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Thursday Book: An England team behaving perfectly

THIS IS the story of an English cricket team that went to India to compete in a World Cup, lost, and did so without whingeing. Displaying stamina and good humour, they undertook an itinerary that would try the patience of even the most hardened India hand, shuttling from one end of the subcontinent to another by plane, bus and train. Since they were women, there was no money and little glory on offer, but motivation was not a problem and commitment never in doubt.

Unlike the team taking the field today against South Africa, these England cricketers had actually won a World Cup, upsetting New Zealand in the 1993 final at Lord's (a venue that appears to inhibit the men). That victory led to a brief flurry of interest from the cricket media, eager to use the women's triumph to bash the hapless men. The momentary excitement was quickly followed by a return to accustomed oblivion and the hard graft of building a game from the grass roots. By the time they visited India last December to defend the title, the England women had managed to scrape together sponsorship, support staff, and - in Pete Davies - the most adept chronicler the women's game has yet attracted.

Davies takes the women cricketers on their own terms, not as foils for the men. He shares their sense of mission and writes sympathetically of their skills and struggles, without ever striking a patronising note. He enjoyed a degree of access and trust a reporter following the men's team could only dream of, and he does not abuse it. The frustrations, conflicts, failures and occasional sulks are there, but underlying Davies's frank team portrait is a sober respect which comes as a welcome relief from the wild lurching between sentiment and cynicism which blights so much writing about the men's game.

The book offers a rare insight into a small but vital corner of the sporting universe, and reveals much about the dilemmas confronting women who seek to play uncommercial sport at the highest competitive level.

These England cricketers are working-class women - van drivers and teachers, posties and clerical workers - and the spirit in which they play the game is as far from the old public school ethos as can be imagined. They drive themselves to achieve professional standards of performance without any hope of a professional's reward.

Curiously, and precisely because they are not playing for cash and career, their motives seem more elusive than their male counterparts'. One of the pleasures of Davies' book is watching the women themselves trying to figure out what keeps them going, even as they do keep on going, often in circumstances that drive the author himself to despair.

Davies approaches India with a generous spirit, but his patience wears thin, and a curmudgeonly whine creeps into the prose as he marshals the familiar cast of obtuse bureaucrats, incompetent waiters, and hair-raising drivers. For all the precisely observed sketches of the "grubby vividness" of India, it remains an India glimpsed from a great distance, where even the fall of the government is merely a passing headline. Disappointingly, Davies makes no attempt to ascertain the state of the woman's game in India or to explore its place in south Asian society. His attitude towards the country remains fond but deeply frustrated and utterly baffled. The resultant grouchiness colours too much of the narrative, sometimes pushing the real subject, the England cricketers, out of sight.

Earlier this year, the Women's Cricket Association voted to end 70 years of independence by folding itself into the English Cricket Board, which administers the men's game. The lure of recognition and resources outweighed anxieties about lost autonomy. However, in light of the sex discrimination ruling against the ECB in March, and the crass sexism revealed in the evidence given to the Industrial Tribunal, women cricketers will expect few favours. (ECB Chief Executive Tim Lamb is alleged to have remarked of England's women cricketers that "We need the dykes in to get the lottery money".)

And television viewers should note that the same MCC membership which has staunchly barred women from membership gave overwhelming approval to the construction of the ungainly new media centre at Lord's, hanging over the Nursery End like an an airborne southern Californian taco stand. What counts for cricket's old guard is not so much tradition as privilege and power. They are unlikely to cede either to women without pressure from the outside world.

Rightly, Davies ends his book by urging readers to attend this summer's big series against the world champion Australians. Cricket lovers would be daft to miss the chance to see an England side hungry for revenge take on the polished talents of Belinda Clark, the record-breaking opening bat; Kathryn Fitzpatrick, the tearaway fast bowler; and Olivia Magno, slow bowler and rebarbative sledger.