Women who swing the willow

They provide their own kit, share their ice lollies and cover their own costs on international tours. But the English women's cricket team, about to play their 100th test match, are the world champions. By Pete Davies
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It was a bit of a shock, said Clare Taylor, when that big lump of brick hit her in the back of the head. Still, she was all right - tough head, her. One of her team-mates grinned and said, "I think it bounced back further than it was thrown from."

It happened last winter. England's women were playing a test series in India, the crowd in Patna was over 15,000, and they weren't too happy - but England's manager Shirley Taylor (no relation to Clare) was perfectly content. She said: "We had India in trouble, and the fans started lobbing missiles on the field. It's what they do with the men - so they were doing us the honour of treating us as real cricketers, weren't they?"

It was an isolated incident in an otherwise wonderful six weeks; the outfielders got more proposals of marriage than missiles. Shirley Taylor said of the tour, "It had its trials and tribulations; transport and communication are difficult, sights and sounds and smells can be disheartening. But the vibrancy of India is indescribable, I'd recommend anyone to go. And they're so passionate about cricket, we were treated so well. It was like being an FA Cup Final team; we had crowds watching us just get on the bus."

By way of a contrast, on the first day of England's first test against the touring New Zealanders in Scarborough last week, the crowd was under 200. Perhaps, when play begins in the second test at Worcester's New Road this morning or in the third game at Guildford on Friday next week, there might be a better turn-out - that third game will be the 100th women's test match, after all, and you'd think English cricket-lovers might want to mark that centenary. But as it stands, without crowds or sponsorship, our women must continue to pay from their own pockets for the privilege of representing their country.

Opening bowler Clare Taylor - who, at 31 years old, also has 25 caps as a centre-half with the national women's football team - drives a van for the Royal Mail in Bradford. In the shade outside the dressing room, under the members' balcony, she grinned and said, "See how poor we are? We even have to share our freeze pops."

The afternoon was blazing hot under a cirrus-streaked blue sky; even the seagulls had cleared off for a siesta. The players passed their cooling tubes of coloured ice about; on the field, watched by the blank backs of rows of boarding houses, Barbara Daniels and Kathryn Leng built a world record sixth-wicket partnership of 132. In the pavilion while they batted, Clare Taylor said: "All our equipment we've got to find ourselves, we've got to find our own way to the games - this is amateur in the true sense of the word. The one-dayers last week, that's probably cost me pounds 150. And I don't want money for playing - but it'd be nice if it didn't cost you, wouldn't it?"

Playing for their counties through the summer, professional cricketers make anything from roughly pounds 20,000 a year for a capped county player to pounds 70,000 a year in the case of someone like Mike Atherton. The women's county championship, on the other hand, is condensed into a one-week festival in Cambridgeshire in July. Most players will use up paid holiday to be there, and for the rest of the summer can only play for their clubs in one-day competitions at the weekend.

Kit - a decent bat, pads, thigh pads, gloves, a bag to carry it - can set you back pounds 250. And employers are mostly supportive - if you want the best part of two months off to tour India they'll give you leave - but not paid. Between losing wages, covering bills back home, air fares and spending money, the Indian trip would have set them back at least pounds 3,000 a head. But what can you do? Opening bat Helen Plimmer, 31, a PE teacher in Sowerby Bridge near Halifax, said: "If you love the game, and you've the chance to go there and play for your country, you take that on board, don't you?"

Captain Karen Smithies, 27, is assistant manager at a branch of Coral's, the bookmakers, in Leicestershire; she reckons a decade in cricket must have cost her well over pounds 10,000. To be England skipper, she said, "It's all I ever wanted, it's all I ever dreamed of - but a lot of us do struggle for time and money, and it does take its toll on players' minds."

Given that they're world champions - England beat the Kiwis in the final at Lord's three years ago, and will defend that title in India next year - you'd think we might have got more behind them. The Kiwis have learnt from that defeat; all cricket in New Zealand is now run by one body, the tour is sponsored by the telecom company Clear, and players have all their costs covered. Smithies looks at that support and says: "It's not annoying, exactly, fair dos to them - but we wouldn't mind some of that."

The backing and coaching the Kiwis have had certainly worked on the field; in the one-day series before the tests England were routed. "Since '93," said Helen Plimmer, "they've improved tremendously in all aspects of the game. The fielding was sharp then, but it's better now; the field setting's very precise. The bowling's tight too, very tight - and their batting's much more aggressive." So aggressive, indeed, that their star bat Debbie Hockley - the highest run-scorer in the history of women's cricket - has broken three English fingers already.

The Kiwis had a week's training and three warm-up matches before the one-day games; England could only get together the day before. Once together, however, they improved notably; each defeat in the one-day series was by a lower margin, and on the first day of the Scarborough test Barbara Daniels batted for five flawless hours for 160. It was the third-highest test score ever recorded by an Englishwoman.

Daniels, who bears a striking resemblance to Mike Atherton ("And if I can score runs like he can, I'll not mind the comparison") came off understandably chuffed. She said, "I was seeing the ball well. It was one of those days when I felt I could have gone on all day, and all tomorrow too. I enjoyed that."

At 31, she's the first player to become executive director of the Women's Cricket Association, and she's as bullish about the future as she was with the Kiwi bowling. With the authorities now laboriously toiling towards the formation of an English Cricket Board to oversee all sides of the national game, she has no doubt the women will be properly involved - because, she says, "We're pushing at an open door. They've given us pounds 50,000 to fund this tour, and they don't sneer at us, they don't mock our cricket. So it's early days - but we've got Sky covering us now, we've played at Lord's four times, and we're well under way."

Most of the media attention on this tour's game at Lord's focused, however, on the fact that for the first time permission was given for women to go in the pavilion, and Shirley Taylor could have done without that. She said: "It's not an issue. It's a boring story, it's all been said - it's a private club, and they can do what they like. Besides, they've been most friendly and welcoming to us. To play there is an honour and a privilege, every cricketer in the world would want that - so I'd rather there'd been more focus on the actual cricket."

The standards of that cricket are high. Of course the women can't hit the ball as hard as the men, or bowl as fast - Clare Taylor reckons in the men's game, she'd be gentle medium pace - but in a highly technical game, they have all the technique. David Gower would have been proud of Daniels' cover drives; when Kathryn Leng stayed on through the second morning after Daniels' departure, her 144 was every bit as dashing. "I think," said Shirley Taylor, "if a cricket buff had the advantage of a close-up view, and they could see how much the bowlers do with the ball, and how well the batsmen read it, they'd be very impressed."

With Sky on board, that close-up look will now start to be available with sometimes surprising results. Driving to Scarborough on the Saturday before the game, Clare Taylor stopped in the Pigeon Pie on the A64 to watch England play Spain in Euro 96. Asked by the locals what she was doing, she told them she was on her way to play cricket - and one of them said, "I know you. You were on telly. You got a duck."

Taylor said, "You remember me then?"

"Aye, lass. That were a crap shot that were."

In the shade under the members' balcony Taylor grinned and said, "Recognition, eh? It makes it all worthwhile."

The first test ended in a draw. The second test begins in Worcester today at 11am.