If frost arrives unexpectedly, or cruelly, tender, young plants wither and die. Hardier ones are more likely to see it out, with only a browned leaf as a war wound, raring to sprout after a prudent prune. Timing, as ever, is everything.
And so to women’s cricket, frosted by Covid-19 in the sharpest way. With two international series for England, against India and South Africa, a new Hundred competition complete with joint marketing alongside the men’s franchises (if much less exposure on television) and player contracts worth up to £15,000, this summer was expected to be a vital one.
But even more than the men’s game, it now looks washed out. Kaput. Last week the England and Wales Cricket Board’s managing director of women’s cricket, Clare Connor, admitted there may be no international women’s cricket this summer. With a limited number of biosecure venues (Old Trafford and Southampton, with possibly one other in the mix), the ECB has decided that pragmatism wins – it will make the more lucrative men’s game the priority.
Not only that, but women’s cricket seems to have lost control of the £20m of funding promised for the next two years by the ECB last October. The ECB chief executive, Tom Harrison, testifying to the digital, culture, media and sport subcommittee last week, confirmed the money would no longer be ring-fenced: the family silver has been pulled out of the cupboard and shown to the pawnbroker, everything is now on the table.
Connor will be “devastated” if there is no women’s international cricket this summer; as will the young players at grassroots level who fell in love with the game during the 2017 and 2019 World Cups, the professionals whose years at the top are so fragile and short, those who had gambled financially on Hundred contracts, and those in the middle who were hopeful of getting one of the 40 professional contracts designed to help bridge the gap between professional and amateur women’s cricket and stop them drifting off to other careers. Those contracts, promised for early summer, are now delayed, with talk in the air of a much reduced retainer instead.
All the female county players have been invited to a Zoom call with Connor on Thursday; it can’t come soon enough for many. The left-arm spinner Alex Hartley, who lost her England central contract in January, has spoken out about a lack of clarity.
“My big issue with this is that everything I’m reading in the papers and on Twitter and the internet is the first I’ve ever heard of anything,” she told the Wisden Podcast. “From my point of view, losing my England contract and then being told: ‘You can still be a professional cricketer from April, and then there’s the Hundred, you’ll earn a decent wage’ – now it’s 7 May and I haven’t heard a single thing. I’m jobless, I’ve got no income, no car, I’ve got a mortgage. It’s getting to the point where I’m going to have to get a job.”
She is not alone. As one up-and-coming young county player put it: “The thought of no cricket this year is actually quite upsetting as I want to keep pushing myself to get in as far as I can. This year for women’s domestic cricket was so important as it all changes next season with the regional teams. Doing well this year would help me get a professional contract, which is my ultimate aim. I do understand the prioritising of men’s cricket but the women’s game is on the rise so it’s gutting that it would be set aside.”
However, for all the undoubtedly awful personal stories of disappointment and financial strain, and intense frustration of a nascent game held back, is it OK to be thankful in a broad-brush way that, for the sake of women’s cricket, this crisis did not happen five years ago? That the £380m Covid black hole the ECB is looking at may mean the men’s game temporarily takes priority but it categorically won’t mean the women’s game disappears.
For all their past brush-offs, the paring back of the county system and the delays to the setting up of the centres of excellence, the ECB has made a public commitment to the women’s game, even during the crisis. “Nothing about Covid-19 dilutes our vision for the game in this country and that is for a gender-balanced game,” Harrison said this month. “There is no question about our ongoing ambition for women’s cricket; we will do what is in our power to protect it.”
So thank you to the 2017 World Cup and that game-changing final at Lord’s, thank you to the Women’s Big Bash, to the Kia Super League (God rest its soul), to Ellyse Perry and her many wondrous talents, to Harmanpreet Kaur’s 171 not out, to Sarah Taylor’s swift hands, to the 85,000 people who turned up to the MCG for the women’s T20 World Cup final just a few weeks before lockdown began.
Though it is no consolation for those whose contracts have now disappeared, women’s cricket is now too big to fail. It has too much potential for growth, too many interested parties, too many sponsors (Toyota, McDonald’s, Bunnings, Harvey Norman and Adidas for the T20 World Cup), too many influential voices, and is too important for potential funding-streams, too politically sensitive.
Its green shoots are tougher than they look, it will find a way to spring back when the soil is a little warmer, the season more welcoming. But we all need to check that when that time comes, the head gardener has not been distracted.
• This is an extract from the Guardian’s weekly cricket email, The Spin. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.