Interview: Clare Connor builds a new normal

The picture Clare Connor paints is a simple one: “A little girl now can go to school and play cricket at the age of six or seven, and she can come home and she can sit down and watch an international game of women’s cricket on television.”

Simple, but like the simplicity of a bowl of sunflowers, a bedroom in Arles or cans of Campbell soup – quotidian but captivating; look long enough and you know you’re witnessing an axis shift. 

“A little girl can now play cricket at school, she can join a cricket club really easily, she can come home, she can watch an international game of cricket in the Women’s World T20 in India, she can say, ‘I want to do that,’ she can see herself doing it. That’s really powerful.

“For me, that kind of completes the circle, because that little girl sees it’s normal for her to [play cricket] at school.”

It is a picture made of many little successes. And Connor, director of women’s cricket at the England and Wales Cricket Board, chair of the International Cricket Council’s women’s committee and former England Women captain, is behind some of the most vivid brushstrokes.  


A decade ago, England Women needed 75 in their second innings of the second Test against Australia in Worcester to regain the Women’s Ashes after a long wait of 42 years. At 1 for 2, and then 39 for 4 with both Connor, then captain, and Charlotte Edwards, future captain, dismissed, their plans were in danger of being thwarted, until Arran Brindle and Lydia Greenway completed the historic six-wicket win.

Connor, a right-hand bat and slow left-arm bowler, who featured in 16 Tests and 93 One-Day Internationals over a career that even encompassed the switch from playing in skirts to trousers, recalls the win as her “proudest” moment in cricket.

That 2005 series was the last she would play, injuries triggering a retirement. Two years later, she was appointed to the ECB role; and in 2016, that job would lead to the next achievement she would be proudest of: the Women’s Cricket Super League (WCSL).  

“In terms of real change and long-term sustainability from a high performance perspective, the work we’ve done on the WCSL has been most challenging,” Connors told Wisden India in a telephone interview.

The WCSL is a six-team domestic competition, which will be a T20 affair in its inaugural edition in the 2016 summer, before expanding to include the 50-over format in following years. Its aim, the ECB said, was “the development of ever higher standards for the England women’s team with greater competition for places, alongside inspiring more women and girls to play cricket at all levels.”

The work behind the tournament started in late 2014, said Connor, with a review of the women’s county championship. “The overriding feeling that came out of that review was that there was clearly a need for a level of competitive cricket between county cricket and international cricket.”

Nineteen England players have central contracts for 2016-17, with the first 18 making the step to professionalism in 2014. The national side, rightfully, came in for scrutiny after conceding the Women’s Ashes to Australia in 2015 although they were playing at home, but bounced back to win ODI and T20I series against South Africa women over the past month. The best players featured in the successful Women’s Big Bash League and the side is considered a top contender at international events. 

“From our perspective, having cricketers who are professional and contracted to ECB, there was a realisation that we needed to do something to make sure the gap wasn’t getting too big between those players and the rest,” said Connor.

“[The championship], with over 300 players playing in it, was all very well for a certain level of competition and it was giving a lot of female players  an opportunity to play professional cricket, but it wasn’t necessarily going to underpin the international set-up as strongly or as robustly as we needed. It also showed us that there were lots of female cricketers wanting to play county cricket but that the travel was often prohibitive – travelling five hours away for a match was difficult for some women and teenagers who were doing exams or were dependent on families to drive them. What that made us realise [was that] while county cricket needs to continue, absolutely, it probably needs to take on a different person. We need to try to ease the amount of travel our players are doing, and in the meantime [we] needed a model that could stretch the very best 60-70 players, give more players a chance to push for selection for England and create an environment that was much more high performance as opposed to lots of county cricket being quite recreational.

“We’ve got to make sure during all of this that we continue to focus on county cricket in the right way, make sure that those players and volunteers and coaches who work on the women’s county game continue to be part of something and continue to love what they do.”

Connor hoped the WCSL would complement the board’s grassroots efforts through Chance to Shine, a decade-old charity that has taken sport, including cricket, to schools and inspired boys and girls to play. With national player as its ambassadors, it has inspired over a million girls to take up cricket, the group says. 

Schools programmes, Connor explained, provided vital opportunities for girls. “That’s when opinions are formed. It’s then that girls decide whether they like sports and physical education, and whether that’s cricket or hockey or athletics or whatever that is … From there, you’ll have a whole myriad of options, on offering competitive cricket in clubs, districts, counties, states, whatever that looks like. And that becomes quite a strong cultural message. If girls go to school, and at a young age they feel it is normal to play cricket, then that’s a big shift. Certainly one we’ve seen in this country (England) over the past ten years, where girls definitely feel more normal to pick up a cricket bat then they did ten years ago.”


England’s grassroots initiatives are running parallel to the transformations in the international women’s structure. “I tell people, there’s no way I’d get anywhere near being picked for this England team if I was playing in this decade. Things have moved on hugely,” said Connor.

Even as she discussed the professionalism, the increased commercial interest, the involvement of coaches from the men’s game, the television broadcasts – “It gives the game so much more profile, so much credibility” – she honed in on a “rich calendar” of matches as one of the biggest reasons “the health of the game is much stronger than it’s ever been”.

Instrumental in that is the ICC Women’s Championship, started during her tenure with the international body, that requires top eight teams to play one another in at least three ODIs, with implications for qualification to the World Cup in 2017.

“Our 2011-2015 strategy was about having more cricket being played, cricket with context, cricket with meaning, bilateral cricket that has something attached to it, a points system. Hence why we created the system. It’s been a huge catalyst for more tours to be arranged.”

Bangladesh and Ireland, the No. 9 and 10 sides, have their sights set on being part of the Championship as well. Connor said it was on the agenda: “It might be the next edition of the women’s championship (2017 onwards) would be too soon, but I’m pretty sure that when we come to it in 3-4 years, when we’re devising the next stage, I’d be pretty confident that by that stage it’ll feature the top ten.

“I think for the moment, from a budget perspective, and in terms of making sure that the competition is as competitive as possible, the top eight is correct. Bangladesh and Ireland don’t play as much 50-over cricket. They’re going to need to prove they’re focussing on ODIs a little more. Obviously it’s a bit of a vicious circle [because they don’t get too many chances to play ODIs outside the championship].”

The rewards of any success in the women’s game, though, might be in pride and kind rather than in cash. In this Women’s World T20, the total prize money is $400,000, a 122% increase from the 2014 event, but still only a proportion of the men’s $5.6 million and less than what just India won in 2007. Equal pay, however, is not a battle Connor will take up cudgels for. She, as she has written about before, takes the long view of cricket.

“I think we’ve made big strides in the prize money front,” she said. “Things are heading in the right direction. I think it is important from a fairness perspective and a recognition perspective, certainly for the women’s game to receive better prize money, definitely, but there are other causes and areas that [are important] – for example, making sure Bangladesh and Ireland, in the next four years, are in a stronger position to participate in the Women’s Championship. For me that’s more important globally. I think the prize money debate is a short-sighted one, we’ll get there eventually. It only rewards the best teams anyway – if we can get Bangladesh and Ireland stronger, playing more cricket and ready to be in a ten-team ICC championship, I think that would be a bigger tick in the strategy than increasing prize money.”

Her suggested to-do-list is basic: “The key is around maintaining good levels of investment; keep touring, keep playing, and performance standards will rise.”

Just how much standards have risen will be emphasised at the Women’s World T20 2016. “I think we’re in the most exciting position on the eve of a global event than we’ve ever been,” said Connor. “In the previous competition, everybody thought there were only two-three teams who could win it, and Australia have dominated. [But] we’ve got a really good chance of a surprise winner here.”

This article first appeared in Wisden India.

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