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Perfect Storm building for the women’s game

Jeremy Blackmore looks ahead to the second season of the Kia Women’s Super League

Western Storm are planning early revenge on reigning Kia Super League champions Southern Vipers as they seek to make up for Finals Day heartbreak in last year’s inaugural tournament.

The sides meet on the opening day this year in a rematch of the 2016 final which the Vipers, led by former England captain Charlotte Edwards, won by seven wickets.

Lisa Pagett, general manager of a Storm side led by current England captain Heather Knight, said: “In a five-game competition you have to start well, so we will be looking to hit the ground running and an early win over the Vipers would definitely set the competition up for us, particularly as we lost to them in the final last year.

“We want to put the pressure on the others from the word go.”

The August 10 rematch between Vipers and Storm will precede Hampshire’s T20 Blast encounter against Glamorgan at the Ageas Bowl.

It is just one of six domestic “double-headers” between the two tournaments, which will all be televised live on Sky Sports, with commentary also available on BBC Radio.

It comes as part of a summer of unprecedented exposure for the women’s game with the World Cup in England in June and July.

Pagett agrees that the television coverage of the Super League is a sign of how far the women’s game has come. “There’s now the interest that people want to see this kind of cricket and it’s really getting the recognition and respect that it deserves in its own right.

“It will make a huge difference to people’s understanding of the cricket out there. Those who hadn’t seen women’s cricket before were blown away by the standards, so obviously the more people can see that, the more young girls will be inspired to play.”

Reflecting on the inaugural season for her Taunton-based outfit, Pagett said the players took a lot of pride at achieving so much in 2016: “Our goal at the start of the season, as an absolute minimum, was to make Finals Day and to get as close as we did and not get over the line was disappointing.

“But what we managed to pull together in a really short space of time from the creation of Western Storm almost from nothing, to getting to this point of this well-gelled, really high-performing team was, looking back, an incredible achievement.

“It was a really enjoyable period of time and we’re looking forward now with excitement to what could be achieved this year.”

For a new competition and format, the Super League was well received in its first year, with more than 15,000 fans watching the 15 group stage matches.

Pagett said: “It was really pioneering, a completely different model to anything in this country, creating this new competition that sat outside the existing mould.

“It was a hugely exciting innovation in the women’s game, but extremely necessary as well, so it was a really good first year for it all.

“I guess there was a little bit of trepidation before the competition started because it was new, it was an untrodden path, we weren’t quite sure of the support there would be, the coverage and all those sorts of things.

“But we had a minimum of a thousand in for home games, going up to 1,800 on our biggest supported games, so to get that for a women’s domestic game of cricket was quite incredible. It was a huge step forward, so we were really blown away by the interest and the support and the following we got, so we’re looking to build on that for this season.”

This year will follow the same format, with the six teams taking part in a round-robin competition over a 17-day period and across 13 different venues from August 10-26. The competition will again climax in a showcase Finals Day involving the top three teams on September 1 at the 1st Central County Ground in Hove.

As well as targeting silverware in the Super League, Western Storm are planning to capitalise on opportunities offered by a home World Cup to inspire more women and girls to play the game.

“We’ve certainly got a really good summer lined up,” explained Pagett. “We’re looking to do lots of girls’ camps with various different counties, with the players, trying to connect young girls who might want to play the game to the Super League.

“We’ll be trying to join all elements up together to make it an inspiration for girls who might want to play.

“With the Women’s World Cup obviously, there’s so many games in the South-west this year as well, so we really have got an unprecedented opportunity to have so much top-level women’s cricket in the forefront of people’s minds with people being able to see it live. So there’s real big expectations and hopes of what can come from this summer in terms of inspiring more girls to play the game.”

Developing new talent is a priority for Western Storm, who this winter selected a development squad of 14 young players from across Wales and the South-west to help them reach their potential.

After a period of winter training the youngsters will face some experienced opposition this summer as they take part in friendly fixtures against some of the women’s county sides.

“The development squad really is a true reflection of the talent in the South-west,” said Pagett. “We’re looking to play some friendly fixtures to put the girls under a bit of pressure and see them in the middle, but also to see if there’s any other talent out there in the counties that we’ve perhaps not seen that we’d like to know about.

“The girls are progressing really nicely and it’s great for them that there’s another step in the pathway, a bit of extra support that wasn’t there before.”

As well as her role at Western Storm, Pagett has a key role at the Gloucestershire Cricket Board where she is responsible for the development of the women and girls’ game in the county.

She detects a growing interest in the women’s game: “It’s twofold really. Lots and lots of cricket clubs now want to start girls’ cricket, which is great, because sometimes girls want to play, but they don’t know where. So the fact that cricket clubs are obviously seeing girls’ cricket as a normal thing now and looking to provide it as part of their offer is a real helpful development.

“We’re also finding with schools that a lot of them are wanting to transition to do girls’ cricket as their curriculum sport in the summer rather than rounders. So again that’s a big step-change in terms of girls being exposed to cricket in a school environment and therefore playing the game.

“So, throw that in with the higher profile of the England women’s team and all the stuff that’s going to be going on with the World Cup, it’s hopefully going to be a bit of a perfect storm of lots of different factors that means girls will be playing a lot more cricket.

“But they’ll also be inspired by these opportunities that are going on nearby and hopefully that translates into more clubs, more girls’ sections and more girls playing regular cricket. That’s the plan certainly.

“And Heather leading the girls to the World Cup Final at Lord’s would be the cherry on the top of the cake.”

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, February 24 2017

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