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Why is women's cricket still considered a second-class game?

As the first Ashes test gets underway, Antoinette Muller looks into the often-overlooked women's game, where unequal prize money and a lack of professional contracts means many female cricketers must hold down other jobs in order to take to the field.

The Ashes trophy. Photograph: Getty Images

Whenever anything written about women’s cricket is mentioned, it’s usually met with a scrunched up nose and a shake of the head. It’s not because there is malice towards the sport, but because most of what is written about it is done with a perceived feminist agenda. Those who still view feminism as a kind of bra-burning, anti-male approach automatically shun everything related to the sport as a result.

This makes for a tricky tapestry. On the one hand, everybody raises valid issues, but it’s often done with so much frustration that the exasperation completely overwhelms focussing on the sport itself.

With Ashes-fever having bolted down England in a vice-grip, few will know, or care, that the women will be starting their own Ashes series in August. They’ll do this while most of them still work other jobs or study at university.

While women’s cricket has come a long way in some countries. In England, seven women have contracts. New Zealand have given four of their female players that privilege. Australia recently set the standard when they increased their to player retainer from AUS$15,000 to AUS$25,000 and the minimum retainer from AUS$5,000 to AUS$25,000. Even Pakistan handed contracts to 17 women in 2011, but in countries like South Africa, progress is still very much lagging behind.

There, not a single woman has earned a contract yet. Those who want to play cricket have to find an employer willing to accommodate their endeavours. Mignon Du Preez, who scored a double century at the age of 12 in a provincial 40 over match, is one of the women who has to work doubly hard to find a way to play the game she loves and earn a living. Despite holding and honours degree in marketing, Du Preez can’t find an employer willing to accommodate her playing obligations.

While the men who represent their countries all have professional contracts, the women hardly have that luxury. The prize money for their competitions is completely disproportionate. During the World T20 event in Sri Lanka last year, the winners of the men’s tournament earned £616,000, while the women scooped just £40,000.

There is a long history of the women’s game being shunned. Things have improved, but the struggle will continue to go on. There is, however, an equally endearing side to the sport which sometimes falls by the wayside.

That magic is captured in the recently-published book Skirting The Boundary by Isabelle Duncan. It is unpretentious and highlights issues in the women’s game without being intrusive. It takes the reader through a fun journey from back in the 1800s when the Maidens used to play against the Marrieds to the current era where women are finally being equally recognized.

 It talks about the issues that faced them then, the ridicule the women had to endure and the misogynist focus on how they were dressed. Equally, it celebrates the achievements thus far, the centuries scored. It celebrates women like Tania Weinburg who played for South Africa’s Western Province Under-19 boys team. She managed to do that despite being denied the chance to play for her school’s side, with the argument being that “she might deny a boy the opportunity to play”. It delves into the history of overarm bowling, invented by Christina Willes. It indulges in the quirky and often murky past women’s cricket has gone through.

Even those who do not really have an interest in women’s cricket or even cricket for that matter will find Skirting the Boundary an endearing and informative read. With so many historical nuggets thrown in, it will leave even those most-versed in the history of the sport thinking: I didn’t know that.

Its unpretentiousness is what sets the book aside from most other things written about the women’s game. It celebrates the sport for what it still is.

Women’s cricket is still a niche sport and its nuances should be celebrated as such. It’s often peculiar and perceptions need to be challenged about what women should and shouldn’t be doing. Yes, it’s strange to see women with helmets on and all padded up. Yes, the women aren’t as strong as the men and they don’t hit the ball as far. But some women are equally if not better equipped technically to provide some aesthetically pleasing cricket. They work just as hard to stay on the top of their game, all while still having to focus on their day jobs.

They are hardly recognised for their efforts. According to Du Preez, everything is done for the love of the game.

"We have to do everything we do for the love of the game," Du Preez told me.

"We don't get the recognition either. We're never recognised in the street and I think there's a lack of awareness. There's also this misconception, in South Africa anyway, that the women who play the sport are butch and not feminine. I think it’s just a case of people getting out there and going to watch a match to see that normal girls can also hold a bat and hit a ball,” she adds.

"We aren't as strong as the guys, but our technical work and the work we put in to perform in the field is as much as the men.”

There is much to celebrate about the sport and women’s achievements. In fact, the first 200 in one-day cricket came from a woman and not Sachin Tendulkar. Former Australian women's captain Belinda Clark achieved this feat over a decade prior to Tendulkar, when she hit an unbeaten 229 against Denmark.

Such achievements are worthy of recognition and shouldn’t be dismissed because of shorter boundaries or because it was “just Denmark”. Things are slowly but surely getting better, though, and in 2009 Wisden for the first time named a woman as one of their five Cricketers of the Year.

Things are progressing, albeit a bit slower in some countries, but Du Preez has faith that things will get there eventually.

"Where we've been in the past and where we are now, in South Africa, things are getting better. It's not always as easy for us as there's so much red tape. But we're starting to play a lot more competitive cricket and mechanisms are being put in place for us to get where we want to be,” the 24-year old says.

Women’s cricket has a long way to go. Glaring inequalities have to be addressed, but that will take time. There is no doubt that it will flourish, but first it needs to catch up on about two hundred years of backlogged progress. In the meantime, their efforts shouldn’t be forgotten amidst the struggle for equality. 

Now read Ed Smith on why in cricketing terms, the UK's north-south divide is as deep as ever.