International players such as Kate Blackwell (pictured) are encouraged to play at the club level, which further enriches the robust grassroots system in Sydney. ©Wisden India

International players such as Kate Blackwell (pictured) are encouraged to play at the club level, which further enriches the robust grassroots system in Sydney. ©Wisden India

On a chilly Sunday morning, at the foot of the scenic Blue Mountains, 20 women assemble on a cricket field – not quite enough for a cricket match. Both teams have to make some calls and recruit players for this game, dealing with the personnel challenge thrown up by the ongoing Women’s Big Bash League and the holiday season. One team has 12 at the toss, the other is still on the phone to manage the numbers. But by the time they take the field, the calls have worked, and the match is on.

Don’t be thrown by the thin numbers. This bunch was more committed than a married couple celebrating their 60th anniversary. Bodies were flung across the green turf energetically, in the first over as well as the 20th. One player woke at 3am, travelling four hours by public transport, to get to the ground on time. Parents patrolled the boundary and dutifully provided snacks at the mid-innings break. And to top it off, the match featured two former internationals.

Elsewhere in Sydney, more women’s teams were in action as part of the last round of women’s club matches before the holidays.

Sydney’s club cricket – or as they call it, grade cricket – is the backbone of the success of Australia’s best domestic side and a feeder for the national team, the Southern Stars.

New South Wales Breakers, which is what the women’s cricket team of New South Wales (NSW) state is called, are the most successful team in the history of Australia’s Women’s National Cricket League (WNCL). They have won 18 of the 21 titles, have appeared in all 21 of those finals, and enjoyed a 10-year winning streak.

“People from NSW will tell you, if NSW cricket is strong, Australian cricket is strong. Those words are like a red flag to any Queesnslander,” joked Matthew Hayden in a TV interview once. Funny or not, out of the 15 players in the current Australian national team, the Breakers supply six. It’s clear that they are doing something right. (Either that or the Wikipedia page on NSW selection bias has a reason to exist.)

Even overseas players who are playing in the WBBL are encouraged by the franchises to dip their toes into local club cricket. ©Wisden India

Even overseas players who are playing in the WBBL are encouraged by the franchises to dip their toes into local club cricket. ©Wisden India

Cricket NSW has built its factory of precocity on dual pillars: pathways and role models. For girls and women of all ages in Sydney, the NSW capital, there are multiple entry points into the system, depending on skill level and age.

Currently, eight of the 20 Sydney clubs offer all women teams. The women’s club competition is played at three levels, first, second and third grade, in two formats, 40-over and T20 games. The first grade serves as the feeder for the Breakers. Besides that, there is also a separate club competition, the Brewers Shield, for Under-17 players.

“The competition gives younger players a taste of what professional cricket involves,” said Dharshia Srinivas, one of the players involved in Sunday’s game. She fondly recollects being captain of her Brewers Shield team, Universities, which went undefeated for three years under her leadership.

Even overseas players who are playing in the WBBL are encouraged by the franchises to dip their toes into local club cricket. Stafanie Taylor, the West Indies skipper, played a game for Penrith women’s cricket club last season. “The girls really appreciated me being here, and I was fond of them,” she told Wisden India. “It was good to be around them and also give them some advice. Girls coming up, that’s what they need, they need advice, they need role models, and I do think of myself as one of those persons, a role model.”

A comparison with major cities in India is stark. The Mumbai Cricket Association, one of the few associations proactive in promoting women’s cricket, started a women’s club competition only last year. Elsewhere, the figures are discouraging, even in my home city of Pune, a city with a rich tradition and impressive track record in women’s cricket.

“There are probably only a handful of clubs offering all women teams, including our own,” said Pawan Kulkarni, coach at PYC Gymkhana, one of the founding clubs of the Maharashtra Cricket Association. “In the men’s competition, more than 300 clubs play in in Pune District Cricket Association tournaments.”

Without a thriving club culture feeding state teams, the standard of cricket rises only slowly, and there is no depth and competition in state squads.

Girls and women who are keen to play must, by necessity, play with the boys, as I did, until they break into the state teams. While I never found it uncomfortable, in a country like India, where parochial attitudes are still the norm in society, it is helpful to have girls only teams.

To illustrate this point, a short diversion. Last month, I was coordinating cricket matches for my annual community sports fest. To increase female participation, I suggested a rule that each team (of eight) must have two women, else the teams would not be registered. Some schools responded that the boys and the girls have never mingled much, and it would be difficult to field a mixed team. It took some convincing on our part to get their teams on the road.

Claire Polosak (right) said she would have played the game had she been exposed to girls teams. © ICC

Claire Polosak (right) said she would have played the game had she been exposed to girls teams. © ICC

Claire Polosak, now Cricket Australia’s highest qualified female umpire, never played cricket despite liking it, because she didn’t want to play with the boys, and there was no girls team in her hometown. “I think I would have played with the girls, had there been a team available,” she said.

How many young girls might have been lost to the sport because of the lack of all girls teams?

New Zealand Cricket recently tried to put a number to this, commissioning a survey, which found that 90% of clubs did not offer girls teams and more than half the clubs did not offer cricket for women or girls at all.

“We have neglected the women’s game on the basis of cost, and a perceived lack of interest. We have sidelined women’s cricket both structurally and philosophically,” the board admitted in a statement.

Back in Sydney, the motivation to step up from grade to the next level is provided by role models. While not on country or WBBL duty, contracted Australian players are obliged to turn out for their local clubs. Had it not been for a Thunder Fan day, Sydney Thunder players Mikayla Hinkely, Maisy Gibson and perhaps Naomi Stalenberg were to play in Sunday’s game. Some, like Breakers captain Alex Blackwell, take this very seriously. “Even if she (Blackwell) has just landed in Sydney, she will come to the ground straight from the airport,” said Srinivas, Dharshia’s father.

As it was, former internationals Kate Blackwell, Alex’s twin, and Qanita Jalil, the former Pakistan fast bowler who now lives in Australia, provided a great exhibition of skills. Blackwell scored an unbeaten 47 while Jalil picked up 3 for 6 in four overs with her outswingers, including one that knocked the off stump out of the ground.

Even overseas players who are playing in the WBBL are encouraged by the franchises to dip their toes into local club cricket. Stafanie Taylor, the West Indies skipper, played a game for Penrith women’s cricket club last season. “The girls really appreciated me being here, and I was fond of them,” she told Wisden India. “It was good to be around them and also give them some advice. Girls coming up, that’s what they need, they need advice, they need role models, and I do think of myself as one of those persons, a role model.”

This set-up is limited only to Sydney and its suburbs, under the Sydney Cricket Association. Statewide, Cricket NSW have competitions in the Under-13, Under-15 and Under-18 age groups, and academies for each age group. Besides, once WBBL began last year, Sydney Thunder and Sydney Sixers implemented cricket programmes across the state, starting with girls as young as five, to encourage girls to play cricket.

The presence of the two franchises has been a boon for the highly competitive state system, which sees many players move to other states due to lack of opportunities. “With the Thunder and Sixers coming in, at the top level we now have another vehicle; instead of one state team, we have two franchise teams. That’s allowed us to not lose our talent to other states, and keep our players in the system,” said Leah Poulton, Breakers assistant coach, herself a former Australian international.

Visit the SCG, where the Cricket NSW headquarters is, and you see their logo plastered all over the walls: ‘Australia’s future heroes’. No speculation in that sentence. The Breakers have an assembly line that Toyota would be proud of, and with such a base and backing, it is no surprise that they have produced so many international cricketers.

Breakers recently claimed another first, becoming the first fully professional women’s domestic cricket team. No one formula works for everyone, but if ever a blue print was sought to how to improve the standard of women’s cricket, this would not be a bad place to start.