WOMEN’S GAME IS LACKING IN ‘STAR’ COACHES
Alison Mitchell asks why female coaches are being overlooked in favour of males with first-class backgrounds
Two months out from this summer’s Women’s World Cup staged in England, India have had a sudden and acrimonious change of coach. Purnima Rau, the former India women’s captain, has been sacked and replaced by former Baroda batsman Tushar Arothe, after senior players demanded they be coached by a man.
Whilst the World Twenty20 2016 on home soil was particularly disappointing for India, they have been on a roll in 50-over cricket, winning their last 13 ODIs in a row. So it is curious that Rau has been dispensed with so close to the World Cup. Within a dressing room there are any number of reasons why players feel unhappy with a coach, and several factors could have been at play in the India camp. What is interesting though, is the specific request for a male coach by Mithali Raj, Jhulan Goswami and Harmanpreet Kaur, who met with the BCCI’s Women’s Committee to make their feelings known.
It is notable that when Paul Shaw was replaced as England coach in 2015, the ECB’s Director of Women’s Cricket, Clare Connor, made a pitch, by default, for a male coach, by declaring that she was looking for a coach with experience of first-class cricket to guide the team into the professional era.
“The gender of the coach doesn’t matter,” Connor said back in 2015. “But being realistic about where we are now and where the sport is at, the likelihood is that it will be a man, because the qualities and experience we’re looking for are going to be found in a coach who has worked as high as possible in the men’s game.”
By saying those words, Connor went to the very nub of the issue. Because the women’s game is so newly professional, the number of highly qualified female coaches experienced in professional cricket is limited. The ECB wanted to appoint a coach who understood the new levels of responsibility, accountability, pressure and scrutiny that the players would be coming under. It is understood that these are broadly the reasons behind the India players’ ousting of Rau.
The preference to appoint a former first-class men’s cricketer as coach of a country’s national women’s team is a trend that has set in worldwide. The only country at this summer’s World Cup that won’t have a former male cricketer in charge is New Zealand. The White Ferns are coached by former captain Haidee Tiffen, who manages her coaching career alongside a teaching job. In recent years, former fast bowler Cathryn Fitzpatrick has been in charge of Australia (and won the 2013 World Cup), while former batter Sudha Shah and former wicket-keeper Anju Jain have both coached India. The last woman to coach England was former captain and level 4 coach Jane Powell in 2000.
There is no construct, however, to say that a male coach with experience of professionalism will always be the best option for a team of women who are new to professionalism. There is much more subtlety involved in the player-coach dynamic.
Former Australia all-rounder Lisa Sthalekar has played under both male and female coaches at state and international level, and recalls when a switch from male to female and female to male coach worked both for and against teams she played in.
“Cathryn Fitzpatrick took over with a short turnaround to the World Cup because they (Cricket Australia) had removed Richard McInnes,” she explains. “It worked because she knew exactly what the group needed. We just needed freedom, whereas we weren’t necessarily getting that before.”
“I also remember when Lisa Keightley (former Australia bat and England Academy Coach) retired from New South Wales and was given the Head Coach’s job straightaway. No one, including her, was sure whether that was the right decision, but because she knew us so well as a group, she hit the ground running and our preseason was the best we ever had.
“We worked on things we needed to improve, instead of a male coach coming in, who didn’t know us, who might see how it all goes and make some changes at the end of the season. She knew exactly what we needed, despite never being a professional before.
“So there are definitely times in the teams I’ve played in, where female coaches have been really effective. Then there are times when we’ve had male coaches that have come in and taken it up another level. It’s about assessing your group and where they’re at.”
The assumption is that female coaches are being developed to coach the women’s game. But what scope is there for female coaches who might want to work in men’s
cricket? Cricket Australia, with its professional women’s domestic structure, are actively developing their female leaders and to that end have sent four of their best coaches, including former Australia bat and Perth Scorchers coach Lisa Keightley and former all-rounder and SACA Coaching Pathways officer Shelley Nitshke to the USA on a week-long study tour.
Each of the quartet has been identified as a ‘long-term coaching asset’ of CA, who are already integrating them into the men’s game. Nitshke has worked as assistant coach to Ryan Harris for a Cricket Australia XI at the Under-19 National Championships, while Keightley has had some involvement with the WA 2nd XI. Sthalekar herself is currently Head of Coaching at Mosman Cricket Club in Sydney, a men’s grade club.
“I stepped out of coaching females for a bit of a challenge,” she says. “This will be my third year with Mosman. I oversee the whole programme, and when I’m around I’m there hitting balls with the guys, throwing balls, warming the guys up on Saturday mornings and helping with selection.
“I believed I could appeal to the guys a little bit more because they work in full-time jobs, they train twice a week and we expect them to commit for six months of the year. I said, ‘I get that. I’ve lived that as a cricketer.’ So I know what they’re going through and I know how to get the best out of every minute we have. That understanding of juggling everything has helped me build a relationship with the players. It’s taught me a lot about coaching.”
The experience has also taught her to laugh at suggestions that women can’t coach men because of that old chestnut of needing to go into the dressing room when the men are changing. Former England women’s coach Mark Lane confirms that when he was in charge of England women he simply gave the players time and space in the dressing room, and if he wanted to speak to them in the rooms he’d go in once they were all ready. Sthalekar concurs that it works perfectly well the other way round as well.
“I don’t really go into the changing room, but if I have to, I knock and call out, ‘I’m coming in! Please have some clothes on!’” She laughs. “It’s never been an issue. It’s about respect. The players’ changing room – even if you’re the manager or the analyst – should be a safe haven for the players, and not many other people should be in there.”
Women’s cricket is where female coaches are likely to get their first opportunities, but there are only a handful of full-time coaching jobs available with the ECB in women’s cricket due to the fact that domestic cricket is still amateur, save for the few weeks of the KSL.
Salliann Briggs is the most highly qualified female coach active in the country and alongside her job as ECB England Women’s Academy Coach she is Performance Manager at Loughborough MCCU and Head Coach of KSL side Loughborough Lightning. The KSL is providing new part-time opportunities for coaches, and there are also roles to be found in public schools too such as Wellington School in Somerset, where Caroline Foster (nee Atkins) is Head of Girls Cricket. But as players such as Charlotte Edwards retire and look to move into coaching, it should be just as feasible for them to be involved in men’s cricket as women’s, provided clubs are forward thinking enough to employ them. Given that the women’s game has a long way to go to establish itself professionally at domestic level to the extent that it could support more full-time coaching roles, men’s cricket looks increasingly like the best way to gain the experience desired for the modern international coaching job.
The preference to appoint a former first-class cricketer as coach of a national women’s team is now a common trend
Making a stand: New Zealand’s Haidee Tiffen will be the only female coach at the World Cup
Preference: England Women are currently coached by former Sussex coach Mark Robinson
Notice the change: Lisa Sthalaker has played under male and female coaches