Step in the right direction – not only for cricket but for all women’s sport

The press conference at the Institute of Sport was full of delighted players and coaches all saying how great it was that Irish women cricketers would avail of professional contracts for the first time. The sums involved are relatively modest, covering two and three days a week, but Mary Waldron saw the bigger picture.

“It’s a brave move by Cricket Ireland and we really appreciate it,” the Ireland wicketkeeper said.

“It’s a huge step for cricket but also for women’s sport in Ireland. I hope this sends out a huge message to other sports to take women seriously.”

Waldron has been an international since 2010, and was also capped as a footballer, so she remembers the bad old days in both sports when they had to beg for kit and support from the governing bodies. 

“I can only say a huge thank you to all the girls and women who went before us,” she said.

“We got up for the gym at half-six this morning but some of them did it for 20 years and never got a cent.”

With backing from Sport Ireland and Cricket Ireland’s sponsors, the governing body has awarded part-time contracts to six key players: Laura Delany, the captain, Kim Garth, Shauna Kavanagh, Gaby Lewis, Celeste Raack and Waldron.

It makes cricket only the second team sport to have professional contracts, after rugby sevens. The biggest pro sports, rugby and football, have yet to support their players in this way, while the hockey team famously had to raise their own funds as they reached the World Cup final last year.

“I’m really proud that Cricket Ireland have made this step,” Waldron said.

“Nora [Stapleton, who played in three Rugby World Cups and now leads Sport Ireland’s Women in Sport initiative] is here and I’m sure she would have loved to be a professional rugby player when she was playing.

“People call for stuff all the time in women’s sport and it doesn’t happen, but now this has. They’ve also committed to improving and extending the contracts as well so it’s not just a question of keeping us quiet for a few months, it’s a really strong commitment.”

The contracts arrive at a crucial time for the squad, coming on the back of the retirement of four long-serving internationals, and another, Lucy O’Reilly, taking a time-out.

With the World Twenty20 qualifiers taking place in Scotland in August, their replacements will need to get up to speed quickly.

Aaron Hamilton, the head coach, is bullish about the youngsters who he has at his disposal.

“They’re fantastic,” he said. “We’ve lost a lot of caps, and then Lucy decided she needed a break from the game, which is totally understandable as she’s being playing international cricket since she was 13, which was a great effort.

“But there is so much talent coming through, and in the academy and underage too, I don’t think people realise how strong our depth is. It’s about getting more days like this, more contracts, more fixtures so they players can show how good they are. And then the 9, 10 and 11-year olds can see these players and see cricket as a viable career, or just something to enjoy playing.”

But beyond this summer, which includes visits from West Indies and Zimbabwe as well as that qualifier, there is a bigger target, says Richard Holdsworth, Cricket Ireland’s performance director.

“Our women’s programme medium-term objective is to qualify for the ICC Women’s Championship in 2021 — a guaranteed three-year programme of international fixtures just like our men have now, through the Future Tours Programme,” Holdsworth said.

“These contracts put in place the foundation blocks that will help us achieve our goal.”

Waldron sees how the move can make a difference.

“I played a club game yesterday with [the 17-year-old] Orla Prendergast and she was phenomenal, both batting and bowling,” Waldron said.

“I used to coach her in soccer and she’s seriously talented at that too. She might be a full-time cricketer in the next two or three years if that’s what she wants.”

Holdsworth looked at several other sports, and other countries, especially New Zealand, that are comparable to Ireland.

“We also looked at the ECB model which combined playing and coaching,” he said.

“Now some of our women love coaching, and are very good coaches, but others really don’t like coaching and aren’t very good at it. So, we needed to find a model that fitted well with our sport and the women’s commitments to a life outside cricket. We want to make sure that when they retire from the game they have another career they can walk into.

“So, we came up with bespoke contracts tailored to each individual. Some are two-day, some three-day and some players are going to continue with their careers. Others are coaching or are students who can focus on their studies and then work five days a week in the holidays. So, we looked at each player individually and worked out a best fit for them.

“We’d love to see full-time contracts just like the men but we need more fixtures and more investment for that but we needed to start somewhere and today is that start.”

Women’s cricket has become a big deal in Australia, with the Big Bash now the fourth most-watched domestic competition in all sports and genders. The crowd for last year’s Ladies Football All-Ireland final topped 50,000 for the first time, showing clearly an increasing audience for women’s sport.

With more support standards are on the rise, but some opportunities have been missed, notes Waldron.

“The Rugby Sevens have showed how they can step up with support, they’re doing unbelievably well now. When the 15s team were going well and the World Cup was held here there was real momentum, but they missed a trick. Rugby’s such a huge sport here they could have moved to part-time. And football has money too, but I know women who are paying up to €600 a season to play in the National League.”

Waldron has a part-time job with the Ireland Cricketers Association but says that the contract will allow her to train when otherwise she would at her desk.

“I can now train all day for two days, and get that important recovery in, which will make a huge difference to my cricket.”

The Ireland wicketkeeper is also making her way as an umpire and will stand in her first first-class game this summer. She also officiated Wolves v Bangladesh last weekend, with Shakib al-Hasan bowling ten overs from her end.

“I gave a couple of caught behinds but I turned down a good leg before because I thought I heard a snick. I don’t usually ask players about decisions but I wanted to see how the Bangladeshis would deal with me, as a woman umpire. So, I asked him a few balls later would he have reviewed it, and he said, “nah, he hit it”, so that was good to hear.”

And Andrew Balbirnie’s stumping against England?

“Taking into account the keepers’ union…”, she laughs, “I think he held on to it too long. But it was given out by people far higher up the rankings than me.”