A record number of women and girls are playing cricket in Northamptonshire with a huge growth in participation over the last five years.

While rain curtailed England Women’s visit to Wantage Road this week the good news around the growth of the women’s game in the region continues unabated.

Northamptonshire County Cricket Club has been central to that progress with a focus to work with local clubs to ensure there are facilities, matches and training to match the needs of young girls inspired by the England Women’s team and local professional side Sunrisers.

It’s prompted a major culture shift locally to make the game as inclusive as possible.

The increase in the last year alone is striking:

  • 346 women’s and girls’ games were played in Northamptonshire by the end of July 2023 – up from 104 in the whole of 2022
  • 19 women’s and girls’ clubs in Northamptonshire – up six on last year
  • 38 women’s and girls’ teams in Northamptonshire – up five on last year
  • 535 girls taking part in the ECB’s national All Stars and Dynamos programmes – up from 489 in 2022

The All Stars and Dynamos programmes have played a key role in getting young girls interested in cricket. That burgeoning interest has fed into the creation of a new county-wide Under 11s girls’ softball league this year which arose out of outreach work done by the county’s new full-time women and girls’ development manager Liam Sayles who has liaised closely with local clubs.

Northamptonshire’s Senior Clubs and Community Manager, Patricia Hankins, explained more: “The softball league is a stepping stone for players coming out of All Stars and Dynamos. Before they play with a hardball, is there somewhere they can learn the game, where it’s fun and really participation led.

“The girls have loved it, being able to play with the girls from their clubs and having something to look forward to. It’s a really fun environment and they all see each other every other week. From having no Under 11 girls’ teams last year to having 11 teams competing this year is fantastic.”

The league has a festival flavour with local clubs taking it in turn to host, with five games taking place at once.

It provides valuable additional income for local clubs, with barbecues and music adding to the fun, rather than focusing purely on competition. It’s something the girls asked for, rather than turning up to play one game and then going home.

All 11 teams recently celebrated the new league with a special showcase event at The County Ground in Northampton, getting the chance to play on the same outfield as England Women.

Meanwhile, a new Under 13s league is providing competition for girls who want to play hardball cricket with their peers rather than with boys in mixed teams.

Clubs have risen to the challenge to ensure they have the facilities, says Hankins. “There’s definitely been a culture shift in the majority of clubs in Northamptonshire, to make everything as inclusive as possible. They want to create a welcoming environment for everybody.

“So, they’re thinking about ways to make women and girls feel comfortable playing cricket, whether that’s providing them with an area to get changed or putting showers in.

“It’s the same at a lower level; they want to make sure they can offer training, if they can, just for girls, because that’s what some girls want.”

Sunrisers have lent their support to the initiative too, with Jo Gardner, Jodi Grewcock and Flo Miller, the professionals that have come through the Northamptonshire pathway, acting as ambassadors.

Hankins, who has played for Northamptonshire Women since 2003, says Sunrisers are crucial in inspiring young cricketers.

“Before the Sunrisers, girls only had the England players to look up to. Because as much as the counties have players, there was no real publicity around them,” Hankins said.

“Whereas now, rather than just having the England contracted players, you’ve got eight regions with professionals and an academy underneath.”

“Girls can see a real pathway if they want to go down that line. It’s definitely given them more to aspire to, and more opportunity to see where they could go in the sport.”

The increase in participation ultimately broadens the potential talent pool for Sunrisers with more girls coming into the Northamptonshire pathway.

“We’re going to have more people we can put through if they’re at that level,” says Hankins. “It’s a fantastic achievement for quite a small county for Northamptonshire to have four professional cricketers, the three girls at the Sunrisers and Josie Groves at The Blaze.

“But also, we’ve got girls in the academies and the Emerging Players’ Programmes, so we can showcase what the Northamptonshire pathways can provide the girls with. A few years ago, a lot of girls would move on to bigger, more established counties to try to play for England. Whereas now, they can be a regional player and be a professional athlete.”

It’s an opportunity Hankins would have loved to have had at a young age.

“I would have absolutely loved to have been able to play cricket for a living and to have as many opportunities as the players get now.”

“I knew the game would grow, but I didn’t think it would be at the level it is now.”

“It’s amazing the opportunities a nine-year-old can see in front of them. Whereas me starting to play, my aspiration was to pay for Northants Women, which is still a great achievement and something I’m proud to still being able to do now. However, now, that’s this first step. Then they can go into the Sunrisers.

“It’s only going to carry on growing. We just need to promote it as much as possible, so girls can see more and more what they can achieve.”

Northamptonshire are also focusing on the volunteer side of the game to provide role models for future umpires and scorers. The county launched the Young Leaders programme for players, scorers, umpires and volunteers in 2021 and many of those girls are helping to officiate in the new Under 11s softball league. The Sunrisers professionals have helped support those young leaders, taking Q&A sessions and talking about their own journeys through cricket.

Future plans include an Under 15s league as well as foundation coach and umpiring courses for women and girls. Northamptonshire are working with the clubs to gauge numbers and to see what steps they may need to take to remove any barriers.