Clare Connor, the ECB’s managing director of women’s cricket, will become the first female MCC president when she replaces Kumar Sangakkara next year. She talks to Taha Hashim about breaking the glass ceiling.
First, as a player: leading England Women to their first Ashes series win for 42 years in 2005 during a six-year reign as captain. Then, as an administrator: chair of the ICC’s Women’s Cricket Committee, heading up women’s cricket at the ECB, and overseeing the drive to professionalism and a home World Cup win in 2017. Now, as a fully-fledged pioneer: taking over the boys’ club.
In June, Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) named Clare Connor the successor to Kumar Sangakkara as the club’s president, making her the first woman to take on the role in the MCC’s 233-year history. Two-hundred-and-thirty-three years. Bacon-and-egg ties, the Laws of Cricket, and, well, a legacy of exclusion.
It was only 22 years ago that the club voted in favour of accepting women onto its membership, and the long waiting list meant it wasn’t until 2018 that the first of those who had joined the queue in 1998 were admitted as full members. “I made my first visit to Lord’s as a starry-eyed, cricket-obsessed nine-year-old girl at a time when women were not welcome in the Long Room,” Connor said upon her appointment. “Times have changed.”
Nevertheless, growing up in Sussex, Connor – the sole girl in the first XI at Brighton College – wasn’t aware of the game’s exclusivity. “I don’t really have a sense of what my impression of the MCC was growing up,” Connor tells Wisden.com. “I had a very privileged upbringing. I was at a private school with a rich cricketing history. I had coaches, teachers and parents who really, really backed me, and all of my early cricket experiences were with boys. For years, I only played in boys’ teams and against boys.
“I probably just knew that it [the MCC] was kind of like an extension of private school. I saw it as male. I saw it as privileged, elite and rich. But, to be honest, I didn’t have any sense then, as a young girl or a young woman, that cricket excluded. I had this very unusual experience in the game, and it sounds strange, but it never really occurred to me to think through why I was the only girl that played. It’s only as I’ve grown up and thought a lot about it that I realised how strange it was.”
The landscape has shifted dramatically since, and the MCC has recognised its need to move with the times in other spheres, too. Sangakkara’s appointment last year made him the club’s first non-British president, and in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, in June the club removed artwork relating to Benjamin Aislabie – its first secretary and a slave owner – from public display. The club is also currently working on a racism and diversity plan.
Still, the image persists of a near homogenous, uniformed group of men sat in the Lord’s Pavilion, sticklers for tradition. Connor recognises that the old world must blend with the new.
“Let’s be honest, those are the photos and often the imagery that the MCC puts out about itself,” says Connor. “That’s part of what it’s proud of – those associated photos with the red and yellow colours, the blazers and the ties, and some of that flamboyance. I do think that’s how it’s perceived, and I think the club has got a long way to go, and it’s probably a very fine balance to strike in anything: where you honour your traditions and your heritage, and what you’ve been and where you’ve come from, but you also step into the future.
“You want to be part of a diverse and inclusive world that is welcoming and putting its arms around more people. That’s a very difficult balance to strike, and I believe from conversations I’ve had so far that it’s something that the MCC really wants to do.”
The presidency is an ambassadorial role, but Connor’s intentions are clear: to use her position – which she will take up in October 2021, with Sangakkara given a year extension due to the pandemic – to drive forward the progress she continues to make as the ECB’s managing director of women’s cricket.
“The key thing is that you represent the club at certain public events. You do a little bit of overseas travel during your winter as president, you chair some meetings, you speak at some functions and dinners and that kind of thing. Those are the standard expectations. You are that non-exec leader or figurehead for the club, and you’ve got a platform to speak and to represent it and the game in the best possible way. But I think it can be more than that as well.
“We know that for years cricket has had a strong relationship with men and boys and a less deep and welcoming relationship with women and girls. I think I can use my ECB and MCC roles to try to keep taking that agenda forward, because we want cricket to be a game for everybody. It shouldn’t just be for the privileged few.”
It’s been a busy few months for Connor in her role at the ECB, despite the lack of women’s cricket. This was to be a transformative summer for the domestic women’s game, with the launch of The Hundred alongside the introduction of 40 full-time contracts spread across eight regional hubs. The realities of the pandemic have meant that, for now, 25 female cricketers have been given retainer contracts – although hopes remain that the full-time deals will be put in place later this year – while the new 100-ball competition has been postponed until 2021.
“This was due to be the most pivotal summer for domestic women’s cricket, because you would have had some players who have maybe played for 10 years as an amateur, who this year would have picked up maybe £25,000, £30,000 from playing regional domestic cricket and The Hundred. That’s a real blow for some of those young women who would have hoped for that and would have been aiming for that for the last couple of years, knowing that this was coming. But hopefully the players feel we’ve communicated well with them, and it’s all about giving them confidence that that time will come.”
Whether England Women will play any international cricket this summer seems uncertain. At the time of this interview, in the first week of August, Connor was “really hopeful that we’ll get the green light from South Africa soon”, but the Proteas have since announced their unavailability due to travel restrictions. Talks are ongoing with other international boards over other potential visits – the West Indies may yet come to the rescue of English cricket again – but throw in the postponement of the 50-over World Cup until February 2022 and it feels far too long since a generation-defining T20 World Cup final at the MCG in March, attended by over 80,000 people.
Still, some solace will be found with the start of a 50-over domestic competition on August 29, with eight teams competing in the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy, a fitting tribute to the trailblazer who orchestrated the first Women’s World Cup in 1973, selling tickets for the tournament in which she captained England to victory. Eighteen years later, she rebelliously applied for MCC membership to force a vote on female admission. Her bid failed, but victory would come seven years later, and in 1999 Heyhoe Flint became one of the club’s first female members. After Heyhoe Flint’s death in 2017, it was Connor who paid tribute to her in the Wisden Almanack. Heyhoe Flint began the story, and it is now Connor who fittingly takes it forward. How does she think young women, making their way into the game, will view her ascension?
“Hopefully it provides them with the inspiration that cricket is for them,” she says. “It’s so important that people see people who look like them in positions of responsibility or influence, because that is inspiring. I’m really, completely, honoured that I can be in that position.”