Women’s cricket: Aspirational or lagging behind?
The New Zealand women’s domestic cricket competitions have defenders and detractors.
Some cited the progress made in recent years while others said standards were falling behind those of the game’s international powerhouses.
The new domestic season starts on Saturday with the Hallyburton Johnstone Shield one day competition, which bookends the T20 Super Smash tournament, and is the pathway to the White Ferns.
Nine months ago White Ferns captain Sophie Devine was searching for answers as yet another Cricket World Cup campaign fell apart.
New Zealand had just lost back-to-back games at the T20 World Cup in South Africa and Devine said she was embarrassed by the White Ferns that day.
She struggled to pinpoint what had gone wrong on 14 February as they lost by 65 runs to the host nation. But she was clear that one area of New Zealand Cricket needed some attention – the women’s domestic game.
“If I’m being brutally honest I’m not sure if it is preparing us for international cricket,” she said after that match.
“You’re seeing now the WBBL (Australia), the Hundred (England) and the WPL (India) they’re highly competitive tournaments and they’re preparing players with the opportunities they give themselves. I think we’ve done great things in New Zealand with our domestic cricket but I’m not sure that it is at the same standard as those other competitions.”
Devine is currently captaining the Perth Scorchers in the WBBL. She has played in domestic competitions in New Zealand, Australia, England, India and the Caribbean.
Of the 17 White Ferns contracted for the 2023/24 season, seven had played in overseas domestic competitions like Devine. One player – wicketkeeper Bernadine Bezuidenhout – grew up in South Africa and by default played in the domestic competition there.
That leaves nine White Ferns with only New Zealand domestic experience to draw on. Which highlighted why Devine, who played for the Wellington Blaze, wanted the New Zealand pathway made as strong as possible.
‘There’s a difference in standards in more areas than you think’
Allrounder Brooke Halliday first joined the White Ferns in 2021 after a stand-out season with Northern Districts.
On debut she scored 50 in an ODI against England in Christchurch – a game the visitors won by eight wickets.
Three days later she top-scored with 60 against the same opposition as the tour moved to Dunedin. The next highest score by a White Fern in the match was an unbeaten 29 by Hannah Rowe. Again England won, by seven wickets.
After two good knocks to start her White Ferns’ career Halliday’s transition from the domestic ranks to the international arena appeared smooth.
However, the differences between playing for a major association and the national team were stark for Halliday.
“There’s a difference in standards probably in more areas than you think, you’ve got the standard of cricket that is played but also the standard of training and the professionalism.
“Especially with domestic cricket which isn’t professional, a lot of the girls are working full time and then come into training after or are going to the gym before work.
“I’ve been in their shoes, done the hard work, but that’s probably the biggest shift [in being contracted] is going from that juggle of everything to now in a environment with the likes of Sophie [Devine] and Suzie [Bates] where they’ve been professional for a number of years and just their level of preparation and the way they approach things that’s probably the biggest lift in standards along with the international opponents.”
Halliday did not like comparisons between New Zealand’s domestic competition and what other countries did.
“When you compare yourself to the likes of India or England or Australia who have so much bloody money, you’ve always gonna see massive differences.
“The financial difference of course it’s going to lead to the standard of cricket [in New Zealand] not being high enough in some people’s eyes but personally I think it’s really good and I think the only way you’re going to keep building it is resources and the amount of coverage of the game.
“I think if you asked any of the players five years ago the differences between domestic cricket and international cricket was very large…I think the game has improved heaps and that stepping stone is getting smaller and smaller.”
After 10 years in Northern Districts Halliday switched associations this season to Auckland Hearts where she linked up with other White Ferns Izzy Gaze, Maddy Green, Fran Jonas and Molly Penfold.
The change allowed Halliday to make the most of centralisation.
“These girls train together three times a week all together as a squad, whereas ND maybe once in a blue moon [that would happen] or sometimes you’re getting together the day before a game so it’s two very different dynamics.”
Halliday empathised with players who were based in the regions.
“Tauranga people, the likes of [formerly contracted White Fern] Nensi Patel, she might train with a coach but have only one other player with her and when you’re training every single day you really have to self-motivate almost. So having a group of people to train with or see every day or come together at the same location is a massive help.
“You talk to the other White Ferns from CD [Central Districts] like Hannah Rowe and Rosemary Mair, Hannah’s just made the move from Palmerston North to Napier. Now she’s able to train with a more centralised environment compared to what was offered in Palmy. You’ll probably find more and more hopefully as the game gets a little bit more professional moves within regions.”
Halliday wanted to bring the lessons she learnt in the White Ferns back to the Auckland Hearts.
“To try and push the players a little bit more, professionalism is probably the biggest thing I want to give to Auckland cricket. If I can somehow help some of the younger players whether that is their preparation or the way they go into the game I’ll be pretty happy.”
Now that Halliday was back playing cricket in her hometown she was not looking too far afield.
Green, who joined Auckland this season too from the Wellington Blaze, was the only one of the Hearts’ White Ferns who had played in an overseas competition. At this point in her career Halliday said she had different goals.
“I have this list of things that I’m trying to work on and I think once I’m in a bit more of a position where I’m comfortable with my game, then I’d probably throw my name in there but I don’t throw my name in there at the moment.”
From zero to 13
Like Devine, White Ferns bowler Lea Tahuhu has played in domestic competitions around the world including the first WBBL.
She also has a long history in the red and black of the Canterbury Magicians.
And more than a decade in the national team.
She said it was an exciting time to be involved in women’s cricket and encouraged others to take an overseas deal.
“The Australian competition, for example, is a fully professional competition so the more players that we can get in those environments and learning in a new environment is only going to benefit our game more.”
For those domestic players who could not, would not or were yet to take part in an overseas competition Tahuhu took it on herself to share her knowledge.
“That’s a massive part of our responsibility having played for so many years and for so many different teams is to be able to pass that knowledge on as much as you can and try and help and nurture our players through to then be able to get those same opportunities to go and play in those competitions for themselves.
“The more that we can bring a little bit of that professionalism or different ideas and concepts into our environment it’s only going to continue to help our players grow.”
Tahuhu agreed with Devine that “right now we are not at the same level as other countries”.
And with Halliday that growth had come in the previous five years.
“You can only look at it in comparison to our domestic competition then versus our domestic competition now. We don’t have the same amount of resources and investment as what England, Australia and especially India have put into their competition so we can only do what we can with the resources we have.”
There are now 13 players contracted in each domestic team up from zero three years ago.
“I think New Zealand Cricket is on the way to getting us up to the same standard as what’s happening around the world.”
‘We’re always aspiring to improve our domestic competitions’
Liz Green played 18 seasons of domestic cricket in New Zealand and nearly 50 games as a White Fern.
Since late last year she has been in the newly created role of head of women’s high performance at New Zealand Cricket.
Her priority was to bridge the gap between domestic and international level.
Green believed the current domestic competition was a “starting point” ripe for “progress” and “enhancement”.
“I think we’re always aspiring to improve our domestic competitions,” Green said.
“I think what we’ve got at the moment really serves a valid purpose in terms of the development of our athletes, but I think ultimately more playing opportunities at that higher level, albeit domestic or that gap between domestic and international, I think for me, would be a true marker of success.
“So whether that’s playing more Hallyburton Johnstone games, whether it’s playing more Super Smash games, we’re not quite sure but the thinking is always there in terms of what does success look like at that domestic level not only for our players but our coaches as well.”
While an increased number of White Ferns played in other countries’ domestic leagues Green erred on the side of boosting homegrown talent here instead.
“Our first priority is developing our own players, we’re certainly looking to protect our 50 over competition and giving a lot more opportunities to our local players.
“But with Super Smash this year we are actively encouraging our major associations to look at two overseas players to come into that competition. Some MAs aren’t opting to do that; they’re happy with the players that they’ve got on their list, but for us, it also comes down to the priority in terms of the investment as well.
“Having to bring in overseas players is obviously a cost either to New Zealand Cricket or the major association so I think where we’re at in terms of the development of the game here in New Zealand that level of investment is better spent developing our own players and systems and structures.”
Green believed the domestic pathway was still the best way to prepare the next generation of White Ferns.
“I think critical to that is the evolution of the New Zealand A playing and training opportunities outside our 17 central contracted athletes. We think that if we can evolve those playing and training opportunities to capture more of our athletes in terms of the next best 30 or 40 I think we’re going to go a long way in terms of being successful on the international stage.
“At the moment we want to create an aspirational pathway for our athletes so if you’re having a really strong domestic season and you’re putting your hand up for higher honours we want it to be a staged approach to making the White Ferns so making New Zealand A teams, making NZ XI teams. I think that’s the first step in what we perceive as making it an aspirational pathway for our best talent.”
The defending champion Wellington Blaze open the Hallyburton Johnstone Shield competition against the Otago Sparks on Saturday, while Central Hinds play Canterbury Magicians and Northern Districts take on Auckland Hearts on the same day. All teams face the same opposition again on Sunday.
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