Can cricketer Sarah Taylor help women’s sport break new ground?

In an excellent interview this week with The Guardian’s Donald McRae, the England wicketkeeper Sarah Taylor revealed that she is set to become the first female cricketer to play men’s 2nd XI County Cricket with Sussex this summer. Louder Than War already pondered the idea of mixed-gender football, but here Dan Lucas looks at what this means for Taylor, cricket, and wider sport.

Sarah Taylor is, for my money, the greatest player women’s cricket has ever known. She’s been in the England side since the age of 17, and six years on from her début has at least a decade of cricket ahead of her: with the rapid growth of the women’s game and the excellent work of Sky Sports (sorry, I’m a Murdoch-hater too, but their contribution to cricket cannot be denied) in providing funding, only the potential injuries and personal issues associated with sport and touring have the potential to hold her back. Taylor’s batting style and unparalleled skill as a wicketkeeper are unlike those ever seen before in the women’s game, and at the age of just 23 her influence on the sport cannot be denied.

Excitement in the cricket press is naturally high in light of this news; however it is probably worth adding a caveat at this point. As Sussex have been keen to stress in a statement on their website, discussions are still at an embryonic stage and Taylor is yet to train with the County’s second XI side. Naturally, any chance of her actually playing would depend on how these training sessions go.

Personally I cannot see any reason why Taylor shouldn’t be able to succeed at this level. She will also be playing men’s club cricket in the Birmingham and District Premier League for Walmley, and two years ago her England teammate Arran Brindle scored a 128 for Louth in the Lincolnshire Premier League. England’s women regularly play against the top boys’ schools in practice matches where the standard is not too far behind County Cricket and historically even W.G. Grace played matches with his sisters. Whilst I haven’t seen a lot of Second XI cricket, the standards in some of the First Class matches I watch suggests that there won’t be a huge leap from club cricket.

The most frequently asked question seems to be whether Taylor will cope with the increased physicality of the men’s game: can she keep up with the bigger hitters? How will she fare batting against quicker bowlers with a slightly larger ball? Is her keeping good enough to cope with the bigger spin? She will, after all, be playing for the same county as Monty Panesar, who perhaps turns it more than anyone in world cricket bar Saeed Ajmal and Graham Swann. It is a valid question too: the quickest ball ever recorded in international women’s cricket was bowled by Australia’s Catherine Fitzpatrick and was timed at 74.5mph, around the pace of Paul Collingwood and enough to make Tim Bresnan, let alone Steven Finn, Dale Steyn or Morne Morkel, look express. Similarly the majority of women’s cricket is in the Limited Overs format and sixes are less common; potentially an issue when M.S. Dhoni, Kevin Pietersen and Chris Gayle tend to clear the boundary as a stock scoring shot in the men’s version of the game.

Of course the reason that Taylor is the player set to make this historic breakthrough is that her skills are unique amongst female cricketers. Primarily she will be picked as a wicketkeeper with her batting secondary, and this is a specialist role that calls for speed of thought, outstanding reflexes and brilliant athleticism. Taylor has these in abundance, and when the England men’s Test team were enduring a ‘keeping crisis a few years ago a number of commentators wryly suggested that they pick the most naturally gifted wicketkeeper in the country.

Similarly she is unique as a batsman in the women’s game. Whereas other players score the majority of their runs through the leg side, Taylor is equally adept at using her top hand as her bottom, and as such is able to play an exquisite cover drive, opening up scoring opportunities that neither her teammates nor her opponents have access to. As the likes of Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Ian Bell will no doubt testify, power hitters are not the only batsmen who can prosper and they have become among the best in the world thanks to their timing, placement and finesse, qualities which Taylor also shares.

Still, those players and others similar who have found success in One Day and T20 cricket do have the strength to hit the ball for six when the situation calls for a higher risk approach. Whilst Taylor’s ability to manoeuvre the ball around and find gaps in the field at will may be of use in the slower middle overs of a List A game, above Second XI level, where the batsman/’keeper is the fashion, she would need to add extra dimensions to her game that may be physically beyond her. Instead it may be that she needs to become more accustomed to the longer format, less played in women’s cricket, and it will be interesting to see whether she has (or is able to develop) the fortitude and concentration levels required to make it in First Class cricket. She has admitted to having some inevitable nerves and self-doubt, and back in 2010 she took a break from cricket – it was an end-of-teen-relationship thing that left her feeling alienated, she told McRae – but says that since then she has come back a stronger person and a better player.

Some commenters have expressed other doubts. Might some opponents be unwilling to send down a hostile spell to a girl, to bowl a bouncer and risk hurting her? It seems presumptuous though to suggest that if Taylor shows any weakness against the short ball, as so many cricketers have, then a sportsman’s will to win by trying to exploit this might be somehow negated by an inherent sexism. Others have argued that introducing a girl to a sport with patriarchal traditions might reopen some old prejudices: these people though seem to ignore how cricket has moved on from its more, from the England team resting players and coaches from tours to the acceptance of Kieron Pollard as an actual international batsman. One of the more interesting points is that this may open a drain of the top talent from women’s cricket and that the sport will regress. It will be interesting to see how Taylor balances her new commitments with her day job; however Taylor’s talent is so unique that such a problem is unlikely to be encountered at any time in the near future.

Similarly it remains unlikely that we will see the introduction of mixed-sex teams at the top level in any other sport in the near future. At the height of the Williams sisters’ dominance of women’s tennis some suggested that they could compete in the men’s tournaments at Grand Slams. However it was quickly pointed out that even at the pinnacle of their own game they would only make the mid-100s in the men’s rankings, and that although their power looked colossal, even the likes of Tim Henman would have enough to bully them on-court. The likes of former England football captain Hope Powell would similarly have been at sea against the power of Charlie Adam, let alone Yaya Toure (yes there are diminutive players who are great footballers, but the likes of Andrés Iniesta and Lionel Messi are unparalleled all-time greats). In rugby I am still convinced that my beloved Northampton’s fly-half Ryan Lamb could be outplayed by my 5’5” girlfriend Liz, but he is uniquely bad, and no one would want to see the likes of England prop Sophie Hemming (5’7”, 12st 10lbs) scrimmaging against Tonga’s Soane Tonga’uiha (6’3”, 19st 12lbs).

Amidst the hype and the dreamy postulations about revolutions in sport, it remains important to remember that Sarah Taylor is a unique player in a unique sport, and it’s only thanks to this that she is able to make this great step into the unknown. Nonetheless, she is a great player and even at this embryonic stage, her progress is being rightly celebrated.


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