Counties fear ECB is freezing them out of shake-up of women’s cricket

<span>Oval Invincibles celebrate winning the 2021 Hundred final at Lord’s. Domestic women’s cricket is undergoing a restructure away from regions to counties.</span><span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Oval Invincibles celebrate winning the 2021 Hundred final at Lord’s. Domestic women’s cricket is undergoing a restructure away from regions to counties.Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Counties in England which do not already have a first-class men’s team believe they are being frozen out of plans for a new second division for women’s cricket.

Only first-class men’s counties will have the chance to run a team in the top two tiers of women’s domestic cricket from the 2025 season, even though first-class status has never formally existed within women’s cricket and, historically, many county women’s sides have been stronger than some first-class ones.

Applications from nine counties to run teams in the second tier of women’s domestic cricket from the 2025 season are being disregarded by the England and Wales Cricket Board without reaching the interview stage.

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Nine of the 20 national counties (formerly known as minor counties) had applied to sit in the ­semi-professional tier two – ­including Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Devon, Northum­berland, Staffordshire and Wiltshire. After meeting the bid deadline of 11 June, all nine were told on 13 June that they would have the opportunity to present their bids directly to an ECB interview panel.

But in an email sent by Richard Gould, the ECB’s chief executive, on 17 June he said there were concerns within the ECB that national counties did not have the “level of professional resources” required to run a tier two team. Gould added that the ECB were “pausing the current process to identify whether members from the Recreational Game [national counties] could be selected to become a Tier 2 women’s team by 2025”.

However, the Guardian understands that bids from first-class counties are continuing to be assessed, with a final decision about the makeup of tier two set to be taken at an ECB board meeting on 17 July – in effect freezing out the national counties before they can meet with the governing body.

Domestic women’s cricket is undergoing a restructure away from regions to counties. Tier-two women’s teams will receive £200,000 worth of funding annually from the ECB between 2025 and 2028. While only counties with historic “first-class” status were eligible to bid for tier-one teams – with the eight winners announced in April – applications for tier two (which is expected to contain between 10 and 14 teams) were opened up to all.

The national counties had been required to submit 2,000-word supporting statements with their bids explaining their reasons for wanting to be awarded tier-two status and how they would “approach the creation of high-performance environments for their women’s team and talent pathway”, as well as details of their proposed coaching and support staff structure, training and match-day facilities plan, and an annual financial projection for how they will ­operate their women’s senior tier-two programme and talent pathway. Many had also spent time liaising with their local tier-one team in an attempt to create the “pathway catchment area” which the ECB said was an important ingredient of success.

Berkshire played in Division One of the Women’s County Championship and were County T20 champions in 2010, producing international players including Isa Guha, now a BBC commentator, and the current England fast bowler Lauren Bell. The selection criteria outlined in the tier two process document, seen by the Guardian, specifically includes “historic performances in ECB Women’s County competitions”. However, first-class counties which have never won silverware in women’s cricket now appear to be being rewarded purely on the basis of their status in the men’s game.

“We followed all the guidelines, all the rules, ticked all the boxes and spent hours putting our bid together. And then they turn around and say: ‘Sorry, guys, we’ve changed our mind’ – it’s just so frustrating and disappointing,” one ­senior staff member at a national county told the Guardian.

Another said: “In hindsight, we think this was always going to happen. They disqualified us because we don’t have a men’s team that plays in the County Championship, essentially. It looks like an absolute stitch-up.”

In a joint letter to the entire ECB board dated 25 June, seen by the Guardian, eight of the nine national counties which submitted bids requested a “full review of the process and decision making within the ECB executive”.

Gould has followed up by ­offering to meet counties individually to discuss the situation. One member of staff at a national county alleges the only appointments being offered are for after 17 July – at which point the decision about who is awarded tier-two status will have been made.

The ECB, however, disputes this. An ECB spokesperson said: “Gould has already met with a number of national counties, so it would not be correct to indicate that ECB is not engaging with stakeholders.”