England's women cricketers are to become the highest-paid female team athletes in the country under a new deal. In effect, the top 10 or 11 players have been made full-time professionals, receiving the sort of cash earned by a junior county professional in the men's game, around £40,000 a year.
"It is a transformational moment," said Clare Connor, the director of the women's game for the England and Wales Cricket Board after the deal was announced. "It means that the top players in our game can be proper professionals, start saving and planning."
There has been a major shift in the approach to the women's game in the last few years. Its status has been hugely advanced by the success of the England team, the growing number of girls playing cricket, the determination of the ECB to promote it and the rise of social networking sites.
England's retention of the Ashes last month under Charlotte Edwards, while the men were being roundly thrashed by Australia, struck a chord at home and raised the profile of the women's game still further. Edwards, who began her England career 18 years ago and along with her team has been awarded a substantial bonus, tweeted: "Thanks everyone for your support. Today is a day I never thought I'd see in my time as a player."
The increased deal has been made possible by the anticipated rise in ECB income after it helped to lead a revolutionary and controversial restructuring of the International Cricket Council. Under planned changes England, India and Australia, as the most powerful countries, will to all intents and purposes lead the organisation and take a much greater proportion of its income.
It is expected that, in addition to the top players, another half-dozen will be on enhanced tier-two contracts, which will allow them to concentrate on the game. Some of them will also link up with the Chance to Shine project, which has helped to revive cricket in secondary schools.
While the policy of promoting the women's game is to be applauded, it could have an unwanted consequence in the long term. England, with all their comparative riches, will have the only professional women cricketers in the world. Eventually, this should have the effect of attracting many more skilled female ball players and making the England team far superior to all opponents.
More cash from the ECB's bigger pot is also being found for developing the game in inner cities, where it has declined drastically in the last 50 years. A pilot programme to rescue or create grass pitches will start in London this summer.