Thursday, November 18, 2010

The amateur/professional divide

One of the major divides in the history of men's cricket has been that of the amateur vs the professional, otherwise known as the gentlemen vs the players. Theoretically at least, professionals were paid for their cricket and amateurs were not. The divide, however, went far deeper than this. It was enhanced by the English class structure, in which the amateur was traditionally a member of the elite and did not need payment. Professionals relied on their wages to live. Almost right up until the divide was abolished in 1962, genetleman and players used separate dressing rooms and professionals were required to address amateurs as "sir".

Women's cricket has followed a different history. In common with other women's sports, it has always been and remains a largely amateur sport. Very few women have been able to consider playing cricket a career choice. Sadly, this reflects the complete disparity between men's and women's sports, and resulted in an often dire financial situation for the Women's Cricket Association (WCA), who despite England's triumph in the 1993 World Cup were unable to capitalise on this success as they faced near-bankruptcy after hosting the tournament, and were thereafter forced into a merger with the ECB from a position of weakness.

But, interestingly, there are suggestions that women continue to be proud of their amateur status. Karen Smithies, former England captain, put it like this:

women cricketers tend to be more vibrant, more enthusiastic, more committed, because they've given such a lot to play. You've got to want it desperately to be there. I've always said, between me and my parents, cricket's probably cost us fifteen or twenty thousand pounds in lost wages, travelling, kit – but I'd give it all again.

Even more interestingly from my perspective are the historical continuities between this account, and several quotes from Marjorie Pollard, one of the WCA's founders, who declared proudly in 1930 that women played the game "because we enjoy it", and not because of cash incentives.

The problem for women's cricket is that this attitude has often been accompanied by an elitist ethos similar to the one the MCC so successfully cultivated up until 1962, and that consequently women's cricket has remained inaccessible to the working-class woman. The continued lack of funding available for female seeking to play cricket suggests this may be another historical continuity, though one can speculate that the sport has become more readily available to the less privileged in recent years, in part due to the 1998 merger of the WCA with the ECB.

More recently, there have been signs of a conflict amongst those who wish to see women's cricket remain an amateur sport, played for enjoyment's sake only, and those who stress the urgency of enforcing higher standards of professionalism if women's cricket is to be taken seriously by the media. Davies highlighted this in his 1998 book Mad Dogs and English Women in which he reported comments made by England's then assistant coach Peter Moralee:

You'll go and see people playing these friendly games, they're putting on bowlers that are absolutely crap, they're letting the tail bat first – and how is that good for women's cricket? How is that serious? But if you say anything about it, they get all huffy.

There seems to be a clash of priorities at the heart of this: is the priority to make the game accessible and friendly for women of any age, or to ensure greater exposure in the international media spotlight? It is a difficult question to answer, and how you answer probably depends on the level of cricket that you play.

Looking to the future, the obvious question is: will there ever be fully professional female cricketers? There have been positive steps in this direction, the main one being the establishment of central contracts for 10 players by the ECB in 2008, though players are still required to spend 50% of their time coaching, and are therefore in my opinion only semi-professional. Meanwhile, the majority of women continue to play, often at far greater personal cost than their male counterparts, yet with far smaller rewards ultimately awaiting them.

Monday, September 27, 2010

What does it mean?

One of the foremost questions I seek to answer in my PhD is:

What does women's cricket mean to the women that play?

Many feminist theorists have suggested that playing sport is, for women, liberating. Both physically, as it allows them to feel powerful and in control of their bodies, and socially, as it is one way of defying social norms about it being "unnatural" for women to play sport, and of creating new norms that begin to associate women with athleticism.

But are sportswomen, and in particular female cricketers, really feminists, or even gender-conscious? I suspect that this question will not be straightforward to answer, because

a) many women do not self-define as feminists - in the world of sport this is even more likely than usual, as it may lead to strained relations with their more powerful male equivalents - yet their actions show that they act in "feminist" ways.

b) a lot of women, in my experience, say that they play sport simply for "fun" and with no hidden agenda. Can I impose a feminist agenda onto female cricketers, or is that simply reimposing their historical silence, preventing their words speaking for themselves?

Linked in with the question of whether women cricketers are gender-conscious are other questions that include

How far are they aware of the history of the sport?
Do they actively seek to differentiate themselves from their male equivalents, or is women's cricket the same as men's cricket in their eyes?
How far are they aware of the types of discrimination - media, societal, financial - that they face as female athletes? Does it bother them, or do they seek to justify it?

I wonder to what extent I will be able to answer these questions, but I hope I can at least suggest tentative answers in my eventual thesis; I want my research to have an impact not only in the field of sports history but also in the feminist arena, and if possible in the world of government policy-formation.

We shall see!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"The power game"

I just finished reading an interview with the first woman to score a century in Twenty20, Deandra Dottin,


during which the interviewer stated that "the power game is something that is not often associated with women's cricket."

I suspect that most people, if they did bother to read this interview, would accept this statement without a second thought. But it made me stop and think. In the research I have conducted to date, on both women's sport and women in cricket specifically, the issue of female physical strength - in this case phrased covertly as "the power game" - is one that crops up again and again. Mainly the idea that women are less physically able than men, however it is phrased, is bandied about as a justification for the marginalisation of female sport.

How often have journalists written reports of women's games that express this kind of sentiment, stating that "it just wasn't as fast-paced as the men's game" or "it wasn't as exciting"?

How long must female athletes continue to have to compete against men? Dottin scored the quickest century to date in both women's and men's cricket. Doesn't this prove something?

Aren't these kind of sentiments just another kind of phallocentrism in a society that claims to strive for gender equality? Why should it be any more acceptable that any other form of sexism?

Marjorie Pollard, writing on women's cricket in 1930, wrote:
"we do not wish to follow, we wish to go our own our own cricket in our own way."

Today's sportswomen would do well to follow this sentiment.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Who writes history?

Who writes history?

As an historian, I find this question increasingly intriguing as I continue to study the subject. At school we were taught a government-approved version, from textbooks that claimed absolute truth. An Oxford history degree taught me to (try to) think for myself. But while writing my Masters dissertation, it struck me that I was now the one writing history. And I began to wonder if my version was really any more accurate than anyone else's.

My grandma recently led me a copy of the Reader's Digest 'Yesterday's Britain', an illustrated history book concentrating on 1900 - 1979. The interesting thing about this is that she included some of her own notes. For example, in response to the articles on childhood in the 1930s, she writes:

"These two pages are not true. I was born in November 1928 and started school in January 1934. There were no such things as school dinners in this area - maybe in London there might have been but it was not general. Also - believe me we thought we were 'well-off' if we had 1/2d to spend, we certainly would never have spent 1d all at once. Sweets were 2 grams for 1/2d, you could also buy some 'chews' for 1/4d. Rolos, Mars Bars etc were never bought by children for themselves but they might have to go to the shop to buy them once in a blue moon for their parents".

And later: "A lot of this is not true, especially the bit about people eating squirrel tail soup and hedgehog stew. Also fruit from abroad was in short supply for long after the war. Grandad and I got married in February 1952 and I remember being thrilled when the greengrocer put a newspaper wrapped parcel in my shopping bag and when I got home I found it contained 4 bananas".

"Where I lived in a Council House, there were 14 children at Grammar Schools, all FREE PLACES...Eleven of these were already at Grammar School when the last 3 of us started in September 1939".

Whose version is correct? The official legislative and economic one, or my grandma's own lived experience?

Photos can also tell lies in themselves. Next to a picture of men in the City, my grandma writes: "Rubbish!!! I worked in the City about 300 yards away from the Stock Exchange and I NEVER saw anyone in a bowler hat. I was there from 1944-1952. Grandad was there from 1948 and was a senior Bank Official and didn't wear any hat at all. He worked in the City more or less all the time until he retired at the end of 1982".

"The Home Guard was NOT known as Dad's Army", she writes angrily a few pages later. "This was just the TV show name made some time AFTER the war". This is a rather interesting comment on the ability of popular culture to influence the way we think and feel about particular moments of history. But interestingly, my grandma is equally guilty of this. Was WW2 really our "finest hour"? Can people really have relished such a destructive period when they never knew if death was coming?

Memory can be a fickle thing. Is my grandma's oral history really "trustworthy" and "non-biased"? I don't think so. But isn't it the nearest to history we will ever get, as those long-ago days pass on into the sunset? What makes her version any less valid than my own historical musings, dashed upon the page?


These reflections do have some bearing on the history of women in cricket. Consider this: sports history is overwhelmingly written by men. Men write about male sport. I know, because I have read numerous texts claiming to be 'authoritative' histories with only a page or two devoted to women. People reading sports history therefore subconsciously assume that women have not played sport very much, and that the history of sportswomen is unimportant.

It strikes me that this kind of omission from the history books is a minor form of what Winston Smith took part in at the MiniTru.

Another example is media coverage. How many reports of women's cricket matches have you read in The Times recently? Admittedly more than we used to see, but still a rare sight. This has precisely the same effect of relegating sportswomen to the bottom of the Importance Pile and rendering them, at least partly, invisible.

The book ends thus:

"Yesterday's Britain has come to an end in 1979. This is, of course, an arbitrary cut-off point: there is no sunset and sunrise to separate our todays from history's yesterdays, no checkpoints to mark the frontier between the past and the almost-present.

But we know somehow when that border has been crossed. Photographs and newspapers from the Eighties and Nineties, unlike those from earlier decades, do not for us evoke the spirit of the age in quite the same way. The dust has yet to settle on the events; the telling detail has not been forgotten, and so the remembering of it is not accompanied by the joyful rush of rediscovery".

Who writes history? Is it the people or the historians? Those like my grandma who can experience the rush of rediscovery, or those like me who have an emotional distance? Perhaps we need both kinds, as we seek to establish who did what when, and why.