Choose to Challenge: Creating mentors, paving the way
Continuing our series highlighting the strides made in the women's game when people chose to challenge the status quo, and shining a light on the areas where work remains to be done
3 March 2021, 04:25 PM AEST
Drawing on the theme of this year's International Women's Day – Choose to Challenge – cricket.com.au is exploring the strides made in the women's game, and by women working in cricket, while also shining a light on the areas where work remains to be done.
Throughout this week in the lead-up to International Women's Day 2021, we will cast an eye on the elite game, coaching, media and broadcast, administration, participation and pathways, as well as looking at the broader picture internationally.
Following a two-part examination of elite players, here we shine a light on coaching and pathways.
What's the current situation?
The introduction of the Rebel WBBL in 2015-16 and, more recently, semi-professional contracts for domestic players has strengthened the tier below the full-time professional Australian team – and helped bridge the gap between the two.
In 2017, the first female National Performance Squad was named, with participants spending several training blocks at Brisbane's National Cricket Centre through the winter, working with elite coaches and often training alongside senior Australian players.
Not only designed to address skills, the NPS also helps set players up for life as elite cricketers: players have sessions with sports psychologists, undergo education around integrity issues, and even partake in cooking classes with a focus on nutrition and dietary education.
Since then, four of its graduates have made Australian debuts: Sophie Molineux, Georgia Wareham, Tayla Vlaeminck and Annabel Sutherland, while previous young debutants including Lauren Cheatle and Tahlia McGrath have benefitted from the program.
The National Talent Pathway was also restructured during 2017, shifting away from the Shooting Stars – an under-23s team – and creating women's Under-19s and Australia A sides in its place.
A year later, the first Australia A and Under-19s overseas tours were held, with players touring India and South Africa.
Since then, Australia A have also hosted India and travelled to the UK for the women's Ashes alongside the senior team, while the Under-19s travelled to New Zealand.
Cricket Australia also led the push for the International Cricket Council to introduce a female Under-19 World Cup, with the inaugural event currently scheduled for December in Bangladesh.
"I've been advocating for that (the Under-19 World Cup) for about ten years, and finally we got it through at ICC level in the last strategic plan," Australia great and former CA executive Belinda Clark told cricket.com.au.
"It's absolutely critical, it's an absolute no-brainer for mine.
"I'm disappointed that it took that long to come out, but we'll get there.
"Other sports do it, it works really well and I think it'll be a wonderful event.
"What we'll see, is the emergence of a layer of talent that we just didn't realise was there. It'll come from places we don't expect it to.
"It will be five or six years before the benefits of that come through, but the first event will be really special."
What are the challenges?
Currently, the COVID-19 pandemic poses the biggest threat to Australian cricket's pathways, for both genders.
No National Performance Squads were named for 2020-21 – and the program's head coach Leah Poulton departed to take on a role with Cricket NSW – while planned Under-19s and Australia A tours were also postponed.
The National Championships tournaments for the under-15 boys and girls and under-17 boys were cancelled in August, and the under-19 tournaments for both genders suffered the same fate last month, due to ongoing instability around state borders.
Overall, the current hurdles are both financial and practical – with closed borders and quarantine continuing to pose significant hurdles at all levels – but CA High Performance Manager Shawn Flegler is determined the gains made to the women's pathway programs will not be squandered.
However, he conceded this year's NPS program, at least, is unlikely to be as lengthy as previous years.
"I can't see it being the full program we've had in the past, it'll be an abbreviated version … but it's been a strength of the last couple of years, those players getting access to that training program and then be able to seamlessly come into the Australian set-up," Flegler told cricket.com.au.
"We don't want to drop that off completely, we've had 12 months without it already – and it's been the same for the guys – you need to invest in development.
"I think it's crucial that we get it back up and running as soon as we can. It'll depend on ongoing border stuff ... but the absolute plan is to get something up and running."
In July, Flegler hopes to host up to 30 of the country's best players in Queensland for an extended training camp that could also feature the mouth-watering prospect of a series of matches between Australia and Australia A.
There are also plans afoot for England to bring their 'A' team with them for the Ashes, as Australia did for the 2019 edition in the UK.
"We'd like to get some sort of Australia A v Australia series going towards the back end of winter," Flegler said.
"It's challenging with COVID with those A tours but especially now with the strength of our (senior) side, being able to provide international opportunities for that next layer of players is important."
The ICC Under-19 World Cup also remains under a cloud, and if it is decided it cannot be held in December as currently planned, it is likely it will not be played until 2023.
What's the current situation?
Currently, three out of 11 head coaches across the WBBL and WNCL are female, while a further five women held formal assistant roles across the two competitions this summer.
Australia legend Shelley Nitschke is head coach of Perth Scorchers, while she is also Australia's assistant coach under Matthew Mott.
Englishwomen Salliann Beams (Hobart Hurricanes and Tasmania) and Becky Grundy (Western Australia) also hold head coaching positions.
No women hold current positions with men's state or BBL teams, but former Hobart Hurricanes WBBL coach Julia Price made history in KFC BBL|09 when she joined the Brisbane Heat as an assistant coach for part of the season.
Australia-wide, 14.2 per cent of accredited coaches (7284 in total) within community cricket are female.
Nitschke's rise up the ranks was part of a concerted effort by Cricket Australia to nurture new coaching talent, and to encourage all coaches to work with male and female players. In 2015, she joined forces with retired fast bowler Ryan Harris to coach the Cricket Australia XI at the Under-19 Male National Championships.
Where do the gaps remain?
The above numbers paint a clear picture that coaching remains a domain overwhelmingly dominated by men, and while some women hold head coaching roles of female teams, they have never held the top position of a men's side.
At a grassroots level, a key pillar of Cricket Australia's The Next Innings: Accelerating Female Participation strategy aims to increase the number of female coaches over the next four years.
With coaching playing an enormous role in how people relate to sport and sports clubs, increasing the number of female coaches, who are relatable role models, is seen as a major step in growing female participation overall.
At the elite level, Australia coach Mott has embraced the challenge of encouraging more women to consider coaching as a post-playing career – starting with his current crop of players.
He has encouraged his current players to earn their Level III Coaching certificates, which Meg Lanning, Rachael Haynes and Elyse Villani have done.
"We need to make sure we encourage as many as we can to get into the game where they can have a huge influence," he said in 2020. "A lot of the trailblazers in the (women's) game are in the commentary box at the moment, so it's important I think if we're going to develop coaches down the track we handpick some of the best players who could convert into great coaches as well.
"What I've tried to tell our players is there's no point waiting until the end of your playing career and putting your hand out for a coaching job, you need to show an interest early in your career and develop some skills.
"Those players have really bought into it and enjoyed it and see coaching in a different light now.
"I see part of my role as creating the next line of coaches."
Cricket New South Wales has recently introduced its first elite coaching apprenticeship program specifically designed for women.
Former Australia and Sydney Sixers bowler Sarah Aley is one of three players selected for the program, alongside current Breakers allrounder Lisa Griffith and former Breakers squad member Hannah Trethewy.
The coaching apprenticeships follows Cricket NSW's introduction of a head of female cricket last year, becoming the first state to do so when former Australia and Breakers batter Leah Poulton took on the role.
The program aims to ensure the development of female coaches keeps pace with the rest of the game, Poulton said.
"There have never been more opportunities for women and girls to play cricket," Poulton said.
"More than 30 percent of players at all levels and ages participating in cricket are now female.
"It's important we create opportunities for women to contribute to our sport in a range of roles.
"The development of more female coaches, umpires and administrators is an important next step and can only enrich our great game."
Aley told cricket.com.au she had long had an interest in coaching and hoped the apprenticeship will be the launching pad to a new post-playing career.
"It's not about being pigeonholed with just female coaching (either), there's going to be some male pathways and NSW Blues experience in there as well, to get a different perspective, as well as the opportunity to look at other sports and other coaches to see how they go about things," Aley explained.