guardian next month? I somehow doubt it.

Thirdly, Pollard was quite firm about the WCA's intentions as a governing body: "We do not wish to follow, we wish to go our own way - run our own Association, play our own cricket in our own way." The WCA would not initially let men serve on its Executive Committee and were never keen on utilising male umpires or coaches. Why? Because they recognised the importance of having control of their own sport, making decisions about the way they wanted to play the game themselves. Sussex's recent statement that whether Taylor plays depends on "further assessment" (see reminds us that it is a group of male selectors who will decide whether Taylor will play for them this season, regardless of any media furore surrounding that decision. The 1998 merger of the WCA with the ECB has brought with it countless benefits for the women's game, but it also appears that more and more of the decisions affecting female cricketers are being taken by men.

The idea of men controlling women's cricket is entirely in contradiction with the vision of the WCA back in 1926 and frankly, if women had sat back and relied on the efforts of men to launch and establish women's cricket in Britain (and elsewhere), the sport would probably have been set back by at least fifty years. A cricket set-up that is fully mixed will only advance male control of the women's game and I'm not convinced this is an entirely positive thing for the women involved.

Why did the WCA change its policy in 1970? It was not done with the desire to promote mixed cricket at a serious level. Instead it was a recognition of the trend towards holding matches of men's against women's teams for fundraising purposes. The money-making potential of such matches was not to be sniffed at by an entirely amateur body that relied on donations to fund international cricket tours. It was a decision made for practical purposes and the WCA continued to argue that serious mixed cricket was an unlikely and probably undesirable prospect.

Evidently Taylor is an excellent player and nothing should take away from the fact that if she does play for Sussex, it will be a fantastic achievement for her personally. However, let's not get carried away. Colin Cowdrey wrote the following back in 1976, in the foreword to Netta Rheinberg and Rachael Heyhoe-Flint's history of women's cricket, Fair Play:

The all-male cricket party is over.
How many men will be playing for their counties by the 1980s, I wonder?...there will be Maids of Kent aplenty challenging Denness, Luckhurst, Asif, Shepherd and Julien. Bachelor Alec Bedser may find himself, as Chairman of Selectors, having to consort with four ladies. Mighty Tony Greig can no longer rest secure in his size and strength, mindful that brute force alone did not keep Goliath going too long

Decades later, that vision looks overly optimistic. Will it ever come to bear? It seems to me both unlikely and not necessarily something which female cricketers, and fans of the women's game, should aspire to.

1 comment:

  1. I have an interesting (to me, at least) anecdote about mixed cricket. When I was a boy of 12, I was part of a team who went to play at a junior rep competition. In one of our games, I had to open the batting against a truly fearsome bowler with dreadlocks, who charged down the wicket to eyeball me after I just slipped out of the way of a threatening bouncer. It was only when the bowler came down the pitch did I realise that it was a girl.

    She went on to destroy our team, taking 5 wickets in the process. Clearly for her playing with boys wasn't a step up, if anything, it was a step down. I am eternally glad I never again had to face the bowling of Sophie Devine.