Women’s cricket in Australia – and the world over – has grown more in this decade than in the last two; and we’re not even seven years in. Till the mid-nineties, cricket was played by women in culottes, for no pay. International players had to balance other jobs, while trying to represent their country. Now, we are in an age where some state cricketers can make a living by playing the game full time.
This journey has thrown up some interesting conversations. Words like contracts, professionalism, and T20 leagues are now commonplace in discussions about the game. Mental health, maternity leave and unions are yet new to most tongues. And, sometimes, while talking about something we know little about, we inadvertently say the wrong things.
Much the same seems to have happened to Cricket Australia (CA). This is the first time female cricketers in Australia are a part of the collective bargaining agreement that the Australian Cricketers Association (ACA) will broker with CA to decide pay and work conditions. A pay submission, which was leaked to The Australian, asks players to declare whether or not they are pregnant at the time of signing. It has lead to an escalation of tensions between the two parties, resulting in a postponement of wage talks that were supposed to happen this week.
The clause in question:
8.3 Notification of Pregnancy
· The Player warrants that that, to the best of her knowledge, she is not pregnant as at the date of signing this Contract and undertakes that upon becoming aware that she is pregnant, she will notify the details of the pregnancy (in writing, where practicable) to the CA medical officer (or such other appropriate representative of CA or other person designated by CA) as soon as reasonably practicable. The CA medical officer will not disclose the information to any person prior to the conclusion of 12 weeks pregnancy unless the Player consents to such disclosure.
· The Player acknowledges that, in accordance with the Pregnancy Guidelines or this Contract, after 12 weeks of pregnancy, the medical officers of CA, her State Association and her WBBL Team (if any) shall be permitted to share reasonable details of the pregnancy with CA, her State Association and/or her WBBL Team (as applicable) to help ensure a safe environment for all cricket players (including pregnant players) and all other cricket participants and to comply with any contractual requirements with insurance providers.
· Where any records or opinions are made available to CA, the Player’s State Association or her WBBL Team (if any) or their respective medical officers those records or opinions or the results of any examination or consultation of the Player shall be kept absolutely confidential by CA, the Player’s State Association and her WBBL Team (if any) except with the consent of the Player or her representative.
In Australia, it is considered discriminatory to ask a prospective employee their age, marital status, or height and weight. Pregnancy is another of these ‘protected attributes’. Thus, CA have copped criticism from many quarters for the clause, on the grounds of discriminatory work practices. They have even attracted the attention of Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman, who is investigating these claims.
The duration of the contracts being one year and with no clear guidelines on maternity leave, a player who is pregnant at the time of signing a contract would find herself in a vulnerable position. The board, meanwhile, have maintained that their only intention is ensuring player safety.
I have been observing these developments in Australia with some interest. In England, centrally contacted players reportedly have the same conditions as non-playing employees of the England and Wales Cricket Board, and are not required to declare pregnancy. In India, it is uncommon for women to return to cricket after giving birth, but now they do have a role model in Neha Tanwar. Besides, India introduced contracts for the national women’s team only last year. The BCCI, in response to email queries, said: “We do not have any such provisions as on date relating to a player falling pregnant or being pregnant at the time of signing the contracts.” So, the precedent set by the Australian board may influence Indian contracts in the future – and those around the world.
Clare Connor of the ECB, who has spearheaded much change in the women’s game, suggested that CA were going too far, and said the decision to inform the employers of a pregnancy should be left up to the players.
“I think in this day and age you can’t mandate things. I think it is up to the individual to take a responsibility for their own health and whether they are putting themselves or an unborn baby at risk,” she said.
— Adam Collins (@collinsadam) December 17, 2016
Much has been said of how other female employees of CA need not make any such declaration. But a bit of common sense must temper the debate.
Exercise is recommended during pregnancy, and numerous athletes have even competed internationally while pregnant, even at the Olympics. But not in high impact sports. Cricket, at its most visceral, involves a leather and cork projectile hurled at high speeds in the direction of a player. Many a times, it is not met by a bat, as is intended, and hits the player instead. Despite not being a non-contact sport, cricket is certainly high impact.
The smallest freak injuries, which pose little danger to a female player in normal course, could be more pernicious while pregnant; like getting hit in the abdomen by a ball that kicks off the pitch, or even a bad bounce. (Just on Sunday in Mumbai, a ball ricocheted off KL Rahul’s gloves and into his ribs, causing him some pain.) Similarly, a collision with a fellow fielder is not something to be laughed off while carrying a child. And in the heat of even the most innocuous training session, it is hard to hold yourself back.
This week, new channels in Australia carried the story of National Rugby League player Alex McKinnon, who was crippled for life after a tackle in which he sustained spinal and neck injuries. McKinnon is initiating unprecedented legal action against the NRL.
Then, consider the scrutiny global cricket administration was under post the tragic events of November 27, 2014. In light of such events, it is understandable that an organisation would want to – even need to – know if one of their players was pregnant. Imagine the ruckus if the worst case scenario came true: if a female player lost a baby due to an on field incident, just days before she intended, of her own volition, to inform the association of her pregnancy. As James Sutherland, CA CEO said of the Philip Hughes tragedy, “It was a freak accident, but it was one freak accident too many.”
The main objection to the clause is that is potentially discriminatory, and I agree. As it stands, it gives an employer a choice they should not have, which is why the ACA has brought it up, complicit as they may have been in its design. CA have categorically denied any suggestion of the intent to deprive a player of a contract. “We have never, nor would we ever, discriminate against anyone on those grounds. It has only been about ensuring the safety of our players,” said Sutherland in a press release.
The board have received the backing of one of their leading players, Ellyse Perry. “[The clause is] in there and it’s probably poorly worded, but there’s really not an issue in terms of the support we get from CA.”
Does a sporting body need to know if a player is pregnant? Does that question need to be in a contract? I think so. But the question needs to be posed more delicately. A provision to declare a pregnancy even one day after signing a contract, with ample provisions for maternity leave, could provide the players a mental and financial cushion. If something like this was in place, perhaps in the near future, players would not think that having a baby means having to retire, as Tanwar initially did.
It also highlights how necessary it is to have a players’ association. The Lodha Committee has included this in as of the many reforms it has directed the BCCI to implement. While many in the cricketing fraternity have cited this as unnecessary, considering how financially well off the male players are, a union could be a game changer for female players. This is especially true at the domestic level, where contracts do not exist, and female players barely make enough money to cover the cost of their kit.
Meanwhile, we can all take a step back, and look the bigger picture. If women’s cricket is facing challenges never faced before, that means it is certainly growing. As the responsibilities of the game’s custodians grow, there will be some teething pains.