As the BBC’s first female cricket commentator, Alison Mitchell has seen the accelerating growth of the women’s game. She has watched as the euphoria of England’s World Cup win has been translated into enthusiasm for the Kia Super League, as she tells The Mixed Zone’s Laura Winter
In 2005, Alison Mitchell was one of the only journalists covering England’s quest to win the Women’s Cricket World Cup in South Africa. Four years later, in Australia, the event’s branding and marketing under the ICC umbrella had stepped up a notch, but she was still one of just three members of the media at the press conference on the eve of the final. Games then, significantly, were played at club grounds.
Those moments came back to Mitchell when she found herself in the BBC commentary box at cricket’s legendary headquarters as England beat India in a memorable World Cup final last month.
“It was a seminal moment for women’s cricket,” she says. “I peered out of my hotel window, opposite Lord’s, when I woke up with a sense of anticipation and nerves. Was it truly a sell-out? And the first thing I saw was an Egg and Bacon jacket and tie – an MCC member – wandering up to the Grace Gates. I did an internal fist pump.
“And presenting in the outfield, I had a real ‘pinch me’ moment. I had to take stock and really soak in what was happening: this was a sold-out Lord’s for a women’s cricket match. So I remembered those times when I was the only journalist at World Cups for the BBC, to think where women’s cricket had come from. Matches previously were played out in front of friends and family, and perhaps an intrigued passer-by. For me working on it, it was as significant a career moment as the 2005 Ashes and London 2012.”
So as the Kia Super League approaches its midpoint, with Lancashire Thunder playing the Surrey Stars tonight, Mitchell insists the World Cup must act as a launchpad for women’s cricket. Already there have been signs that it is moving that way. Sky have televised matches live and the crowds are building: more than 3,000 poured into the Ageas Bowl to watch the Southern Vipers beat the Western Storm in the opening game.
“That afternoon, I thought to myself, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is happening,” recalls Mitchell, the first woman to commentate regularly for BBC’s Test Match Special. “These people weren’t arriving for the men’s game later in the evening. They were half an hour early for the women’s game. I had never seen that in the domestic women’s game before. There is no doubt the World Cup has already had a genuine effect on Super League crowds.
“Stars are a well-organised outfit, and they have the likes of Tammy Beaumont, who was our top run-scorer at the World Cup, and Nat Sciver, who shot to fame during the World Cup. I’m sure she’s had an eye-opening few weeks since the tournament ended. Everyone will want to see that nutmeg again! And, of course, Thunder have Sarah Taylor and Kate Cross. Real stars of the game.
“My pick for the tournament is the Southern Vipers to defend their title. What an incredible stage this is for these players to be thrust into. Some of those women will never have played cricket in front of TV cameras and 3,000 people before. That will be a huge learning curve – very steep. How fantastic to have that opportunity. And of course every player in the squad will get a participation fee, not just a match fee if they play. That’s the way it should be.”
This will be Mitchell’s tenth year commentating on TMS, and she is now so comfortable and at ease, it’s as if she is part of the family. Though she has never dissolved into fits of giggles on air, as some of her colleagues have, Mitchell admits she has come close and almost set Phil Tufnell off on more than one occasion. “It’s normally when someone says something inadvertently, like having a toss. Or something happens in the crowd and we go off on a tangent. At a Test match at Old Trafford, we talked for 20 minutes about people dressed as post boxes, using ‘first-class delivery’ and so on. We were laughing and laughing and then the listeners joined in. There is much more time during Test matches. As well as plenty of cake.”
Mitchell also described how she continued commentating during a fire alarm in a commentary box during the T20 finals, even though on leaving the box she could no longer see the cricket action, and instead had to commentate on their evacuation before returning to describe Stuart Broad’s bowling action from a stand.
Back in 2008, Mitchell was rescued from a toilet in the bowels of the Chennai Stadium in India after 20 minutes’ standing on top of the cistern screaming at the top of her voice for help. Her producer thought she had just “nipped out”. Instead, in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, and with heightened security around the stadium, the door of her cubicle was kicked in by the Indian Rapid Action Force.
A year earlier, it was even more tense. The pressure to perform as the first regular female commentator on cricket’s iconic programme was huge, not least from Mitchell herself. She feared every mistake she made would reflect, not just of her own skills, but of women’s ability in general to commentate on the game.
“There was extra scrutiny,” she admitted. “I couldn’t afford to make any errors because they were seized upon as an example of how women shouldn’t commentate. I was not a bad commentator – women were. I felt like I was commentating on behalf of womankind. If I messed this up, it could be decades before another woman was given the opportunity. I really felt I had to get things right. But now, it’s normal to hear female voices talking about cricket, and that’s one of the most pleasing aspects for me. Isa Guha and Ebony Rainford-Brent have done some analysis on men’s matches and I really hope they haven’t felt the same pressure I did.”
There are two things that everyone asks Mitchell when they meet her. “Do you even like cricket is one?” And the second is: “What is Geoffrey Boycott like?” Laughing, Mitchell said he was one of her greatest supporters and recalls something she wrote in her diary in 2007. Perhaps sensing the pressure she was under, she had written how Boycott had simply said: “You’ll be all right, love, you’ll be sitting next to me.”
You can find eight games of the Kia Super League live on Sky Sports and every round will be covered on BBC Test Match Special. For more information and to buy tickets go to www.ecb.co.uk/super-league
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.