Women’s cricket risks being sidelined amid the clamour to schedule matches at the small number of bio-secure venues in England and Wales, should the sport get underway this summer in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Clare Connor, the ECB’s managing director of women’s cricket, made the frank admission on Wednesday that while representatives of the women’s game were involved in discussions about staging international cricket behind closed doors if lockdown restrictions are eased, they had to be “realistic” about the prospect of making way for men’s fixtures as the ECB looks to reduce a projected £380 million loss.
“We have to be completely realistic as the weeks tick away and the lead-in time to getting international men’s and women’s cricketers ready to play ticks away,” Connor said. “If the international women’s schedule can’t be fulfilled in full but a large amount of the international men’s programme can this summer, which is going to reduce that £380 million hole, we have to be realistic about that.
“We’ve got these long-term ambitions for the game that extend beyond this summer and trying to protect as much investment as possible over the next five years, that is largely going to come down to how much international men’s cricket can be staged this summer.
“That’s not to say we won’t be fighting hard to play our international schedule against India and South Africa as best we can. But we’re only going to have a few venues, if any, in operation and if that ends up being two bio-secure environments or three, there’s only a certain number of days to try to cram everything into.”
Tom Harrison, the ECB’s chief exceutive, told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 on sport in the UK on Tuesday that English cricket’s losses this summer could reach £380 million if the entire season is wiped out.
The ECB is investigating the possibility of staging matches involving only players, officials, essential staff and broadcasters at venues with on-site hotels – like Southampton’s Ageas Bowl and Emirates Old Trafford in Manchester – or with hotels nearby to reduce the risk of transmitting coronavirus and keep costs down.
It is hoped such a plan would allow England’s men to play their three-Test series against West Indies, which was originally due to start on June 4, and three Tests against Pakistan, which had been planned for August, but it is dependent on the UK government easing the lockdown to the point that cricket can be staged at all after July 1, which was the earliest date the ECB has set for a return of matches.
The ECB is in talks with the BCCI about rescheduling the India women’s tour, which was due to start on June 25 but postponed once the July 1 date was set, and Connor hoped that England could host South Africa for two T20Is and four ODIs in September as planned.
“It’s impossibly difficult to imagine all that international cricket being able to take place but we’ll have to make the best of what we can put on,” she said.
“I would be devastated if there was no international women’s cricket this summer. No one would be more disappointed, but I do believe that we’ve got this period to get through and we’ve all got to come out of it in as healthy a way as possible.
“If we have to play less international women’s cricket this summer to safeguard the longer-term future and investment and building the infrastructure for a more stable and sustainable women’s game then that is probably a hit we might have to take.”
Despite previous suggestions to the contrary, Connor accepted Harrison’s assertion that £20 million pledged last October to women’s and girls cricket over the next two years, was not ring-fenced.
“If you’re facing a potential deficit of £380 million, I don’t think any sport or non-sport organisation could guarantee financial certainty given the uncertain environment in which that business is operating,” Connor said. “There is no part of the ECB that has been afforded ring-fenced funding.
“The £20 million that has so far been signed off by the board was for 2020 and 2021 and that is still the budget we are working to, albeit we are going to have lower areas of spend for obvious reasons in 2020. What’s really important is that we can’t give that guarantee of ring-fencing but what we can give is a guarantee or a promise that that vision for the game remains unchanged.
“If this pandemic has shown us anything, it’s shown us about the need for a more equal society and so the commitment to making the game better for women and girls is very steadfast.”
Part of that investment was intended to go towards 40 professional contracts for players in addition to those on ECB central contracts and to stage a 50-over domestic women’s competition between eight regional teams in September. Connor said while that competition had not been removed from this year’s schedule, “we have to plan for it not to happen as much as we have to plan for it to happen”.
With the postponement of the Hundred, there is an entire tier of women facing the prospect of not playing any cricket this season. In recognition of the financial impact on those players, Connor expects to still award those 40 contracts later this year but in the meantime place many recipients on a retainer, albeit at a reduced pay rate. In turn, the players would commit to strength-and-conditioning programmes, embark on off-field education such as anti-corruption and anti-doping modules, and work with mentors from the senior squad.
“What we are doing is we are looking at, in the interim, how we can show those players that we care,” Connor said. “We want to keep them motivated and we don’t want to lose them to other career opportunities that might presented themselves to them.”