In truth, it is a scenario that requires an open mind. The contest possesses an inherent risk which needs to be dealt with accordingly rather than allowed room to develop. Almost inevitably, the day’s proceedings threaten to provoke a comparison or two but such mental assessments would, in reality, prove rather pointless.
Journeying along the M3 toward Farnborough under the auspices of watching Hampshire and Staffordshire in the women’s County Championship one naturally ponders the day’s play and what might take place; an ordinary course of events prior to watching some cricket. The inherent danger arrives in the form of whether one would fall into the mistake of comparing a women’s contest with a men’s equivalent. Maybe some people can rise above such appraisals but, for many, the risk is very real. Fail to prepare and the inevitable judgements that the men’s game is faster, brighter, shinier, containing bigger hitting and generally more spectacular action could begin to smoulder. Are such visual pursuits all that spectating is about though?
Comparing women’s cricket with men’s is a bit like comparing a journey undertaken in a car as opposed to walking. Yes, the car is likely to reach the required destination quicker but walking affords the opportunity for a different route, a chance to gaze and ponder at things that might not necessarily be noticed on the car journey and the prospect of simply enjoying a different method of travel.
Thus, the aforementioned journey along the M3 features a sense of ‘enjoy the day and just watch and enjoy what is on show.’ Truth be told, women’s cricket is enjoying an ascendant curve. The Women’s Big Bash League has proved a huge success and made great strides in terms of media coverage and drama whilst one contest between Sydney Sixers and the Sydney Thunder attracted an astonishing 17,000 punters to the Sydney Cricket Ground. Meanwhile, the Kia Super League enjoyed an impressive first season in England with a well publicised second season on the horizon.
With such thoughts in mind, the most obvious place to venture into the world of women’s cricket would have been at the Ageas Bowl where the Southern Vipers Super League team are based but the vast open spaces and the gargantuan stands of the south coast’s premier cricket facility (as opposed to cricket ground) is certainly not the most hospitable of locales to enjoy the subtle nuances of a new form of the game.
The domestic women’s structure, that below the Kia Super League, is a little more egalitarian than the men’s equivalent in that the six separate divisions of the county championship feature the majority of traditional counties (first class and minor in the male game) as well as representative teams from Wales, Scotland and the Netherlands. Hosts of today’s contest, Hampshire, reside in the second division but have demonstrated great ambition to reach the top flight; adding lustrous star names such as erstwhile England captain Charlotte Edwards and current New Zealand star Suzie Bates to their squad. Convincing victories over Worcestershire, Wales and Derbyshire have vaulted the south coast county toward the summit of the table whilst, in contrast, visitors Staffordshire have failed to win any of their opening four matches and are rooted to the bottom of the division prior to heading south.
Today’s contest takes place at Cove Cricket Club in the town of Farnborough, tucked away in the north-eastern corner of Hampshire in prime commuter belt country for the capital. Ordinarily, with its location in the suburbs of a small town, the cricket club would prove rather nondescript until one considers its role in the youth career of Hampshire fans favourite Shaun Udal. The spinner’s time with the eponymous club from the suburb of his birth may have been brief but his lengthy first class career and dalliance with the England test team certainly helped the former village become a little more famous in cricketing circles.
In a neat moment of continuity, the host club are represented in the contest du jour by Hampshire skipper and wicket-keeper Naomi Lynch. Play begins some ninety odd minutes late due to overnight storms saturating the outfield, the lost time reducing the match to a forty over contest. Curiously, the contest itself begins in light rain despite the previous hour or so having remained dry.
The hosts are invited to bat first and demonstrate some early intent as erstwhile England skipper Charlotte Edwards, normally ensconced in the middle order, faces the first delivery. Conditions are not conducive to batting though as Hampshire lose two early wickets, Edwards the second to fall, disappointingly chopping a low delivery onto her stumps in the fourth over. Staffordshire’s reward for taking early scalps is the arrival of New Zealand captain Suzie Bates to the crease. From the first ball she faces Bates appears different class, moving balletically and gracefully as she eases into her innings, her Antipodean tones sporadically drifting through the heavy ether. Almost inevitably, she comfortably compiles a half century with an assortment of boundaries as the visiting bowling attack struggle for an answer.
Drinks are taken at the halfway juncture with the hosts 99-3, Bates contributing an astonishing 71 of the total. She is ably supported by Katie George though and their partnership almost reaches three figures when Bates surprisingly pulls a long-hop from Elsa Evans straight into the hands of Lenny Sims on the mid-wicket boundary, the Kiwi’s innings curtailed within sight of a brilliant century.
As play continues, the rain remains persistently light, barely stopping at any juncture; one or two other moments provoking a glance or two toward the skies by the umpires. Hampshire’s scoring rate predictably slows after Bates’ departure but Katie George and Emily Windsor push the hosts’ total towards 200. Cheryl Allcock castles both though and four rapid leg-before decisions restrict Hampshire to a total of 188 all out with four deliveries of their allotted forty overs remaining.
Situated at the end of a cul-de-sac in an estate containing roads named after Lake District locales, Cove Cricket Club inhabit a pleasant ground enjoying a peaceful spot despite being surrounded by sinuous A-roads and the main rail line from the south coast to London Waterloo. A succession of eighties build houses peer over one side of the ground whilst verdant trees line the opposite flank. Another row of suburban dwellings reside just beyond the boundary opposite the pavilion, all of which possess back gates onto the ground and a small bridge over the adjacent ditch as if beckoning the owners to bimble across and watch a few overs. Five tall, mature weeping willow trees add a sense of melancholy to the vista, each likely providing welcome shade on a hot afternoon. The pavilion itself is a humble, two storey affair; the lower level containing all that one would expect of a provincial club ground, the balcony on the higher level providing some sanctuary for the batter just dismissed for a duck or the bowler who has taken some tap. But for the regular trains rushing to far flung destinations, this could be a bucolic idyll as opposed to an equivalent tucked away in a corner of the capital’s commuter belt.
Sometimes you get a feeling in cricket. Even though one doesn’t really know what is going to happen in the following innings one just senses that there are tough times ahead for one team. One believes this may be the case for the visiting Staffordshire players. As Hampshire’s squad take to the field they appear to have an iota more purpose, a little more vigour and a touch more intent than their Midlands counterparts. Staffordshire began in a chipper, confident manner three hours earlier but the hosts’ give the impression of being a level higher. Their line-up possesses international stars and their younger players display a confidence likely born from the knowledge that there are stellar performers in their midst. The conditions are overcast and humid, the pitch green and conducive. Hampshire’s bowlers hit the bat that little bit harder and bowl the ball that little bit straighter. You miss, I hit. Bails are soon flying and, as the rain threatens to intervene, the visitors are reduced to 8-4 after 5 overs. Hampshire are in a hurry to complete victory lest the weather turns a bit more inclement. They are on the road to promotion and their body language, chirps and general play demonstrates such a fact. Staffordshire’s bowlers, previously wandering around the boundary not expecting to be required for a while, are forced to head back to the pavilion as the wickets tumble. In contrast, Bates and Edwards chat away in the slips, happy to let the younger players wreak havoc with their verve and elan. Edwards clings onto a sharp chance at slip, keeper Naomi Lynch completes a similar dismissal soon after and Staffordshire are left reeling at 25-7 from 16 overs. They are left not knowing whether to stick or twist; chase quick runs and risk being skittled for under 50 or bat time in an attempt to avoid total humiliation. In truth, the decision isn’t really theirs to make. Hampshire’s attack seems to have no weak links, the change bowlers just as probing and asking the same difficult questions as the openers. Staffordshire defend with grit but the end is inevitable, eventually arriving with just 73 runs on the board, that total courtesy of a spirited last wicket partnership of 42 between Lydia Perry and Millie Wilson.
Heading back out on Farnborough’s sinuous A-road network toward the motorway, one is afforded time to ponder and digest the events that had taken place at Cove Cricket Club. Scores may have been low, Suzie Bates aside, but the match had proved entertaining and intriguing. In truth, the shot making, the size of the playing surface, the number of sixes and the speed of play all proved largely irrelevant. As with all sport, the contest is what is all important. Cricket has perhaps become too enthralled with sixes and bowlers being flayed to all parts that the sheer simplicity of a decent contest between two teams and the drama that such a scenario can produce has been lost in the chase for instant gratification. Similar to the balance between bat and ball, oft lost in the modern game, the balance and enjoyment of the contest itself can, and should, still hold sway. Today’s contest may not have produced a nail biting finish but sport cannot always generate such perfect conclusions.
Whether the aforementioned contest is of international standard or a non-descript evening midweek game between two recreational sides should not massively impinge on the thrill of the contest. Granted, the further one progresses up the sport’s ladder the more import and significance is attributed to a match but strip away all the surrounding influences and emotions and one can still derive the same enjoyment from a contest, regardless of who is playing.