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Cricket - 05. March 2008.

Jack Birkenshaw keen supporter for the women’s game

Jack Birkenshaw, former England player and currently assistant coach to the England Women’s cricket team on their tour down under has affirmed his support for women’s cricket.

photo Don Miles

“Women’s cricket is here to stay and it’s going to get bigger and better than ever,” were his words as he sat and watched England overcome New Zealand by nine wickets to level the series 1-1 at Lincoln University.

Birkenshaw joined the squad in Bowral as England retained the Ashes with a win over Australia in the sole Test match of the series.

“It was a magnificent win for England to beat Australia on their own turf. England were a very strong team and beat Australia convincingly and it was great cricket to watch. Both sides have some fantastic cricketers who performed well throughout the four days.

“Lisa Sthalekar, the Australian all-rounder, is a fantastic player. She has a variety of shots and is very natural on a cricket pitch. Their youngster, Elysse Perry, who is only 17, is very athletic and could prove a threat in years to come. In terms of the English players Isa (Guha) is very energetic on the field. She has a beautiful action as she swings the ball away. Despite her size, she’s very effective, especially as a Test match cricketer.

“Lottie is also one of our key players. She has an inner toughness that really comes out on the cricket pitch. She has a good all-round selection of shots and hits the ball very sweetly, timing it well. She has no fear and improvises against the spinners and most importantly she loves batting and does it so well.

“Claire Taylor is a definite Geoffrey Boycott-type. She prepares well and has a strong belief in herself and knows her limitations. Sarah Taylor, the wicket-keeper, is also a fantastic player as is Katherine Brunt who is looking good in her comeback trail.

“The youngsters in the side are doing well in practice, but need to put in the big performances in the matches. They need the confidence to believe in themselves, but as ambassadors for the game they are all terrific.”

Birkenshaw’s impression of the women’s game has been transformed by the current England team since his introduction to the sport in 1956.

“I used to bowl against Yorkshire women at the indoor cricket school. Back then it was a very gentle game and I carried on watching for years and didn’t really change my opinion. Then I was introduced to this team at Loughborough when I was asked to work with the spinners and I saw a different type of cricketer. I saw a positive type of cricketer with flair and energy and passion for the game, with an aggressive way of batting.

“Since joining full time and watching England and Australia, it has confirmed my opinion that cricket is a good sport for ladies. They still have the skill factor and the women are continually getting stronger. It’s a strong attacking game with a high standard of fielding. “Power-hitting is definitely coming into the women’s game, particularly here in New Zealand where their players are hitting the ball as far as the men.”

Birkenshaw has a clear idea of how to improve the game to ensure its progression is professional and successful.

“The women need to play more Test cricket. They need a longer style of game than the fifty-over matches they currently play in order to develop their game and learn how to play. In England we need to develop more lower-order cricketers. I have seen here in New Zealand that their lower-order batters are players who can hit the ball serious distances and we need to replicate that at home.

“More high-profile cricket is required as are more overseas tours, so the players learn in different climates and on different types of wickets. I also believe the women need to play on better pitches and in better grounds in England. They need to be playing on better grounds than the men in order to hit bigger scores.

“In my opinion the money should be there and made available for that development. The crowds for the Ashes Test at The Bradman Oval were great – in excess of 1500 every day – and everybody there loved the way the women played the game, how they committed themselves and the skills they displayed over the course of the four days.

“The women’s game needs more media exposure, ideally on terrestrial TV so the game is exposed to more people. Our players need to be going into clubs and schools and encouraging more youngsters to take up the game, so that cricket becomes the norm.”

Although relatively new in his role as assistant coach to the national women’s team, Birkenshaw is really happy in the job and would like to see some of his future spent working with the women.

“I’m really enjoying it,” he continued. “It would be nice to have some involvement in the months and maybe years to come, but I understand if they want someone younger. These players definitely need some consistency in their coaching staff. Mark Lane, who is acting head coach at the moment, is very good. The ECB need look no further than him for the head coach role. He is very passionate about what he does and loves the sport. He has an excellent way with the girls and there is a mutual respect between them. He communicates well with them and vice-versa and that is a key skill in this environment.

“It would be my wish that a future England women’s head coach wants to come in long-term and develop the game and not use it as a stepping stone into the men’s game or into cricket.

“The players are great to work with. They respond well to what you tell them and in many ways they are very reliant on you as a coach; much more so than the men. They like to be told exactly what you want them to do in match situations as well as in practice. As coaches we need to make them stronger so that they can read situations and back themselves to perform.”

He is aware that it won’t be an easy role to undertake and will come with fresh challenges, many of which he feels he has already identified.

“We need more girls playing the sport,” he reiterated, “so that we can have a squad of decent players to select from. We also need to find a squad of players who can win the ICC Women’s World Cup for us in Australia next year. The players need a lot of coaching, encouragement and strength work to make them capable of that achievement and that’s what a coach needs to do.

“We need tough, young cricketers who are prepared to give it their all in order to become the best player they can be. At the moment we probably only have six definite players for the World Cup and the others are all playing for their place. The World Cup is one of the toughest competitions there is and it will be made that little bit harder being in Australia. We need to improve in all disciplines and departments and in order to do that we need dedication and commitment from the players alongside continued support from the ECB and other organisations.”

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