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‘Get this one right’ – English women’s cricket gears up for Tier One era

Emily Windsor of Southern Vipers hits out watched by Sarah Bryce during the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy Final 2023
by Katya Witney 7 minute read

Women’s domestic cricket will undergo a radical shake-up in England after the 2024 season. Sixteen of the first-class counties have pitched to the ECB over the last week in a bid to lead the game into a new era.

This restructuring is the third time in eight years that the ECB has changed the format of women’s domestic cricket in England. The first of these established the Kia Super League (KSL) in 2016, where six semi-professional teams were formed to theoretically bridge the gap between international level and the women’s County Championship. Now, women’s cricketers would be paid to play domestically in England.

After four years of qualified success, the KSL was set aside in favour of the Hundred, but when that was delayed by Covid in 2020, into the breach came the current system of eight regional teams, representing vast swathes of England and Wales, with the cream of domestic talent now contracted professionally.

However, from 2025 onwards, those sides will be scrapped, and individual counties will take full control of a three tiered domestic system. Eight Tier One teams will be under the umbrella of a first-class county, with the rest of the teams consisting of a mix of amateur or semi-professional Tier Two and Three teams. The ECB will invest £1.3 million per year into each of the Tier One sides until 2028.

The change comes partly in response to the ICEC report, which highlighted the continuing disparity between men’s and women’s domestic cricket, and recommended a fundamental overhaul of the women’s domestic pay structure. While the regional system has fostered the introduction of professionalism at a domestic level and accelerated standards, significant cracks have started to appear under the strain of increased growth.


One of the issues which has emerged is the size of the regions each side represents. Drawing talent and making sure resources are equally available across large areas is challenging. Western Storm, for example, represent Cornwall, Devon, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Wiltshire and Wales, while Northern Diamonds cater to players from Chesterfield to Northumberland, with over 150 miles in between. Pathway players who train at the regional hubs often travel significant distances to do so, and those who reach the top level face lengthy commutes or relocation.

“The regional plan has worked brilliantly in terms of getting us up and running, providing an identity, building a fan base, providing high-quality cricket, competitive cricket, and producing England players,” says Georgia Adams, captain of Southern Vipers. “But the regions are still large. Now we’re on full time contracts – when it began we were only training twice a week – the expectation on us is high. If you’re going to demand players train four or five times a week, then you need a base and more financial support.

“At the moment, it’s not really clear where that financial support should come from. It’s spread across so many different counties within the regional setup, and I think what they’re finding is that some counties are supporting regional teams more than others. But there’s still this expectation on regions that you’ve got to tick boxes and play games in different parts of the region, so we end up on the move quite a lot, all for tick boxes, not necessarily for what’s right.”

The size of the regions mean women’s professional domestic cricket is thinly spread over England and Wales, and the effect it’s had on counties who don’t act as a hub to one of the sides is undeniable. Left to fit in as a go-between pathway from talent scouts to regional academies, growing women’s participation in their own right has been tricky. While there are some ECB-organised competitions, counties also have to organise their own tournaments separately.

“It’s definitely had a demotivational effect on the pathway,” says Sam Kiddy, board director at Northants. “Because it’s not always been clear where you can go as a county age-group player… We’ve made it work, but it’s been tricky, no doubt about that, and the links [with the regional sides] weren’t that great to start with. Over the last couple of years, the teams have worked together a lot more closely across all the counties so we’ve felt more a part of it. We felt like we were making really good progress, and I just hope the learnings that we’ve had with Sunrisers in that time can carry over into the new stage.”

As well as the difficulties in catering equally to large areas, the regions have also presented an identity issue. While sides have worked to establish their own brands as separate teams from host counties, players juggle their identities as professional regional athletes and county representatives.

“I grew up through the pathway at Sussex, and I’ll always be very proud to call myself a Sussex player,” says Adams. “Hampshire have been unbelievable in supporting us, but it’s been a strange concept fully throwing myself into Hampshire and Southampton, while all the time maintaining my stance that I am a Sussex player and I’ll always be a Sussex player and should any situation arise I would go back and play for Sussex.

“But I sit on the side that Sussex need to continue to be a big part of the pathways system because they still will play a big role in the whole women’s cricket picture even if they don’t get Tier One. They’ve had a lot of success in producing cricketers to go onto the next level. If they can nail that and Hampshire get Tier One and deal with the professional level of things, you’ve got a system that works really well.”

That identity issue has bled into the fanbase the regional sides have been able to establish. While now largely successful entities in their own right with growing groups of supporters, the disjointedness of not being a part of the county umbrella has created difficulties in expanding their followings further.

“There is still that slight disconnect because they’re not called Yorkshire,” says Jane Powell, president of Yorkshire CCC and former England captain. “Some of our staunch members don’t recognise that they’re a key part of the Yorkshire family because they carry the Northern Diamonds brand rather than the Yorkshire brand.”

While the ECB once again announced record attendance figures for the women’s Hundred in 2023, with over 300,000 people packing out stadiums across the summer, that increased following hasn’t filtered down into the regional fixtures. The Charlotte Edwards Cup final last year was played in front of a small crowd at New Road, despite international stars Tammy Beaumont, Danni Wyatt, Sarah Glenn, Charlie Dean, Sophie Ecclestone and Deandra Dottin all being in action.

Southern Vipers won that final, their first Trophy of a domestic double last year. The flip side of the coin as to the benefits of sides losing their identity is that one of the most successful domestic sports teams in England over the last four years will disappear. The Vipers have won one of the two titles on offer in every year of the regional system, lifting the Charlotte Edwards Cup twice and the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy three times. Despite the personnel staying the same, 2024 will mark the end of a dominant era.

There’s no confirmation as of yet whether the regional sides will all change their names and branding under the new system, but identity change is fundamental to the Tier One bids of several counties. The hope is that bringing teams under that county identity could give the women’s domestic game access to a wider audience.


Another crucial part of each Tier One plan will be where teams will play the majority of their home games. As Adams points out, a weakness of the regional structure was that it forced players to travel round large areas of the country to play, without a regular home ground.

“We need to be playing at a venue reasonably regularly,” says Adams. “I don’t really have an issue playing at outgrounds if they’re good enough. What you don’t want is us playing every game at a different ground because you lose that sense of home advantage. That would be no different to the situation we’re in now.”

Logistically, however, there are issues with any county adding several more games into the calendar for their main ground. With the ever-growing summer fixtures list and, in many cases, international games to facilitate, ground staff are already stretching their hosting capacity. In the past, it has been women’s sides that have carried that burden at the cost of optimum conditions, and facilities, as well as fan access. But that’s not an option if the new system is to be a success.

“We’re very privileged and lucky at the Vipers to be where we’re based because we’ve got some really high-standard facilities available to us when we don’t have the Utilita Bowl,” says Adams, whose Vipers side played at five different home grounds in 2023, as far apart as Wormsley in Buckinghamshire and Newclose CC on the Isle of Wight.

“But at times we’ve played at venues which are very much club grounds and it can make a difference in terms of equipment. If you’re at the Utilita Bowl and you’ve got a rain delay, you pretty much know you can stay there all day because if it stops then there’s a chance you’ll get on. Whereas at some outgrounds they don’t have the equipment to be able to accommodate that, which can impact games… You’re still guaranteed two or three games a year at a ground that isn’t suitable.”

The flipside is fan accessibility. While the standard of venues is important, it shouldn’t be missed that with requirements to play matches around the regions removed under the new system and still only eight Tier One teams, professional women’s domestic cricket will not be readily available for fans outside of the new host counties.

“Yorkshire’s bid is very much about them becoming part of the Yorkshire family,” says Powell. “They [Northern Diamonds] already get the same access our men do and they play some games at Scarborough which, after Headingley, is the next most iconic venue in the North of England. Some of the girls’ games will move to Scarborough as well because we want them to experience that. But they could also play some at York and potentially Sheffield as well.

“Yorkshire is a massive county. So whilst it’s fairly easy for some counties to base themselves at the county ground, Yorkshire is so massive that we want to try and develop a structure where any girl in Yorkshire can align with that women’s team. If you can’t see it then you can’t be it, and we want to make sure that girls get the opportunity to see a women’s team in as many places as we can.”

One of the areas that’s felt the geographical cracks in the regional system most keenly is in Wales. While Western Storm played just two of their fixtures at Sophia Gardens last year, being home to Welsh Fire has given an opportunity to expand Glamorgan’s women’s pathway. If they’re successful in their Tier One bid, for which they’re in competition with Gloucestershire and Somerset, Sophia Gardens would become the indisputable home of women’s domestic cricket in the West of England and Wales.

“We will play the majority of games at Sophia Gardens if successful,” says Aimee Rees, head of women’s and girl’s cricket at Glamorgan CCC. “We’ve already looked into that schedule. We’re keen to take women’s and men’s cricket around Wales a little bit more, and we often play games at Neath and Newport. But the majority of the games would be at Sophia Gardens shoulder to shoulder with the men’s teams. A lot of those T20 games would be double-header fixtures, and we would look to play as many games as we could here.”

“Western Storm is a really big region. We’ve got a really strong pathway and we want to make sure we’re giving girls in Wales the best opportunity to be professional cricketers… For us, Glamorgan is not just a county, it’s a country. To put all the work we’ve put into our pathway and into women’s and girl’s cricket in Wales over the last 20 years, this is the pinnacle of that work”


While the benefits of being based at an international standard ground are indisputable, the tiered aspect of the restructuring risks creating further inequality among counties. There’s been little detail on what the structure below the Tier One sides will look like, with Tier Two and Three counties set to be amateur or semi-professional sides, with no promotion and relegation between the tiers until at least 2029. The ECB is also set to invest £1.3 million annually into each of the eight Tier One sides until at least 2028. The funding gap raises questions over how easy it will be for Tier Two and Three sides to develop.

It is not a given that the biggest counties will be given Tier One status by default, with some of the ‘smaller’ counties looking to take themselves to the next level through women’s cricket, especially with some of these having regularly hosted women’s international cricket recently. Northants, for example, hosted the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy final in 2023, as well as the second ODI between England and Sri Lanka. The County Ground in Northampton has hosted three women’s internationals since 2020, as well as Charlotte Edwards Cup finals day in 2022. But a non-Test county that also misses out on Tier One status will be faced with an increasing divide across the board.

“We’re quite successful at hosting women’s cricket here,” says Northants’ Kiddy. “We’re not a Test match ground and we’re not a Hundred ground, so we see it [Tier One] as an opportunity for growth… Unlike some other clubs, we’re financially solvent and we don’t have any debt, and we feel we’re in a good position to run it effectively within a budget… We’re not arrogant, and we’re not a wealthy club. But we’re very much a community members and people-based club and it just felt the right thing for us to be doing this.

“Our fear is that it [not getting a Tier One side] just creates a bigger gap. We don’t have a Hundred team and then if we don’t have a Tier One team as well, you have to work that much harder to get the girls in your region to aspire and be inspired to play cricket for Northamptonshire… Until we see more detail on what Tier Two looks like, then we have to assume it looks a lot like what we have today. We’ll make it work, but we’d lose out on a lot of the incentive and inspiration that we’d get from a Tier One side.”

As well as what not getting a Tier One side could look like for smaller counties, there’s also anxiety over which of the ‘bigger’ venues will miss out.

“If we weren’t lucky enough to get a Tier One side we would invest that money instead into significantly developing our pathway,” says Rees. “We want to make sure young cricketers have the opportunity to be the best cricketers they can be, and obviously we’ll be supporting our closest Tier One team.

“But our intention would be to run the best possible Tier Two team so if the Tier One teams get expanded in the future, we would be considered for that round of Tier One teams. We’re massively focussed on our pathway anyway but it [a Tier One side] would give us more funds and resources to make that better.”

Aside from what this change means for the counties who are or are not successful, these worries also translate across to the players who are facing another change to their working environment. After three redesigns in eight years, there is hope that this will be the last one.

“I think everyone is a bit frustrated that we’re changing again when it feels like we’ve got something going,” says Adams. “It seems a bit scary when you look at changing again but the principle of what they’re trying to do now seems great.

“Players don’t want to keep changing. It’s daunting when you don’t quite know what’s going to happen next. Get this one right so that we can maintain it and keep it, and make this the plan moving forward.”

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