THOUSANDS of young boys and girls in Somerset grow up dreaming of playing cricket for their county.

Those who have fulfilled that ambition on the women’s side, however, have found themselves out of pocket in doing so - and from next year they may not even have a county team to play for.

The frustrations felt by those playing in the Somerset county women’s team were brought to light by Cassie Coombes in a recent social media post.

Coombes, who began her cricketing journey at Bridgwater CC and made her senior county debut aged 14, received an overwhelming response as female cricketers from across the country shared their grievances with the current system.

“When you are a youngster you are not so aware, you just feel privileged to be playing,” Coombes told the County Gazette.

“But as I got older I just saw the same things happening, year after year.”

These issues, outlined by Coombes and backed up by teammates Emma Godman and Lorraine Szczepanski include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Kit limited to one playing shirt and one pair of trousers.

“That is a nightmare for double headers on a bank holiday, when we could be doing long journeys between days,” Godman said.

“Often it is a case of finding someone who lives nearby to wash kit or even using a bathtub in the hotel to wash your shirt.

“Last year we were in Division 1 of the County Championship and we were still washing our own kit.”

  • Late arrival of said kit.

Coombes said: “Last season our shirts didn’t arrive until our fourth one-day match. We only play seven. That sort of thing just wouldn’t happen in the men’s team.”

A couple of years ago was even worse, as Godman explained: “Our trousers arrived late, so we had to play in old pairs of men’s trousers, which were way too big, for the majority of the season.”

  • Reduced travel expenses, halved from 30p to 15p a mile. These expenses have also been alleged to take months to arrive.
  • Lack of coverage - Somerset’s women do not have shared media days or presentation nights.

Szczepanski’s mother is the team’s scorer and her father often drives the minibus to away games.

“My parents volunteer a lot and the whole system relies on people like that,” she said.

“It wouldn’t be hard to invite us to a presentation night and show thanks for that – a lot of people give up a lot of time and are not thanked.”

Coombes said: “Much of it is not even financial, but an attitude thing.

“A couple of years ago we played at Taunton Vale against Kent, who had four or five England players.

“There was a boys’ training game on the main pitch so we were moved to the second pitch.”

Moments like that, said Godman, “give the impression that men and women are completely separate. You don’t realise how bad it sounds as you are so used to it.”

“The main thing for me is it just feels a bit token,” Coombes added.

“It feels like a bit of a box ticking exercise to say ‘yes, we run a women’s team’.”

Szczepanski summarises the general feeling: “We are the Somerset county women’s team, so why is it so different from the men?”

The primary reason is down to who runs the respective teams.

The Somerset women’s team is run by Somerset Cricket Board, not Somerset County Cricket Club – not an unfamiliar arrangement around the country.

Burnham and Highbridge Weekly News:

SQUAD: Somerset’s women’s team, including Cassie Coombes (back row, second from left), Lorraine Szczepanski (front, left) and Emma Godman (front, second from left) pictured in the 2018 season

The SCB’s remit covers schools, clubs, disability cricket and age-group county cricket in addition to the women’s team, and their annual funding from the ECB to run the latter (£3,500-4,000) has not increased during executive director Andy Fairbairn’s seven-year tenure.

Fairbairn said: “We are very proud of our women’s team and could invest significantly more – but what gives? Do we spend less on developing girls teams for the future, less on disability cricket, on schools cricket?

“There was real progress being made with our women’s team to develop their experience of playing for the county and trying to make it as special as it should be.

“We had at least one game on the County Ground a year and there were other things talked about behind the scenes.”

This progress was stalled by the formation of the Kia Super League in 2016.

Somerset CCC joined forces with Gloucestershire CCC and the University of Exeter to create Western Storm, a team based in the Westcountry who would compete in the new T20 competition, which they won in 2017.

“Western Storm has been absolutely brilliant and I don’t think anyone would deny that,” Fairbairn said.

“They are fantastic, accessible role models and have had a massive impact on women’s cricket in this area.

“However, effectively they became the local elite team. That used to be Somerset women.

“All the progress Somerset’s women were making would have continued but as soon as Western Storm became involved, they took that place.

“Western Storm would now be the comparable women’s team to Somerset’s men.”

In addition, for all the positives of Western Storm (and there are plenty), it created a ‘squeezed middle’ of female players who are too good for women’s club cricket but do not have a foot in the franchise door. The consequences are inevitable.

“From the team I started with at Under-11s, there is only one other player who I have played all the way through with and still plays,” Godman said.

“I must have played with 30 or 40 girls growing up in the county set-up. A lot are now not even playing any cricket at all.”

Sophie Luff captains Somerset’s women, plays for Western Storm and is the SCB’s women and girls’ performance head coach.

Upon taking the latter role in 2018, she pushed for more organisation and professionalism within the women’s county team.

“We were trying to get people who are passionate about women’s cricket together to see how we can move the game forward in Somerset,” Luff said.

Productive discussions were held with the county cricket club and plans were forged for a management committee, improved sponsorship and plenty more besides.

Then came the bombshell.

“We attended an ECB meeting where we were told there was to be no women’s county cricket from 2020,” Luff said.

“All our development plans were then put on hold.”

Burnham and Highbridge Weekly News:

LEADER: Sophie Luff

The ECB are reportedly planning an eight or 10-team ‘elite’ division playing 50-over cricket, with no county cricket beneath that - potentially meaning the end of the Somerset women’s team, who have played in the County Championship since 2000.

The ECB declined to comment on the proposed changes while negotiations with counties are ongoing but their ‘Inspiring Generations’ strategy states: “Women and girls represent the biggest growth opportunity for cricket.

“Our vision is to make cricket a game that is truly gender-neutral.

“We will invest at least £20m into transforming women’s and girls’ cricket by the end of 2021, with an ambition to invest £50m during this strategic period.”

For all the promise of jam tomorrow, little is set to change for Somerset’s county women’s players this summer.

“We are not expecting to earn money out of it, we just want to break even,” Coombes said.

“We we are proud to play for our county but we shouldn’t be losing out financially for doing so.

“Women’s sport is growing, women’s cricket is growing - we want to try and build on that.”

“I love playing for my county,” Szczepanski added.

“I have had opportunities to play elsewhere but why would I want to leave Somerset?

“I don’t want to give it up but it is very apparent to me that the situation should be better.”

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