Episode 89: Writer, broadcaster, cricketer Isabelle Westbury celebrates the upward trajectory of women’s cricket

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

After a playing career in the Netherlands, Middlesex and Somerset Isabelle Westbury has become one of Britain’s most acute writers and broadcasters on cricket, in combination with a professional legal career. She is the latest guest of Peter Oborne and Richard Heller in their cricket-themed podcast. In Peter’s unavoidable absence, Roger Alton shares the bowling in this edition.

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Isabelle celebrates the recent explosive growth in viewership of women’s sport in general recorded by the Women’s Sports Trust. The women’s cricket World Cup had made a powerful contribution to this, in spite of its location in New Zealand and the awkward timings of matches for viewers elsewhere. The rapid progress in participation, following and commercial backing for women’s sport, including cricket, was a remedy for gloom over enduring inequality. 1-4 minutes

The growing audiences would accelerate the vital recognition that women’s sporting events are part of sport itself, not a separate and inferior version of activities for men. She urged sportswriters to identify events as women’s or men’s rather than assuming that a genderless event must be a men’s one. That would help to dispel the perception created for global audiences by the continued overwhelming preponderance of coverage of men’s events. She welcomes the growing replacement of batsman with batter. 4-8 minutes

On the World Cup, Isabelle explains the unlucky exclusion of Thailand from the Finals after their pre-pandemic performances had given them real hope of qualifying. After the pandemic, the ICC had fallen back on an established ranking system based on one-day internationals, which strongly favoured the leading male cricket nations. The ICC had recognized belatedly that this system penalized countries like Thailand and Brazil, which had deliberately prioritized women’s cricket because it offers quicker international progress and returns on initial investment. It had promised to extend ODI status to more women’s teams. In her view, the example of Thailand showed the potential for women’s cricket to take off in non-Commonwealth countries, 8-12 minutes including the United States, although they seemed determined to build cricket from the top down by replicating the male Indian Premier League. 29-30 minutes

She suggests the factors that have made women’s cricket stronger in Australia and England than other countries, although the World Cup had produced many close finishes and other teams had excelled expectations. 18-22 minutes She deplores the short-termism which had continually delayed the formation of a women’s IPL, which would hugely increase participation and spectatorship in Indian cricket. 24-27 minutes She describes the Fair Break tournament in the UAE promoted by the private sector, where leading England players were performing as the Women’s Barmy Army. It had provided opportunities for women from “new” cricket countries and had demonstrated the potential for high returns on initial capital investment in women’s cricket. 23, 28 minutes

She suggests that cricket is the ideal vehicle for promoting gender equality through sport, given the lack of physical content, the ease of playing it in different types of clothing and the opportunity for children to play in the same teams until a late age. 13-14 minutes

She assesses guardedly the prospects for women’s and girls’ cricket in Afghanistan under the Taliban and is worried that they have been overlooked by the ICC amid global concern to preserve the “miracle” of Afghan men’s international cricket. 14-18 minutes

She analyses the implications of the appearance of women’s cricket in the forthcoming Commonwealth Games. If, as hoped, this led to its inclusion in the Olympic Games in Paris in 2024, it would showcase the potential for the women’s game to grow cricket in non-traditional locations. 29 minutes

She comments on the earnings of women cricketers, contrasting England, where there is a big gap between the top players on central contracts and all the rest, with Australia, which had introduced central contracts later but decided to spread investment and earnings more evenly in women’s cricket. Australia’s international team therefore had more depth of current talent. In England, it remained difficult for all but the top players to make a living from women’s cricket alone, even for those supposed to be “full-time professionals.” This was a deterrent against entry for young women with cricket talent, unless, as in former times, they could count on family support. The women’s Hundred had, if accidentally, helped to break down classism in women’s cricket, by making the game attractive to new urban and lower-income audiences.  It was a historic step to promote a new tournament equally for men and women. 30-38 minutes

She anticipates cricket catching up with rugby in ten years time with women as umpires in men’s Test matches. She sees no early prospect of mixed cricket teams, nor would she welcome them. Women cricketers sought equality with men, not uniformity. Women’s cricket has different qualities to men’s: women often produce better-fought Test matches than men and she would like to see more of them. 39-44 minutes

Isabelle shares highlights of her recent visit, her first, to Pakistan to cover the first Test against Australia in Rawalpindi. She strongly urges England women to tour the country. 51-54 minutes

Finally, Isabelle describes her own cricket career, shaped strongly by an expatriate childhood. She had turned to cricket in the Netherlands as a teenager when she could no longer play football in mixed teams and had qualified by residence to make a one-day international appearance with the Dutch. Notwithstanding her later professional career in England she modestly explains why she eventually followed her parents’ advice to write and talk about the game rather than play it. 45-50 minutes

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Peter Oborne, Richard Heller & Roger Alton

Roger Alton, guest host for this episode, was formerly editor of The Observer and The Independent, and is currently the Sports Columnist for The Spectator. 

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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