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“The ICC and its members do not recognise privately owned tournaments or leagues in the men’s or women’s game. Any Twenty20 tournament that features the best players in the world outside ICC competitions would need to be run and controlled by one of the full members, as opposed to by a private operator.” That was the England and Wales Cricket Board’s view, as expressed by Clare Connor, in response to the radical idea of an independent women’s T20 league proposed by the Australian businessman Shaun Martyn in 2014.
Eight years later, five England players are taking part in just such a private competition – the FairBreak Invitational, run by Martyn’s company FairBreak Global Ltd. The tournament started last week and is taking place in Dubai until 15 May, contested by six teams, and – uniquely – featuring players from 35 different nations (including Rwanda, Bhutan, and Vanuatu). A nice touch, epitomising the tournament’s distinctive philosophy, is that instead of numbers on the back of their shirts, players have their national flag.
Five of them are sporting St George’s crosses – Sophie Ecclestone, Danni Wyatt, Sophia Dunkley, Tash Farrant and – significantly – the England captain, Heather Knight. Knight’s inclusion appears to signal the ultimate seal of approval from the ECB – a board that in 2014 banned its players from competing in such an endeavour. Somehow, in the eight years since Connor unequivocally rejected it, Martyn’s vision has gained official sanction from the ECB and International Cricket Council alike.
It has not been straightforward. Since 2014, international players in almost all full member nations have been handed professional contracts; within two years of Martyn’s failed proposal, franchise tournaments owned by Cricket Australia (the Women’s Big Bash League) and the ECB (the Kia Super League) had sprung up, in what was partly a deliberate attempt to take the wind out of Martyn’s sails. “We spent a couple of years where the ICC would send us off to partner with a board, the board would send us back to get permission from the ICC, and that just became a bit of a revolving door,” Martyn tells the Spin. “So I backed off from doing that.”
Instead, his vision shifted – becoming centred on the component that he felt was missing from those leagues: associate nation players. “The women’s side of the game is so diverse and so globally spread, that to think that the talent is only concentrated in a few major countries is not understanding the difference between the two games at all,” he says. “There’s great players in all countries.”
Through 2018 and 2019, Martyn staged a series of charity matches involving a single FairBreak XI, made up of a mix of associate and full member players. Eventually he gained backing from Cricket Hong Kong, which paved the way for ICC endorsement and the current, fully fledged tournament. “I think the ICC understands now that we’re not trying to compete with anyone, we’re just trying to grow opportunity for all the players and coaches that we engage with,” Martyn says. He now has the support of all full-member boards, with the notable exception of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, which withdrew its players at the last minute, ostensibly due to a clash with a domestic tournament. Players such as Harmanpreet Kaur are, according to Martyn, “bitterly disappointed” to be missing out.
Martyn believes the ICC’s vision for women’s cricket has up to now been limited by its inability to see beyond the existing landscape of men’s cricket. “It’s really important that assumptions are not made that because the blokes do it this way, everyone else should do it this way,” he says. “The audience for women’s cricket is quite different to the audience for men’s cricket. You can’t keep lumping them together, that diminishes the women’s game and it diminishes the opportunity for those women.” While men’s cricket is largely driven by an Indian fanbase, 142 countries are screening FairBreak. Here in England the entire tournament is being shown live on free-to-air (channel 64), courtesy of FreeSports.
The other point of difference with FairBreak, says Martyn, is how much the tournament is player-led. “We spend a lot of time consulting with players. Most of the female players want to play differently to the men. They see what their tennis-playing and golf-playing counterparts do – they don’t like eight-week tournaments. With a two-week tournament, women are able to travel with their family,” he adds, pointing to the example of Pakistan’s Bismah Maroof, who has been able to travel to Dubai with her young baby, Fatima.
Though Martyn does not say so – he wants, after all, to remain on its good side – the entire tournament might be viewed as rather embarrassing for the ICC, whose lack of vision for women’s cricket in associate nations has been exposed. A good example is the fact that the top-tier contracts in the tournament are worth US$20,000. For the associate players in receipt of these, it is a healthier contribution to their bank balance than anything the ICC has managed.
On the other hand Martyn is oddly cagey about how, precisely, the FairBreak Invitational is actually being funded. “It’s coming from the companies and the organisations that support us, it’s come partly from work I’ve done,” he says. “Some broadcasters are paying us.” Pushed for more details, he laughs uncomfortably and replies: “I’m not going to divulge all our intellectual property around our finances. You’d have to sign an NDA for that!” Clearly, there remain question marks over whether the enterprise is financially sustainable over the longer term.
Is there perhaps also something of a tension at the heart of FairBreak? Martyn insists the tournament is not in competition with existing franchise tournaments: “We’re not trying to compete with the Hundred, or the WBBL. This is a global tournament, it’s not a domestic tournament.” FairBreak has been marketed as a charitable endeavour, with the laudable developmental purpose of showcasing associate talent; it is this that has enabled Martyn to erode ICC opposition to the concept.
Yet is this compatible with Martyn’s ultimate vision for FairBreak, which he wants to become “the biggest global competition that we have for women outside of a World Cup”? If he were to achieve that goal, he would be one of the most powerful men in cricket. The idea that he would be no threat to the ICC at that point seems naive at best. And with his ability to attract a genuinely global audience to FairBreak, it might already be too late to put the genie back in the bottle. Martyn says that even a week into the tournament, the levels of social media engagement and viewer numbers are “fairly incredible”. From this point “it’s going to be hard to deny that we’re a key part of the growth of the women’s game”.
“We’re here, doing what we said we’d do. We’ll be doing this again next year, and we’ll grow it,” he adds. Watch this space.