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Claire Taylor: “there needs to be a continuous development of the game”

Taylor, the first woman to be named as a Wisden Cricketer of the Year, says the game cannot solely rely on watershed moments for growth

Lord’s, June 2009. As the crowd begins to fill up ahead of the men’s World T20 final between Pakistan and Sri Lanka, New Zealand seamer Nicola Browne runs into bowl. England’s Claire Taylor hoists a length ball over mid-off, which squirts away for four, and her teammates rush onto the pitch. It is England’s second major tournament win of the year, and women’s cricket is on the back pages the following morning. They have won everything there is to win, and have done so in style.

“Those watershed moments certainly bring exposure,” Taylor tells me over a cup of coffee ahead of her MCC side’s fixture in the Parks against Oxford. “They bring press coverage: when there’s this idea that we can say ‘England are the best in the world’, and playing against the best players in the world, it’s great for our players, and it’s great for the spectators to see cricket being played at the highest level.

“But there needs to be a continuous development of the game. We need young girls starting the game, picking up a bat. We lose players throughout the age groups, so we need to make sure that we have the right structures in place. We need to make sure it’s not just about what happens at the elite end of the game. We get both that gradual growth, and the international competitions which provide exposure.”

Since her retirement in 2011, Taylor has been something of an ambassador for women’s cricket. She was a trailblazer, who brought modernisation to a sport that has changed almost beyond recognition between her debut, in 1998, and the present day.

Taylor was part of England’s all-conquering 2009 side

“It’s incredibly different now,” she says. “The professionalisation of the game is both within the players themselves, and also within the professional structures that support the game.
“That level of one-to-one coaching just wasn’t there when I started – the senior players within a club might have been the coaches, and the senior players in a county team might give you some hints and tips, but there wasn’t really that coaching structure that there is now across all age groups.

“[That] means that individual players have had much more exposure to coaching within their careers. From my personal perspective, reaching out and getting specialist coaching at that point was essential – I had had coaching before, but having that individualised, specialised level made a real difference to me.”

Indeed, Taylor’s rise to the top and the role that her personal coach, Mark Lane, played within it are both well-documented. After leaving Oxford with a degree in Maths and a double Blue (Taylor also played hockey to a high level, and was named in several England age group training squads), she sought out specialist, one-to-one coaching in a bid to break through at the top level. Soon after, that ambition was realised: going into the 2001 Ashes Test at Headingley, her top score in an England shirt was paltry 18; after, it was a punchy, defiant 137.

But throughout Taylor’s career, the women’s game was semi-professional at best. It was only in 2014 that the England side because fully professional, and Taylor had a job in IT on the side for the most part of her time in the game.

“It would have been great to be able to earn enough money from cricket to not have to have a second job,” she says. “And yet, having a separate job meant it was easier to transition to real life afterwards. It also gave me a bit of a challenge outside of cricket, a different mental challenge, which is important.

“I wonder how much [being professional] would have changed the way I played. Because suddenly, instead of playing purely for the challenge and the love of the game, you’re playing because you’re dependent upon it to pay your mortgage, or to pay the bills, or whatever.

“Does that change the way you take risks? Does that change the way the game is structured around you? I never had to face that, so from that perspective I’m quite glad that I played cricket because I loved it.”

Taylor has always been an innovator – above, she plays a reverse lap against India

It is a surprising admission. Meg Lanning, the current Australia captain, currently earns in the region of $300,000AUS (£167,000) a year from her national contract alone, and it is an alien idea as an outsider looking in that Taylor could think that sort of salary would be worth turning down in case it changed her batting style.

But that is the sort of player she was: Taylor took risks, played with flair, and looked to attack at every opportunity. Playing it safe isn’t in her DNA.

Therefore, it is perhaps unsurprising that she is open to the idea of change. Just under a month ago, the ECB announced a proposal to introduce a new 100-ball format into the game in 2020, which would see a women’s tournament run alongside the men’s with identical branding for both teams.

While many figures within the game are resistant to the proposals, Taylor is willing to give the idea a go.

“We always knew the KSL [Kia Super League] would be changing, as it was a four-year contract. We knew it was going to change, we just didn’t know what it was going to change to – we expected another T20 competition. The Women’s Big Bash has worked really well: the branding is similar across the sides, and it works alongside the guys. It’s going to be really interesting over the next few months as information comes out about ‘The Hundred’ to see how that’s going to sit in to attract a new group of spectators.”

Another charge levelled against the game’s administrators is that they have been patronising. Izzy Westbury, the domestic cricket broadcaster of the year, tweeted last month: “Seems a little condescending, the idea that *mums* (and it was explicitly mums) and kids need cricket simplified to understand it” after Andrew Strauss outlined the tournament’s target audience.

But Taylor is willing to give Strauss and the ECB the benefit of the doubt. “I don’t think it needs simplifying, but then I know it inside out. [It’s about the] gradation of bringing people into the game: are we going to bring them into the game from 100-ball cricket, and then get them playing? That’s what I’d be really interested in, getting more girls, women, mums actually playing – that’s going to happen through soft-ball festivals, and we’ll get mums involved when their children are playing, not just spectating.”

Taylor is an innovator, a progressive voice within a rapidly-advancing game. Women’s cricket has changed beyond recognition since Taylor first broke into the game – and she is firm in her belief that it will continue to do so.

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