Claire Taylor, an alumnus of The Queen’s College, Oxford, is known for being one of the best female cricketers England has ever seen.
Taylor secured her full international debut for England in 1998 and from there climbed the ranks of the England team, finally becoming one of England’s most prolific batswomen alongside Charlotte Edwards in 2003. She made her highest score in test cricket, 177, that year in a test match against South Africa.
Since retiring from cricket in 2011, Claire has often found herself back in Oxford, and has worked alongside the university on numerous projects due to her new career in the higher education sector.
She remains heavily involved with Oxford University Cricket Club: she is the Vice-Chair of the Senior Committee and also helps with coaching the teams and running sessions for beginners, which is where I find her today. I begin by asking Claire how much she thinks sport at the university has changed since she herself was a student here in the mid-1990s.
“It’s been an interesting journey, I think Oxford is getting serious and there is a lot of pressure on students now, some of it self-made and some of it down to tutors and the Norrington table. It would be a really interesting conversation if we sat down with some current undergraduate students and asked them about freedom to play. From what I can see, it seems as though the cricketers have a fair amount of freedom to play.
“I also think sport has got a lot more organised and the facilities are a lot better without a doubt – I was captain of the hockey team and we used to have to cycle past the ring road to get to an astro-turf to train as there wasn’t one at Iffley Road back then. The gym at Iffley is better and the sports hall has definitely improved. We didn’t even have a swimming pool here when I was at Oxford.
“Altogether the facilities are better and the clubs are a lot better run – there’s a Sports Federation now which there never used to be, so that provides some extra support to all the clubs, which should mean they are better governed and it’s not just down to a group of students to manage that.
“More clubs are also organised now in terms of getting money from sponsors and getting funding from alumni so there’s that element too.”
After the 2000 Cricket World Cup, Taylor took the decision to focus on her cricketing career and decided to go full-time, meaning she had to give up her job and consequently saw her income take a huge hit. A hit so big, in fact, that she was forced to move back in with her parents. I ask her whether this was a difficult decision for her to make, and about the steps that need to be in place to ensure no other female cricketer would ever have to make this sacrifice in the future.
“We have to think about whether we actually want women to make that decision, or whether we can create career pathways that involve professionalising women’s sport and then they won’t have to make that decision. That obviously was never open to me.
“Now if there is a really good young female cricketer coming up through the England Juniors, she will probably get a contract so she can be semi-professional by the time she is eighteen, nineteen years old. Players like this will have a pretty clear pathway into an England contract if they are good enough and if they are committed and work hard enough.
“I, however, did have to make a decision and it wasn’t a difficult one, because I had a dream and it wasn’t a dream about being the best systems analyst I could be, it was about being the best cricketer I could be. Yes, there were sacrifices made, but I would make the same decision again, I think it was the right one at the time.”
Of course, increasing the popularity of the women’s game would have a huge impact on the lives of the athletes themselves, as they would receive a lot more funding which would allow them to become even more focused on their cricketing careers.
I ask Claire how she thinks we can increase the prominence of women’s cricket in the eyes of the public and make women’s matches the main sporting events, rather than just secondary to the men’s.
“It’s interesting isn’t it – the women’s game isn’t as powerful as the men’s game, the women don’t hit the ball as hard – however you’re watching two women’s teams play against each other, so if you’re watching it for the competitive element and one team beating the other, there should be no difference there.
“To increase viewing figures for the women’s game, we can do things like changing the boundary ropes to make sure we score more runs, we can do things simply by professionalising the structures in the game, which gives women more time to train and therefore they are a better product.
“We also need to get those personalities out there – we need to give teams personality so that they get followings, so that we create a buzz around each of the teams and some of the players.
“We have done this fairly well over the past few years with some of the youngsters coming through, just look at the likes of Tammy Beaumont and Heather Knight.”
I move onto Claire’s career.
Taylor played for England consistently for 12 years, picking up 127 caps from test matches, 78 from One Day Internationals and 11 from Twenty20s.
Her talents did not go unrecognised and 2009 was a stand-out year for her, as she not only won the ICC Women’s Cricketer of the Year Award but was also the first woman ever to be selected as Wisden’s Cricketer of the Year.
I ask Claire, out of all her successes, what she considered her highlight to be.
“Chasing runs as a batsman was always my toughest challenge – being set a difficult total and then going about trying to reach it. Definitely the highlight in terms of a successful run chase that was absolutely outrageous was the 2009 semi-final in the World Twenty20 against Australia. They scored 160-odd runs and we had never scored that many against them, and it was a tough ask.
“To do that with three or four balls remaining in the game and then to go on and thrash New Zealand in the final – it was a properly good year of cricket for England’s women. We were talking about world domination.”
With that in mind, I put Taylor on the spot and question her about the toughest ever opponent she has faced.
“The obvious answer would be Australia because for the first few years of my career they were much better than we were. We weren’t even on the same park as them in some of the games we played against them. So to get better over the course of my career, both individually and as a team, and then to be competitive and then to start beating them, that was really important.
“But in terms of a real challenge: India away. They have some very good players and they’ve been brought up on their pitches, they have good spinners, good support for the team and they just have a love of cricket over there. It’s just always a great challenge that you want to step up for.”
I wondered whether the conditions and the pitches in India also contributed to the fact that India was a tough fixture.
“India is hard. You know India is going to be hard, you know it’s going to be slow, you know it’s going to turn. The West-Indies was also unexpectedly tough as we were probably expecting quicker pitches over there.
“There is huge variation in pitches around the world. You can do as much as you possibly can to prepare but generally you’re touring in the winter so you can’t get outside, so you have to hope that you have enough time when you get out there to get some decent sessions in and they give you some decent opposition to play against so you get some match practice.”
The conversation inevitably drifts back to the representation of women’s sport and the issue of trying to get more girls and women to participate in sport and make it seem accessible.
“Over the past year or so and into this year, there has been a real push around getting women involved in sport. There are a range of sports that we all played as kids, hopefully cricket, but netball, rounders, maybe football.
“However we maybe got a bit turned off by them at school.”
Taylor moves on to talk about how we can regain that interest from women in regards to sport.
“We’ve had the Cricket World Cup, we’ve got the Netball and Football World Cup this year. There’s so many opportunities to follow and go and support our international female athletes.
“I’d say get out there, get watching some sport. Hopefully that will inspire people to either pick up a tennis racket, badminton racket, squash racket, for example, or go and find out what’s happening at their local women’s football club, because it is so easy now to get involved, there are so many opportunities.
“The way that those structures are set up and the way that the coaching is available now can make sport a really enjoyable experience.
“That’s what we’re going to try and do at this taster session tonight, we’re going to try some stuff with some people who have never played cricket before and really enthuse them about the game.”
Before we finish, Claire is keen to offer advice to any aspiring female athlete who is currently at Oxford and wondering where they can go with their talent and love of sport.
“At Oxford it’s got to be a balance between finding the time to do the work that you need to do to fulfil your potential academically but then making time for sport. I’m a real believer in the positives that sport brings in terms of mental health and finding balance. Two things I would say: don’t be afraid of hard work. We should never shy away from hard work if we want to achieve things.
Secondly, never stop learning.
“We’re in a wonderful situation here but when you leave Oxford, just never stop learning – there’s always people to learn from and to talk to about whatever sport it is you’re interested in, so always be learning and always work hard.”