It’s been a halcyon summer for women’s sport. The England cricket team winning the World Cup, their football counterparts reaching the semi-finals of the European Championships and Northern Ireland hosting the final of the Women’s Rugby World Cup.
Women’s sport is in the public spotlight like never before, and you might expect Angela Platt, a former international in both hockey and football, to feel just a little aggrieved.
After all her best playing days came well before the glare of worldwide publicity belatedly shone on women’s achievements in sports like football, rugby and cricket, traditionally the domain of men.
But the Northern Cricket Union’s first general manager doesn’t betray a hint of resentment that her playing career didn’t coincide with the big professional opportunities now open to female sports stars.
“The changes have been phenomenal and it’s great to see,” Angela said. “From a female sporting perspective, there’s certainly a far bigger profile now, I think the very fact that Northern Ireland, Ireland and the UK are hosting major tournaments is really helping to inspire the new generation of women. When you see the success of the England women’s cricket team, I think that has generated a phenomenal interest, and you had the women’s hockey team winning a gold medal in Rio last year.”
The perception of some women’s sports a decade ago was drastically different to what it is today. The England women’s football team recently occupied prime television slots on terrestrial television during that European Championship run and Sky Tv followed every ball of England’s memorable road to victory in the Cricket World Cup.
Angela remembers how once women’s exploits in sport weren’t appreciated anywhere near enough.
“When I was playing hockey and football there was a feeling that women were playing men’s sports, but that has thankfully changed today. There are talented women out there, it’s never going to be the same level as some of the male sports, let’s be honest about that, but even seeing England women in the European Championships in the football, they are setting the standard. The fact that you can see it on TV now makes it a massive difference. When I was playing it didn’t matter to me who inspired me in terms of what gender they were but it’s nice that young girls now have female role models on TV to aspire to.”
Angela started in her new role in the spring, on the eve of the new cricket season. It was a baptism of fire in many respects. After all she had spent more than seven years in a top role in Ulster hockey and her cricket experience was limited to a few school memories at Dalriada.
But a few months into the job she demonstrates a sound knowledge of the sport and the challenges it faces in Northern Ireland. It might be easy to bask in the confirmation of Ireland’s Test match status, but Angela has learnt enough this summer to know that for the NCU cricketing community, Ireland’s progress is not priority number one.
“We want to have a Test-playing nation but the bigger challenge for me is how we support our clubs and our grass roots structure to support that, and make sure there’s not a big disconnect between the two. We need to support our clubs because to me they are the lifeblood of our sport.
“If we don’t support our clubs and don’t have them in the future, then we won’t produce cricketers, for me that’s the biggest priority from a union perspective.”
While there have been some successes this summer, most notably the big crowd for a Twenty20 finals day at The Lawn, Angela knows that the NCU game faces challenges.
“There’s an awareness that there’s been a drop off in the numbers playing the game, and from an NCU perspective I won’t be happy if that trend continues. We want to put opportunities in place to stop that, albeit it there are challenges with the time commitments of the game.
“There are a number of team sports facing similar challenges, but we have got to be more innovative in terms of our competition structures in the future, to enable people to commit to the game.”
Angela knows there is an increasing trend, amongst players and spectators, towards the quick thrill of Twenty20, but she is refusing to write off the longer forms.
“There are purists who want the longest form of the game, we have the 50-over one-day game, and you have the new generation who are into the T20 aspect, which involves less commitment. It’s going to be a challenge for the sport and it will come to the stage where the regional competition structures will have to be looked at and reviewed, to see what our playing population want.”
She added: “Society has changed, I don’t know whether it’s the move to instantaneous news on your smartphone, but attention spans are different and that’s certainly a challenge for cricket. Sports that take a long time are looking to innovative and capture the audience in a shorter period of time, that will be the challenge of cricket.
“We have got to look for a balance and maximise the potential of both.”