The South Africa women's players goof around during a photo shoot
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Feature

Is women's cricket a nicer sport than the men's game?

What is the culture in the women's game like? Let the players tell you

Snehal Pradhan  |  

When I was asked to write about the culture of women's cricket, I decided to start at the source. It didn't take me long to realise that the words "cult" and "culture" have a common root: colere, a Latin word meaning "to cultivate" or "worship". Both words make an appearance in cricket today - when the Australian men's team is examined, it is often described in ways that make it sound like a cult, where, as the recent culture review put it, winning was worshipped "without counting the costs". Not so the women's team.

If you hold the culture papers of the Australian men's and women's cricket teams side by side, you'll see common elements - the idea of playing the sport "hard but fair". But you'll also see differences. Over the last two decades, the men's team cultivated an environment that enabled less than impeccable behaviour, while making it a habit to win most games. The women's team, on the other hand, seemed to be able to do the latter without always resorting to the former. While most of Australia vilified the three men at the centre of the Newlands ball-tampering scandal, the independent review into the high-performance culture of Australian cricket declared women's cricket "unaffected", as if the malaise that afflicted the men was a virus they had been lucky to escape from.

Maybe they were never in serious danger. Maybe it was something they had a resistance to, thanks to the very nature of women's cricket.

The ICC's Code of Conduct violations record seems to suggest so. Between September 22, 2016, when the ICC introduced the demerit points system, and April 1, 2019, there were 145 violations in men's cricket: 124 of those were Level 1 offences, 18 were Level 2 (including the ball-tampering offences at Newlands) and three were Level 3 (all three handed down to the Sri Lanka team when they refused to take the field after being accused of ball-tampering). In contrast, there were just 16 violations in women's cricket, all Level 1. Of these, at least two were committed by male staff members of the team. That works out to one offence every 7.6 match days in men's international cricket, and one every 25 match days in women's international cricket.

If this gives the impression that women's cricket is less competitive, or that there's no such thing as sledging in the women's game, both notions can be shot down pretty quickly. Women's cricket at the elite level is as fierce as any sporting contest. And sledging, even in the harshest sense of the word, does exist in women's cricket to a degree, as does gamesmanship.

On the whole, though, it seems to be a nicer game. Whether that is largely due to a mix of biological, social, or cultural factors is unclear, but the general consensus is that the women's cricket ecosystem is a cleaner and more respectful space than men's cricket, from the grass roots to the elite level. Even when the women are trying to "bring the bitch back".

"Yes, I was quoted saying that, but I didn't necessarily mean with my mouth," says Alyssa Healy, when asked about her comments about bringing "the bitch back" ahead of the 2017 Ashes. "We play a lot of competitions around the world, and cricket is really friendly. It was just about bringing that competitive nature back to the game. Bringing the bitch back was about how was I going to make it super-competitive. I don't think there was anything nasty or vicious said."

"We expect better of female cricketers. We don't expect better of male cricketers. We should expect the same of all" Raf Nicholson, cricket historian

Perhaps what nastiness exists in women's cricket has flown under the radar because so few games have been televised or properly reported on. Still, a number of colourful stories have become part of folklore. In the 1998 Women's Ashes, the Australians left wrappers of a candy brand called Bye-Bye on the pitch - the name presumably directed at the opposition batsmen as they bent down to pick them up. A recently published book, The Fire Burns Blue: A History of Women's Cricket in India, contains an account of two Indian batsmen hoping to save a Test in 2006 by wasting time, "going so far as pretending it was raining", and being abused by the frustrated English players.

There have been instances of out-and-out offensive behaviour too. Mithali Raj was once abused during an India-Pakistan game; Megan Schutt has earned a demerit point for her language; in the 2017 series, the Australians threw cheating-themed verbal shivs at New Zealand after a batsman was given out caught on the bounce. Even so, these instances are few and far between, and the chances of them boiling over into something serious is much smaller than in men's cricket.

"Our values differ to the men's," said Australia's Ashleigh Gardner, shortly after winning the 2018 World T20 final. "We wanted to change them to something that really fit our group and we could agree to live by."

"We got our values down to a one-page document," says Matthew Mott, the Australia coach. "The previous years we had a nice document wherein everything was prescribed, but it was a bit too detailed, a bit too wordy. So we said we may just prioritise what's important and which is what the players approved of." Among the values were playing with fearlessness and with a smile on their face.

The document had been in the making in various forms for almost two decades. Even in 2001, when Lisa Sthalekar made her debut, she remembers "the culture was all about winning".

"When I came in," she says, "it was after the 2000 World Cup, where Australia lost to New Zealand. The Australian change room was like, 'This is never going to happen to us again. We are playing for our country, we are never going to lose a match like we did against New Zealand.' So the preparation, the due diligence, everything was planned out very meticulously. I came into a change room that had one thing in mind: to win and to win everything, and it was - how do we get there?"

It's not like the women's game is less competitive, or that verbal send-offs and sledging don't exist

It's not like the women's game is less competitive, or that verbal send-offs and sledging don't exist © Getty Images

While this may chime with the win-at-all-costs culture that led to the disintegration of the Australia men's team's leadership last year, the women were acutely aware of the costs. There was little danger of being caught up in a gilded bubble of competitiveness; cricket was only a small, but important, part of their lives.

"We all had full-time jobs," says Sthalekar, "so we didn't have time to stuff around like the guys. We had things to do, a tour to play and then we are thinking work-wise, what we are doing and how we are going to make sure we get time off here and there."

England and New Zealand, other countries where women's cricket has been entrenched long enough to have developed a fingerprint of its own, have some overlaps with the Australian culture - minus the white-line fever.

"We enjoy socialising with the opposition," says former New Zealand captain Suzie Bates. Her team carry a New Zealand flag, signed by almost every player who has represented the country, into to their dressing room. England emphasises values like honesty, respect and pride in what you do to players well before they turn fully professional. Even a relatively young team like South Africa recently brought in a specialist on team culture to conduct a workshop.

As the landscape of the game changes, stories of a shared desire to grow the sport are more common than incidents that provoke outrage and make it to the front pages.

In the 2013 Women's World Cup, the Pakistan team was barracked in Cuttack, following threats from political outfits that forced them to move out of Mumbai. New Zealand, after their group game, invited the Pakistan women to their dressing room, giving them their first taste of World Cup atmosphere. In the 2018 World T20, the Australian team accepted Ireland's request to join their training session, and the captains and coaches exchanged notes over coffee (after they had played each other, of course).

"I think in many ways, sometimes it is too nice. I think there needs to be that edge on the pitch and I like to see that, and I think that will be my only criticism, sometimes, of the women's game."

"We all had full-time jobs, so we didn't have time to stuff around like the guys. We had things to do, a tour to play and then we are thinking work-wise" Lisa Sthalekar

This is Charlotte Edwards' assessment of women's cricket culture. Over the span of her 20-year career with England, she can't remember a single instance where a line was crossed in a cricket match, where sledging turned from witty attempts to unsettle the opposition into abuse or personal attacks. "Sometimes it can get too nicey-nicey, as there are so many players that know each other. It is such a small community," Edwards says. She recounts how England coach Mark Robinson once stopped a net session just to tell the team not to be nice to each other.

This is an impression that springs from the ground up. Junior boys' cricket sees the odd spat, but Sthalekar remembers junior girls' cricket for cartwheels and dance moves between balls. Bates moved away from tennis as a youngster, turned off by the ultra-competitive culture. "We don't have heaps of numbers playing girls' cricket, so it's not as competitive to get into the team," Bates says. "Everyone wants to make sure the girls enjoy it and come back next week."

At the elite level there is no lack of a winning instinct, but most players will also take every opportunity to talk about how lucky they are to be role models for young boys and girls watching. South Africa, as part of their culture workshop, adopted the hashtag #WeAreMore this season.

"We want to be good people first. Once you're a good person, being a good cricketer will definitely follow," says Mignon du Preez, the former South African captain. "We also dug a bit deeper. We are cricketers first and foremost, but we are more than just that - we are girls, we have families, we are friends, daughters. Cricket is definitely a part of our lives but it's not everything we want to be."

South African women's cricket is a classic example of a culture in evolution. When I saw them in 2016, they had a practice of taking a knee and saying a few words in prayer before and after games. Out of respect for the diverse faiths and beliefs in their squad, they have since moved on from that.

The largely semi-professional existence of women's cricket also means that players bring to the game diverse experiences from outside the bubble of elite sport. Families are intimately involved in the making of female cricketers. The fathers of Ellyse Perry and Smriti Mandhana served as their first coaches. Young cricketers seeking contracts rely on the financial support of their families. Crowds at women's games will comprise firstly of their families and friends, their earliest fans. This makes for a disruption of the "boys' club" atmosphere in age-group cricket. Even in India, when I was growing up playing cricket in boy's academies, the boys would often be more mindful of their words and be contrite if they used bad language around a didi [older sister].

Alyssa Healy (left) is a team-mate of Dane van Niekerk in the Big Bash and an opponent in international cricket. She says that knowing the player personally ensures she won't cross the line on the field

Alyssa Healy (left) is a team-mate of Dane van Niekerk in the Big Bash and an opponent in international cricket. She says that knowing the player personally ensures she won't cross the line on the field © Getty Images

"Every team is an island", goes the saying, but the responsibility to grow the game seems to be the common water that wets their sands.

Athletes don't need to be role models any more than pop stars do, but it seems to be a given in women's cricket, and many other women's sports, that they are seen as such. "It's almost assumed," says Healy, "when you come through that you are a role model, and what you're doing does affect other people, and I think most take that on board. As players, we're the ones promoting it. We've taken on that role, probably unwillingly, but that's just the way it is. If we're doing the wrong things, it's actually a detriment to our sport and that's not what we want."

This responsibility for the game at large is felt across women's cricket. "India has some emotional attachment also," says Jhulan Goswami. "It's not about just winning. It's also about doing something about society. So it was about creating a self-identity."

As with New South Wales and Australia, the culture of Indian cricket in the late 2000s was moulded by the leading domestic team of the time, Railways. A strong desire to dominate existed, built on a foundation of individual excellence, but that also meant it was a sink-or-swim environment for those who came in new. This leached into the India team, and, combined with routine malfeasance by administrators and selectors, had an impact. The dominant memory of my own time in the Indian team is a feeling of insecurity; I remember the envy I felt when I heard that other countries would back a player for an entire year, irrespective of results.

Professionalism is now changing that. The undertones of reverence for one's elders, and the sense of hierarchy often seen in subcontinental sporting teams, remains, for better or worse. But the more established players of today seem to be rising past that and developing an awareness of the bigger picture. The likes of Mandhana have spoken often about how part of their role is to put in wins that will help grow the game.

Cricket historian Raf Nicholson doesn't agree with the thesis that women's cricket is a nicer game. "It's a way of othering the women's game," she says. "On the surface that rhetoric suggests that the women's game is somehow better than the men's game, but anything that creates that artificial divide can be damaging, especially when it's not grounded in reality. It's almost saying that women's cricket isn't as competitive as men's cricket if we say the culture is purer or better. We expect better of female cricketers, we don't expect better of male cricketers. We should expect the same of all."

"In many ways, sometimes it is too nice. I think there needs to be that edge on the pitch, and I think that will be my only criticism, sometimes, of the women's game" Charlotte Edwards

Some countries and some cricketers have deliberately tried to steer the culture of women's cricket in its own, distinct, direction, away from the prevailing culture of men's cricket at the time. The England Women's Cricket Association tried to keep the game as "feminine" as possible in the 1920s. "The founders were obsessed with appearance and propriety," says Nicholson. "The feeling was that if they were seen to be trying to imitate the men, they wouldn't get the support they needed."

Du Preez has spoken all through her career that female athletes need not pander to stereotypes of being butch, or of being "aggressive like men". She maintains that "you can be a girly girl and still be a tough competitor".

In terms of skill, there have been attempts to move the women's game in the direction of the men's. These were often initiated by male coaches who came into women's cricket after having previously worked in men's set-ups.

"Jamie Siddons, who was the assistant coach for the Australian team, kind of questioned our strike rates and why we wouldn't hit over the top," remembers Sthalekar. "For me, it was a case of I can't really hit it over the inner circle unless it is a juicy full toss. So then things kind of changed within our strength programme. We started doing weights for the first time. There was a change philosophically, in how we played the game. We needed to play a more attractive brand of cricket as well, in order to get the sponsors and for people to watch."

Women's cricket culture is now at a crossroads with the spread of professionalism - even in domestic cricket, with the arrival of domestic T20 leagues. In men's cricket, leagues have been able to soften some of the deep rivalries developed over decades of international cricket. With national rivalries not as hardened by professionalism in women's cricket, the cultural cross-pollination by T20 leagues is likely to set standards for competitiveness within the boundaries of decency.

"If I go up against Dane [van Niekerk] and Marizanne [Kapp] in international cricket, it's going to be a competitive game," says Healy, who is a team-mate of the South African pair at Sydney Sixers. "But personally, I'm not crossing any lines. I obviously get along really well with both of them, so I'm not going to go out of my way to be nasty to them. I think getting to know players probably takes a lot of the nastiness out of the game, because you know that person, know what they're like off the field, whereas if you only know what they are like on the field it potentially changes things."

Edwards predicts that the transition will bring its own challenges. "We are going to have a tough few years because I think we haven't got a lot of players who still come through the amateur-professional era at the moment. I think it is a responsibility now for the players who are in the game, and ex-players like myself, to explain to the younger players the history of the game. Because all they know is that they get paid to play cricket. We have to keep everyone grounded."

Charlotte Edwards (far right, seated):

Charlotte Edwards (far right, seated): "I think it is a responsibility now for the players who are in the game, and ex-players like myself, to keep everyone grounded" © Getty Images

I was the fastest bowler on both sides, the tallest woman on both teams by six inches, in an inter-state first-class match once. I was told to be the aggressive fast bowler, and to not be afraid to have a word with the opposition, even though that wasn't my style.

So I did. After harrying a batsman into an outside edge, I went up to her and said something to the effect of, "You're not cut out for this, this is the big league." It was a dig at the situation as well as her stature (she stood around five feet tall). In the end, it didn't help me get her out, and I ended up feeling guilty about it for days, especially because she was also my house-mate.

I never said a word in anger after that, although jibes at a floundering batsman were often too tempting to resist. But I thought of that incident while researching this piece and I wondered if I would have felt guilty at all if I was male.

Stereotypes of women as being more emotional, less aggressive and less competitive than men have coloured people's opinions of women's sport over the years, and are dangerous. And yet, nearly every respondent I interviewed conceded that women react differently.

"The guys are very good at putting friendships aside and they will just go and play the game and forget about it, whereas I think in the women's game it does drag on if something happens," said one. "Women are emotional beasts," said another. "Most of the time, girls by nature are not aggressive." It went on.

Coaches who come in from men's cricket have acknowledged that they need to coach women differently. "The girls are so humble and probably too critical of themselves," Robinson said to me last year. "Our challenge as coaches is to get them to analyse themselves more softly, more factually, and allow them to keep moving." In The Fire Burns Blue, the authors write that former India coach Tushar Arothe "often tempered his criticism, going for positive feedback, whereas in a men's dressing room he would have railed against them and worked them up".

"Women generally suffer from a lack of self-confidence," says Nicholson, "in sport and outside of sport. It's a wider cultural problem, reflected in cricket."

Of course, my guilt had nothing to do with biology, but more to do with who I am by nature, and the social constructs that determine how a woman is expected to behave and how the world is expected to behave with women. Sometime that can work out well. I remember playing for a women's team in a boys' tournament, where we threatened to walk out because the boys used intimidating language (which would have been acceptable if they had been playing among themselves). The more sensible among them apologised, and the game went on.

Women's cricket seems to have found a sweet spot, well encapsulated by Bates. "There's no difference in how much we want to win, just how we come across in doing it."

Snehal Pradhan is a former India and Maharashtra opening bowler, and now a freelance journalist. @SnehalPradhan

 

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