Close on the heels of the England women’s cricket team losing their best batter and captain Charlotte Edwards to retirement, they have suffered another body blow. On Monday, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) announced that wicketkeeper Sarah Taylor would be taking an indefinite break from the game for personal reasons.
The 26-year-old Taylor has more than 5000 runs for England across all three formats. She is the second highest scorer in T20Is, behind only Edwards, and is fifth on the overall list of highest run scorers in ODI women's cricket. She is also the first woman to play in Australian First Grade cricket. Taylor’s decision has effectively put her out of contention for being Edward’s replacement as captain.
The timing of Taylor’s decision is significant. The calendar for elite female cricketers is overflowing with fixtures, thanks mainly to the ICC Women’s Championship. Effectively a future tours program, it requires every nation in the top eight to play at least three ODIs against each other over a three year period (2013-2017), ensuring that all countries get ample games. Previous to that, it was up to individual boards to take the initiative to schedule bilateral series. An indifferent board meant very little international cricket for their women’s team. For instance, India played only 26 ODIs between the 2009 and 2013 ODI Women’s World Cups.
More cricket was what every national team captain wanted, and thanks to the ICC’s visionary move, they got it. And in 2015, the high profile Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) was conceived, birthed, and feted. But as the ladders on the board of women’s cricket grew longer, some new snakes made their appearance.
As a result of this proliferation of matches, for the first time in decades, female cricketers are playing non-stop cricket for months on end. Take a look at the schedule of the Southern Stars, Australia’s women’s team, over the last season. After a month and a half long away Ashes, which ended in August last year, they began their domestic One day competition, the Women's National Cricket League (WNCL). This lasted from October through November 2015. The WBBL took up all of December and most of January 2016, and only two days after its final, Australia hosted India in a bilateral series. Within a fortnight, they were in New Zealand, for another bilateral series. 10 days after that, they played their first game of the WT20. As journalist Geoff Lemon noted in this piece, it was plain to see that the Southern Stars were jaded.
Although Sarah Taylor cited ‘personal reasons’ for her break, the sudden increase in the volume of cricket cannot be ignored as a possible factor. Taylor featured in the WNCL as an overseas player, as well as in the WBBL. Immediately after, she travelled with England for a tour of South Africa, and then of course, the WT20, where England lost the semi-final.
Taylor isn't the first female player to take a step back from the game. She herself took a four-month sabbatical in 2010. Holly Colvin — the England spinner who made her debut as a 15-year-old — took a break from the game after the successful women’s Ashes campaign in 2013. She eventually retired to take up a role with the ICC. And in October last year, Australian player Jess Cameron took an indefinite break, and made herself unavailable for selection for the WBBL and national duties, including the WT20. She is expected to return to cricket this season.
The WBBL has been lauded worldwide for the being the first of high profile domestic T20 leagues. And the ECB are set to roll out its own Kia Super League this summer. “There is no doubt that the women’s game is moving forward every year, and the WBBL is going to help that,” said Aussie skipper Meg Lanning during the WT20. But these leagues have also created another challenge. Player burn out or fatigue has now become a reality for elite female cricketers, especially those who regularly ply their trade in overseas domestic leagues.
Australia coach Matthew Mott admitted as much, after his team was upset in the WT20 final by the West Indies. “We did come out of the WBBL quite tired,” he said. “You could see the group was pretty tired, and we spent a lot of time between games just to make sure the girls were refreshed....It has been a tough long road.”
While players taking sabbaticals is not a new concept, with women’s cricket moving into a professional age, it raises the questions of how these sabbaticals affect their contracts. An ECB official said that, “Every situation is assessed on a case-by-case basis”. In Taylor’s case, the ECB have been unequivocal in their support, financial and otherwise. “We will support her, keep in touch and talk with her prior to selection for the Pakistan series and the start of the Super League.”
It is heartening to see the boards support their players in this way, and create an environment in which they feel secure enough to take time off from the game if they truly need it. Any other response to such situations would be internecine. After all, unhappy dressing rooms rarely spawn winning teams. However, the questions of whether less well established players, whose records are not as luminous as Taylor’s also share the same feeling of security, remain unanswered.
With the increase in fixtures, both domestic and international, women’s cricket faces a new challenge, although it is a happy one. More matches can only be good news for the women’s game, for so many years starved of the calendar it deserves. It is testament to the growth of women’s cricket, that it is now facing problems of plenty, as opposed to few.