Choose to Challenge: Grassroots and umpiring

Drawing on the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day – Choose to Challenge – is exploring the strides made in the women’s game, and by women working in cricket, while also shining a light on the areas where work remains to be done.

Following a two-part examination of elite players (click here for part one and part two), an examination of coaching and pathways, delving into women’s role in cricket administration and a look at media and broadcast, here we shine a light on grassroots and umpiring.

Choose to Challenge: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6


What’s the current situation?

Each year, Cricket Australia releases the Australian Cricket Census, which focuses on registered participation in organised competitions.

Among the key findings from last year’s national census, which CA has been collecting for almost two decades, was an 11.4 per cent (year on year) increase to 76,400 female participation across club cricket, social and school competitions, indoor cricket and Woolworths Cricket Blast program – a number that has doubled over the past four years.

There was also a 25 per cent increase in girls taking part in Woolworths Cricket Blast (a program teaching basic cricket skills to children aged 5-10 of all abilities) and junior competitions across the nation are introducing a greater number of girls’ age-groups.

Over a four-year period, registered participation among women and girls grew 61 per cent from 47,831 to 76,413 Australia-wide.

The partnership with Commonwealth Bank through the Growing Cricket for Girls Fund, which committed $15 million to enabling grassroots female participation initiatives over the past three years, was critical to achieving that growth, said former CA head of female engagement, Sarah Styles.

‘Growing up, that was the only Baggy Green I wanted to wear’

“It wasn’t like we were starting from nowhere,” she told the Scoop podcast. “But where we were starting from close to nowhere was that it was near impossible – particularly if you didn’t live in metropolitan Melbourne or Sydney – to play in an all-girls team.

“Girls were either playing with women or playing with boys and just don’t have a choice with what they were doing.

“The (Growing Cricket for Girls Fund) completely reset over the next few years the opportunity girls had to go down to a cricket club and play with, and this was the important part, girls like them.

“It might mean another girl their age or when they’re older, with a skillset that matches theirs.

“Over the course of that fund, there was a 2000 per cent increase in the number of girls teams. When I think of the big change that needed to be driven (in Australian cricket), that was it.”

What are the challenges?

The expected flow-on in the immediate aftermath of the T20 World Cup was initially stalled by the coronavirus outbreak, which brought the cancellation of a range of competitions and programs that were planned for the weeks after 86,174 fans attended the Australia women’s team’s win in the final at the MCG.

That is Styles’ current fear; that after the resources poured into creating teams, improving infrastructure and providing equipment, the pandemic will have ripped the momentum away.

“We’ve (created) the supply and but out of last year, the biggest hit from COVID – when I think about the momentum around the women’s game – is that hope the girls inspired by that tournament would then go to their local cricket club (and start playing).

“We’ve got to hope when things are a bit more normal, that energy and passion is still there.”

As it stands, there has been a 10 per cent increase on number of girls in the Cricket Blast compared to this time last year, while the number of junior girls has also grown. However it remains to be seen how the ongoing impact of COVID and restrictions will affect numbers by the end of the next census.

There are good signs among other age groups, too, and across different levels of ability and competition; last month, a Sixers Social Women’s Cricket ‘come and try’ night hosted by Northern District CC resulted in 100 women signing up to play this season.

“We’ve got women who have never played cricket before prior to four or five weeks ago,” Cricket NSW North Shore cricket manager Daniel Anderson said.

“There’s a lot of women who have kids who play, and they’ve been managers and scorers and spectators for a long time and now they get to have a go on the other side of the fence.

“(It comes down to) a range of things, it’s a change in attitudes that women can play the game and are encouraged to.

“That comes from the World Cup and the WBBL, and the exposure on TV and marketing from CA.

“In the past there haven’t been many opportunities but there’s always been people who wanted to play … now there are opportunities.”

Last year, CA launched its new female participation strategy – titled The Next Innings: Accelerating Female Participation – which aims to build on the momentum, with continued support from the Commonwealth Bank who also share this commitment to grow the women’s game.

The Next Innings outlines the unique challenges of expanding participation among women and girls over the next four years, as well as the work being done to support the clubs who are nurturing the current and future generations of players, coaches, officials and administrators.

While developing the strategy, researchers spent 12 months assessing the barriers between women and sport. Finding grassroots cricket remained largely a male domain, the strategy has developed four ways to break down those barriers and work towards gender equity in cricket, including increasing the number of female role models (including coaches) and ensuring facilities are female friendly.

One major initiative is identifying and supporting ‘Leading Clubs’, who are already setting the standard in female participation, and providing a pool of funding so they can work with CA to accelerate growth across all areas of the game – not only players, but coaches and volunteers.

At the time of the strategy’s release, former CA EGM of Community Cricket Belinda Clark said: “It was important for us in this next phase of strategy to understand the barriers to female participation.

“Female role models that are close to home matter, so with ongoing participation growth, we need to see the number of women coaches, volunteers and administrators also grow.”


What’s the current situation?

When people think of women in umpiring, it is likely Claire Polosak will spring to mind. The Sydneysider made history earlier this year when she added yet another ‘first’ to an already impressive resume, becoming the first woman to officiate a men’s Test match when she was named fourth umpire for the third Test at the SCG.

For the former science teacher turned globe-trotting match official, it was the latest achievement of a journey that started with an unlikely introduction to umpiring as a 15-year-old in the NSW town of Goulburn.

In 2017, she became the first woman to stand as an on-field umpire in a men’s domestic fixture in Australia, and in 2019 became the first woman to stand in a men’s ODI.

Last November, she and Eloise Sheridan were the on-field umpires for the final of the Rebel WBBL – the first time two women have officiated a national final.

Between those achievements, Polosak also became a regular face at ICC tournaments, standing as an on-field umpire at the 2018 and 2020 Women’s T20 World Cups.

However, Polosak was not the first female trailblazer in the field of officiating.

From 1977 until the mid-1980s, Nelma Grout – daughter of the late former Australia wicketkeeper Wally Grout – umpired Men’s First Grade and is likely to have been the first female in Australia to do so.

Grout also officiated the Under-19 Schoolboy Nationals at Adelaide Oval in 1980, becoming the first woman to umpire a match at Adelaide Oval in the process.

Currently, there are no women on Cricket Australia’s 10-person 2020-21 National Umpire Panel, and Polosak is the sole woman on the supplementary panel.

However, there is an increasing number of female officials across Australia, including five women who are contracted with Cricket Australia: Polosak, Sheridan, Mary Waldron, Lisa McCabe and Ashlee Gibbons.

Where can it improve?

The face of umpiring in cricket is slowly changing, and Polosak is playing a key role in that as an umpire education and female umpire engagement officer with Cricket New South Wales.

Overall, CA’s The Next Innings: Accelerating Female Participation strategy aims to increase female participation in all areas of the game, including umpiring.

When describing what skills and characteristics make an international-standard match official, Polosak (unnecessarily) apologises for her enthusiasm – “I’m sorry, I just get so excited talking about umpiring,” she says – but it is difficult not to get swept up by her passion for her job.

“So much of umpire is match management and communication, so building relationships is really important,” she said.

“Being a good communicator is definitely (important) because you can make a fantastic decision, an absolutely great decision and then ruin it with a poor explanation.

“So you need to be able to communicate.

“Dealing with the players and when there’s some tense situation, that match management becomes really important.

“Being calm and composed under pressure is also really important …  those sorts of skills are transferable to other aspects of life as well.”

Those transferable skills are something Polosak likes to remind aspiring young umpires of when they consider a career in officiating.

Our Choose to Challenge series continues tomorrow as we take a deep dive into the global game.

Choose to Challenge: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

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