What does the future look like for female cricket umpires?

Female umpires are more visible than ever on the field, but more is needed from the authorities.

women cricket umpires
At the heart of the growing visibility of female umpires lies the rapid growth of women’s cricket over the past decade [Andrew Couldridge/Action Images via Reuters]

Last month’s final of the inaugural Under-19 Women’s T20 World Cup featured an all-women panel of match officials.

For the ongoing Women’s T20 World Cup, only female officials have been named in what the International Cricket Council (ICC), the sport’s world governing body, described as “a significant first for world cricket”.

The appointment of a record number of female officials at a major women’s event comes at a time when female umpires are in the spotlight more than ever – the trend gathering force following an eventful last year.

The 50-over Women’s World Cup in New Zealand saw South Africa’s Lauren Agenbag, then 25, become the youngest umpire to stand in a world cup final.

At the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, an all-women panel of umpires – Agenbag included – took charge. The Women’s Asia Cup, for the first time in its eight-iteration history, had only women on its match officials’ panel.

Among women’s domestic leagues, Cricket Hong Kong’s inaugural FairBreak Invitational T20 tournament had female umpires, as did India’s Women’s T20 Challenge.

Rise of domestic leagues

At the heart of the growing visibility of female umpires lies the rapid growth of women’s cricket over the past decade. The proliferation of men’s leagues across the globe has also opened the door to more umpiring opportunities for women.

“The rise of women’s franchise leagues has also been a key driver,” 31-year-old Shubhda Bhosle, one of India’s youngest female umpires, told Al Jazeera.

“The short-format [nature] of the competitions allows scope for back-to-back power-packed tournaments [for an umpire to sign up],” added Bhosle, who was one of the four umpires on an all-women panel of match officials in the 2022 Legends League Cricket tournament in Oman, arguably the first such roster in high-profile men’s cricket.

In recent weeks, men’s domestic competitions, too, have appointed women in prominent umpiring roles, including Ranji Trophy – India’s first-class men’s tournament – the Big Bash League in Australia, and the Super Smash across the Tasman where Australia’s Eloise Sheridan scripted history alongside New Zealand’s Kim Cotton as the first female duo to umpire in a men’s domestic tournament in the country.

But when it comes to men’s international cricket – leaving out the odd instance in bilateral series or qualifying tournaments – women umpires are by and large absent.

The 2022 men’s T20 World Cup had none and no female umpire has stood in a men’s world cup across its 12 editions in the 50-over format or eight in T20 cricket.

In the only iteration of the men’s World Test Championship, only male umpires have officiated bar the Australia-India Test in 2021 where Claire Polosak discharged fourth-umpiring duties, marking the first instance of a female officiating in the 146 years of Test cricket’s history.

In contrast, several other sports have fared better. Rugby entered a new era last year when Australia’s Kasey Badger became the first woman to referee a men’s Rugby League World Cup match. Football turned a corner with Qatar 2022 as it became the first men’s FIFA World Cup to have female match referees.

According to Adrian Griffith, senior manager, Umpires and Referees at the ICC, a reason why female umpires are yet to reach the top of the cricketing food chain is down to how the system operates.

“We [the ICC] look at women umpires as just umpires,” Griffith told Al Jazeera. “They have to come through the same system [as the men]. The system is such that everything is done on merit. So for female umpires to be at any men’s World Cup, they will have to be in the top 16 umpires in the world.

“If there’s no woman umpire at the men’s World Cup it’s because … they haven’t been selected to be part of the four umpires from their home board who sit on the international panel.”

‘They are not there as tokens’

The ICC’s Elite and International panels, which have 11 and 47 umpires at present, respectively, consist only of men and are at the higher end of the hierarchy. Women – 18 in total – are present only on the Development Panel and constitute only 30 percent of the 60 umpires that make up the category.

“We pay close attention to them, particularly because it’s one of the major pillars in our strategy to grow and prioritise female involvement in cricket,” added Griffith. “They are not there as tokens, they are there because they are very good.”

For a female umpire to be deemed good enough for the ICC to appoint in men’s major events, the national board’s role is critical.

Each of the ICC’s 12 full members has its own umpiring-talent identification programmes through which they nominate four umpires each to the International Panel. The ICC then assesses their performance in international cricket and chooses a group for consideration for elevation to the Elite Panel.

The Development Panel is made up of women from full member nations and both men and women from associate members who fall within the top 20 of the rankings. It is the primary platform for women to get a foothold on the international umpiring stage.

“The ICC Development Panel allowed me to go to women’s World Cups, work in high-pressure situations, including doing televised games, which is a big skill one needs to develop,” said Agenbag, who, at 22, became the first South African woman to stand in a women’s T20 international in 2019.

In the final of the World Cricket League Division 2 in April 2019, Polosak officiated the final between Namibia and Oman, marking the first time a woman officiated in a men’s ODI.

In 2017, she became the first woman to stand in a men’s domestic fixture in the country. The previous year, she and Sheridan became the first female umpires to officiate on-field together in a professional match in Australia during the Women’s Big Bash League.

“If you’d have asked a 16-year-old version of me if these things would have been possible, she would have said ‘go away, that’s a dream too big’,” said 34-year-old Polosak.

A full-time umpire educator at Cricket New South Wales, Polosak is among the 3,711 umpires registered with Cricket Australia (CA), 246 of whom are female.

Contracted part-time with CA, she is one of the only two women – alongside Sheridan – on the board’s six-umpire “supplementary” umpiring panel, the rung below the all-male 12-umpire “national” panel, which is contracted on a full-time basis.

Whether in relation to contracts or appointments – at the regional, national or the ICC level – or how an umpire is “perceived” in the ecosystem, Polosak believes their gender is incidental.

“Players don’t care if the umpire is male or female,” she said. “But they do want that umpires are good decision-makers and people managers. Similarly, as an umpire, I’d want all appointments to be done on merit because that’s what the game deserves.

“You don’t, as male or female, want to be rushed through systems and then be found out too early. That may turn somebody off officiating altogether. Then, they don’t come back and that hurts a sport.”

ICC’s ‘lofty goals’

Griffith added that the ICC has “some very lofty goals” when it comes to retaining talent and bringing more women into officiating.

“One of the objectives we’ve set for the 2022-25 cycle is to have 48 women involved in umpiring [at the international level, in men’s and women’s cricket combined] and 24 in refereeing,” he said.

“That will mirror the number of men we have at the moment [because] each full member at present nominates four male umpires each and two referees. By giving these opportunities for females to join our panels and giving them appointments, [we’re hoping] there’s more visibility. Hopefully, things like these help the members close the gaps, too, because the result is there for everyone to see.”

Beyond structural and sociocultural hurdles that may be unique to every cricket-playing nation, the ubiquitous impostor syndrome is often a roadblock in women’s umpiring.

“Though men in this space have never treated me differently because I’m a woman, coming into [the set-up], I was a little bit sceptical because it’s male-dominated with not a lot of female presence around,” said Agenbag, who is currently on a 12-month contract as part of Cricket South Africa’s 12-member reserve-list panel, secondary to the 16-member all-male elite panel.

“So, it helps to have trailblazers like Claire, Kim [Cotton], Sue Redfern, Kathy Cross as good mentors, and have more women’s cricket televised matches, because if that’s where most women umpires are at, you’ve got to give young girls the exposure to see that.”

How long until more women officiating in men’s international cricket is closer to becoming a norm?

“It’s not too far, given the pace at which women’s cricket and women’s umpiring is growing,” added Agenbag.

Bhosle and Griffith echo that view. Polosak, for her part, sounds a note of measured optimism.

“I just hope all women umpires are well-supported and not thrown in before they’re ready,” she said. “One day, there will be a female who stands in a men’s Test match or a World Cup. How far away that is? I honestly don’t know.”

Suffice to say, in true cricketing terms, the decision is pending.

Source: Al Jazeera