Although a touch disappointed not to see the England Women’s Cricket Team win the BBC Sports Personality Team of the Year award over the weekend, the fact that they were nominated and discussed in equal measure with the men illustrates quite how far the sport has evolved in a short space of time.
When I met several of the players back in October (to write about their award for the soon to be defunct Observer Sport Magazine), I was impressed by their work ethic and togetherness. Of all women’s sport, cricket is one in which the men’s game is less mimicked and more adapted – with greater focus on technique, timing and teamwork than power and pace (the number one bowler in the world is a spinner).
2009 has seen women’s team sport thrive in England. At the European Championships the football team reached their first major final – not bad for a team who had failed to qualify for two of the last three world cups. Although the club game threatens to self-combust as an increasing number of players head off to the States, this year was the first time women were offered central contracts, no doubt learning from a similar decision taken in cricket a few years ago.
Next year will see the women’s rugby World Cup in England, and here too recent months have seen some English success. Victory in November over the New Zealand Black Ferns was the first since 2001, and culminated in a drawn two-match international series. Having lost the 2006 World Cup final to the Kiwis there is a realistic chance that, on home soil, England’s women will go one step further.
On the hockey pitch, the women qualified for the annual Champions Trophy for the first time in six years, and have now firmly established themselves back at the top tier of the sport, their sixth place equalling their performance of the 2008 Olympics. Next year also sees the Champions Trophy held in England for the first time since it launched twenty years ago, and the home nation will be pushing for a semi final berth in the inexorable build up to 2012.
The success of England’s women is important for a society in which one in ten girls currently aged between two and ten are expected to be obese within six years. With children from poorer families likely to be affected even more, accessible, enjoyable sport and exercise needs to be a key part of children’s lives. Success leads to participation, and although the fact that our women’s teams are now ranked above the men in each of these four sports (8,1,2,6 compared to 9,5,6,7 in football, cricket, rugby, hockey) may partly result from the lesser competition throughout the world in the women’s games, it can only be beneficial to develop and promote role models who children want to emulate.
I have a bugbear – of course. Media coverage may be on the increase, but it is rare to hear anything about women’s sport without a few seconds of Ernie K Doe’s ‘Here Come the Girls’ blaring out (or, god forbid, The Sugababes version). True to form, the cricket team were accompanied by the track on BBC1 on Sunday night as they made their way to the stage at the vast Sheffield Arena.
These people are professional athletes. Continually describing them as girls is patronising and does little to challenge the remaining misogynistic attitudes towards their participation in sport. For once, however, it’s not the media who are the worst culprits, it’s the players themselves. The cricket team insist on talking about each other as if they’re a bunch of sixth-formers.
It’s time to leave Ernie Doe’s catchy number to ads for cosmetics. Here come the women.