Improvements in fitness, technique and biomechanics could lead to faster bowling speeds, but how fast can the fastest female bowler bowl?
Improvements in fitness, technique and biomechanics could lead to faster bowling speeds, but how fast can the fastest female bowler bowl?
Faster bowling, higher run rates, sharper strategies, mystery spin - there's plenty to come
For the England women's cricket team, it is the most unpopular day of the year: fitness testing. At the ECB's high-performance centre in Loughborough, the squad lines up to complete the yo-yo intermittent recovery test, which is less benign than it sounds. Players sprint up and down in the indoor school, sweating ever more profusely as the permitted time for each sprint decreases. It is a simple, catch-all way to measure fitness, and the outcomes are revealing. Since England turned professional in 2014, the squad's results have risen by around 10%; the same goes for scores on tests of aerobic fitness, speed and strength.
"Pioneers" is the word used ubiquitously to describe the first batch of women's cricketers since professionalisation - a process that began in May 2013 in Australia. "They're having to cope with a transition from coming out of that world where they did everything for free, and for the beauty and the love of the game, to being judged," says Mark Robinson, the England women's coach. With every passing year the standard improves, and so the question becomes more intriguing: what are the limits of women's cricket?
To gauge the true potential of women's cricket, it is necessary to look to other sports. For the major Olympic disciplines, an "80-90% rule" exists. Among elite athletes, women perform at this level relative to men. Only in very few disciplines - notably swimming, where women are within 6% - have leading women performed at a higher relative level. When strength is more important, the gender gap tends to be greater: in tennis, the fastest recorded men's serve is 163.7mph; the fastest recorded women's serve is 80% of that, 131mph.
"The biggest gains are always in the simplest areas," Mark Robinson says, highlighting the ability to read wickets, how to play on a batsman's mind, and game-awareness
In 2005, three academics published a paper, "Women Will Do It in the Long Run", arguing that women could eventually beat male runners over races longer than 200km. One of the factors they based their conclusion on was improvements in female running times between 1963 and 1984. Since then, the difference in world records between men and women, across measurable Olympic sports, has remained largely stable. Men's physiological advantages are simply too great: they are heavier, taller, have longer arms and legs relative to their height, bigger hearts and lungs and more oxygen-carrying red blood cells, and so can use more oxygen per minute.
Yet the possibility remains that women could match men in other sports. In "decision-making sports, aiming or targeting sports", explains Joe Baker, a sports psychologist from York University, "differences between the sexes should be minimal".
Cricket falls between categories: it is a decision-making sport but also depends on physical prowess. So while tactics and skills in the women's game should become every bit as advanced as those in the men's game, and could even surpass them, in power-related aspects - distance hitting and bowling speed - the 80-90% rule is likely to apply.
Given that men can hit the ball 100 metres, Raphael Brandon, the ECB's head of science and medicine, believes that leading women will regularly be able to clear 80-metre boundaries. This could be accelerated by increased specialisation in white-ball cricket.
Deandra Dottin lays into a shot. Will women soon be hitting 80-metre sixes regularly?
© Getty Images
Deandra Dottin lays into a shot. Will women soon be hitting 80-metre sixes regularly? © Getty Images
A bowler's delivery speed is determined by their body speed and the speed of their arm when the ball is released, explains Timothy Olds from the School of Health Sciences at the University of South Australia. The fastest recorded running speed for a woman over 100 metres is 9% less than for a man, and (in Australia) women are 8% shorter on average, leading Olds to propose that they could bowl about 84% as fast as men if they can achieve the same angular velocity. Olds suggests this is unlikely, but that women could still gain a few miles per hour on the fastest recorded delivery, believed to be 77mph by Australia's Cathryn Fitzpatrick.
Baseball provides an instructive comparison. The fastest delivery by a female pitcher is 82mph, and the fastest by a man is 105mph. The fastest recorded men's delivery in cricket is 100mph, so women should be able to reach at least 78mph, and possibly more, with an unusually tall bowler the most likely candidate. Tim Coyle, assistant coach for Australia women, believes that 77-81mph is likely to be the ceiling for women, but that an exceptional bowler could exceed that.
Greater emphasis on fast-bowling technique, and improvements in technology and biomechanics, could also increase speeds. "Opening bowlers around the world are certainly consistently bowling quicker than they used to," says Laura Marsh, an England allrounder.
Faster bowling, of course, is not everything. Extra speed can be an advantage for batsmen; indeed, as the gap in reaction time between men and women is minimal, the fastest bowling in the female game is likely to be less discomfiting for batsmen than the fastest in the men's game. "Extra skill is possibly more important than the extra yard," says Robinson.
Aboriginal Australian girls threw the ball harder than those from anywhere else. One can infer that the way girls are raised elsewhere in the world impedes their physical development
Since the onset of professionalism, improvements have been greater in batting than bowling. This is unsurprising. While senior bowlers rarely bowl more than 60 balls in training, batsmen commonly face 300, Coyle says. The burgeoning number of sixes in recent years - England women hit 46 in 2016, more than in the previous five years combined - reflects this reality.
Tash Farrant, an England allrounder, observes that "there are now just much higher run chases. Six an over in a T20 isn't enough anymore - it's more sevens, eights, getting towards the men's. That's the area that's improved the most."
Greater fitness is transforming not just fielding but the entire nature of women's cricket. England use other female sports - hockey, rugby and football - to gauge their fitness targets. In training and matches, on an average, England's bowlers bowled 10% more overs in 2016-17 than in 2014-15. The veteran fast bowler Katherine Brunt drags her team-mates out of bed at dawn to run up hills.
Just last March, England endured a horror collapse against Australia in the World T20 semi-final in Delhi, leading Robinson to castigate the side as "not fit enough" and lamenting their inability to run twos. But Robinson was struck that just months later, in October, the side did not "blow up" in an ODI series in the West Indies, in conditions more uncomfortable than in India. Last summer, Tammy Beaumont, not previously renowned as among the squad's fittest, ran 19.5km, including 150 sprints, in scoring 168 not out in an ODI. "That's when fitness becomes real," Robinson says.
The high-performance centre in Loughborough is where England women are put through their paces
© Getty Images
The high-performance centre in Loughborough is where England women are put through their paces © Getty Images
"The biggest gains are always in the simplest areas," Robinson says, highlighting the reading of wickets, how to play on a batsman's mind, and game-awareness. "From a tactical point of view, the women's game has got a long way to move compared to men's cricket," says Marsh, who was 27 when professionalism was introduced and has witnessed two distinct eras of female cricket. "Women's cricket is quite a young sport, and it's got a lot of growing to do."
Many of the limits for women's sport will be determined by broader cultural change. That much was revealed by a remarkable study of throwing by boys and girls across the world. Aboriginal Australian girls threw the ball harder than those from anywhere else, and the gap with boys was smaller. One can infer that the way girls are raised elsewhere in the world impedes their physical development, and that a considerable portion of girls' athletic inferiority elsewhere in the world owes to culture, not biology.
Physiology explains a lot - Aboriginal Australian girls aged 7-10 still only threw balls 78.3% as hard as boys - but not all of it. Greater gender equality, therefore, should boost women's athletic capabilities. Even in countries that consider themselves to have embraced equality, there is far to go: in England, 41% of males aged 14 and over take part in physical activity for at least half an hour a week, but only 32% of females - a difference of 1.7 million people.
Players have generally been dependent on family connections, rather than on schools or local communities, to get into the game. Strikingly, only one member of England's World Cup squad doesn't have a brother
If ensuring wider gender equality is beyond cricket's control, the sport's governing bodies can still do much in that direction. Allowing more women to run cricket would be a good start. At the most recent ICC board meeting, just like every other in history, the member representatives making the decisions on the sport's future were exclusively male - although the new constitution provides for an independent female board director with a vote. More representative governance will push boards to focus more on women's cricket, and increased cash in female cricket will make it less likely that the most talented cricketers will drop out of the sport prematurely.
A few years ago, Hayley Matthews had to decide between a career in track and field or cricket. She chose cricket and, aged 18, was player of the match in West Indies' World T20 final victory last year: a snapshot of how women's cricket is becoming more appealing to multi-talented athletes as opportunities and financial rewards increase. So women's cricket needs a vibrancy at youth level that it has historically lacked. Players have generally been dependent on family connections, rather than on schools or local communities, to get into the game. Strikingly, only one member of England's World Cup squad doesn't have a brother.
Robinson has access to fewer full-time coaches than when he was head coach of the Sussex men's team - and most other teams in the World Cup would envy England Women's seven full-time backroom staff. This relative under-investment in women's cricket not only limits the individualised support players receive, but can leave staff dependent on men's cricket to answer questions like a ground's par score and which bowlers are likely to be most effective.
Tactical finesse is an area where women's cricket might match or exceed the men's game
© Getty Images
Tactical finesse is an area where women's cricket might match or exceed the men's game © Getty Images
The problem of insufficient data extends off the field - to injury management, and the mental aspect of the game. "This is why we go to hockey and other sports and try and find out what they think," Robinson explains. "We've never really had anyone who knows what it's like to be criticised, slaughtered in the press, the over-expectation, and playing all year round. It will be a lot easier for every group after."
Coaches don't yet know the best techniques to aid female players' development. Robinson refers to shocks - like Shane Warne being kicked out of the Australian academy - that have spurred players on. "But is it the same for women? We haven't got the history, we make estimates." He believes it will take at least another eight years to begin to be able to answer such questions accurately. Similarly, "injury prevention and workload management is still very young", says Ian Durrant, strength and conditioning coach for England women. Sometimes, reliable numbers for, say, something as simple as how many overs a bowler bowled in all cricket in previous years just do not exist.
"I was the only female playing with the boys - it changes the way you go about your game, it makes you more mature," Stafanie Taylor, the West Indies women's captain, has said about her early days in the game. "Playing with boys you have split seconds; girls have a little more time. I was far ahead because of playing with boys."
In recent years, a burgeoning number of women have had an impact in men's club cricket. In 2011, Arran Brindle scored the first century by a woman in a men's Premier League match. Since then Sarah Taylor became the first woman to play in first-grade cricket in Australia, and the England fast bowler Kate Cross took 8 for 47 in the Lancashire League.
Since professionalism, improvements have been greater in batting than bowling. England women hit 46 sixes in 2016, more than in the previous five years combined
Cricket's transatlantic cousin provides an intriguing glimpse of what could be possible. In 1997, Ila Borders became the first female in men's professional baseball league since the 1950s, and played in the minor league for four years. Borders was a control pitcher - a player who defeated batters with stealth rather than speed, a little like a spin bowler. Similarly, Jennie Finch, a leading pitcher in softball, has repeatedly flummoxed baseball hitters with her pitches, which have different cues to those of most male pitchers. "Physically, sure, a woman could pitch in the major leagues," Dr Steve Jordan, an orthopaedic surgeon who treats baseball players, recently told the New York Times. Last year the Sonoma Stompers, a minor league professional baseball team, signed three female players.
In cricket, says Robinson, "there could easily be a woman spinner in a T20 game not making it bounce and absolutely torturing men - I could definitely see that". Batsmen's ability to react is not just based on a ball's speed or trajectory but also on visual clues. As such, a spin bowler could, like Finch in baseball, use their unorthodoxy - an unusually low trajectory, perhaps, and an idiosyncratic action - to succeed against men.
"A female spin bowler could get the necessary speed, and height wouldn't be critical," Olds reflects. "On the other hand, women would also have to bat and field." The "throwing gap" at the top level of sport is the largest difference for any activity between the genders, meaning that it would be challenging for any female fielder to throw with the velocity and distance of men. A woman fielder, then, would most likely have to become a specialist in the 30-yard circle. Batting against express pace, even if only in the lower order, "probably would be dangerous", says Olds.
The example of Ila Borders in baseball may hold lessons for female cricketers
© Getty Images
The example of Ila Borders in baseball may hold lessons for female cricketers © Getty Images
David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, believes that women facing fast bowling would be no more dangerous than men doing so, and that with training, women could make contact as regularly as men. Indeed, in softball, women batters typically have less time to react than batters in baseball (who receive 100mph pitches), because the pitching distances are shorter.
Epstein is convinced that, like in baseball, a female cricketer in the men's game is eminently possible. Yet his observation in The Sports Gene - "It is now clear that the genetic advantage of men over women in most sports is so profound that the best solution is to separate them" - will remain true for cricket.
Neither Marsh nor Farrant believe that a woman will ever play in the professional men's game, a view shared by Coyle. For all the ongoing improvements in women's cricket, men's cricket is also evolving rapidly. The women's world record for the butterfly swimming stroke is faster than the men's record 50 years ago but the current men's record is now five seconds - 10% - faster still.
Moreover, as Marjorie Pollard, one of the founders of the Women's Cricket Association in 1926, wrote: "We do not wish to follow, we wish to go our own way - run our own Association, play our own cricket in our own way."
The danger of aspiring to play with men is, it risks reinforcing the notion that the men's game is the pinnacle, even though the women's game is a distinct entity in its own right
Consider tennis, which has perhaps come further than any other major sport in establishing gender parity. The men's and women's versions of the sport have fundamentally different characters. The women's game is marked by more breaks of serve, stronger returning, with more return winners, and more winners from the baseline than the men's game, as the New York Times noted.
"If women's cricket keeps improving and gets to a really good standard, I don't see why they would need to play professional men's cricket," Farrant says. "It's like men's and women's tennis - no one really compares them with each other, they are different sports, the same as men's and women's cricket." The danger of aspiring to play with men is, it risks reinforcing the notion that the men's game is the pinnacle, even though the women's game is a distinct entity in its own right.
Meanwhile at Loughborough, as the first batch of the squad pound the floor of the indoor school, one player stands out: Farrant, who runs on and on even after everyone else has been defeated. She finally pulls up after reaching a score of 19.1, classed as elite. Brandon, the science and medicine head, expects Farrant and her team-mates to get even better next year.
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Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts
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