English women's cricket is in a transitional phase. Forty-one players signed professional terms last year as part of a revamped domestic structure, joining the centrally contracted England players in becoming full-time athletes. With a full schedule of regional fixtures due to be staged this summer, the women's game has never been on a stronger footing nationwide.
Charlotte Edwards' appointment as the new president of the Professional Cricketers' Association (PCA) is well-timed. Edwards realised when she was approached to take on the role - first by Isa Guha, a PCA board member and her former team-mate, then by chief executive Rob Lynch - that she was better placed than anyone else to help the players union's new members transition from amateur to professional status.
Edwards' playing career spanned a period in which women's cricket changed markedly. When she made her England debut in 1996, she paid for her own blazer and wore a skirt; in her final international appearance, some 20 years later, she was playing in a team of full-time professionals under the gaze of the world's media in Delhi. And she is aware of the scrutiny that professionalism brings, after the dramatic circumstances of her own international retirement five years ago.
"We've been PCA members for ten years," Edwards told ESPNcricinfo. "I joined as a player in 2011, three years before we became full-time professionals. I really do feel there's been a shift: they want to be really inclusive now, and they really want to support the women's game. There were challenges when I became a professional and hopefully I can share some of those experiences with this group of players and with the PCA, for them to understand what support we can give them."
Edwards highlights three main areas in which she wants to "be really active" in her role as president: helping the professional game navigate the choppy waters of the Covid-19 pandemic and its financial implications; involvement in the Professional Cricketers' Trust and its fundraising activities; and assisting the women's game in its shift towards fully professional status, helped by the formation of a new PCA women's player committee, which was ratified at the same time as her presidency. The third of those, she said, "is probably where my specialism lies".
On top of her own first-hand experiences as a player, Edwards has been involved with the Southern Vipers since their inception in 2016, initially as a captain and later as director of cricket and head coach, and she has seen the strides made by their five new professionals over the winter. In particular, she acknowledged that in a regional set-up that remains semi-professional, players will respond differently to the challenges involved.
"There's pressure with the contracts," she said. "Suddenly, it's these players' livelihood, and that affects people in different ways, as I've seen with my own eyes. With only five contracts [per regional hub], we've got an enormous talent pool in this country and there is going to be huge competition for places."
There are 17 centrally contracted England women's players, who train full-time, like their male counterparts. The ECB awarded domestic contracts to 41 players in December 2020: five at each regional hub, plus a sixth contracted player at the Western Storm. Some players on domestic contracts have continued to work part-time elsewhere as they are contracted for 15 hours a week at their regional hubs.
"Players have a platform to perform now. If Georgia Adams, for example, has another brilliant start to the summer, it would be hard [for England] to ignore her sheer weight of runs. I've seen the Vipers players kick on enormously over the last six months that we've been working with them. If that happens around the country, we'll have a pool of 40 or 50 players that can firstly make our domestic competition very strong, but equally mean there's a bigger pool to pick from for England.
"There will be players from the England team dropping down onto regional contracts at some stage too. Without doubt, this regional structure is going to create competition now, which is a good thing for English cricket, but we've got to make sure that we support the players as much as we possibly can."
But outside of England, Edwards is concerned about the state of the women's game. This time last year, she was working as a broadcaster at the T20 World Cup and watched a record crowd of 86,174 attend the final at the MCG on International Women's Day; 12 months down the line, she feels that too few boards have stumped up the required investment to convert that landmark moment into something more tangible.
"It's hard to think that was 12 months ago," she said. "This is a perfect opportunity for some of these boards to show how serious they are about women's cricket. The standard of international cricket is a massive concern: there are two or three teams that are really going away from the pack at the moment, and that gap will only be closed if these countries invest in women's cricket and put the resources around the teams in place.
"I think the ECB have really set the standard, and Cricket Australia and New Zealand Cricket are clearly alongside them. The worrying thing for me is the likes of India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh - they just haven't played any international cricket in 12 months, which can't be good. A team like India - their male counterparts have played in so many series in that time, so there needs to be some balance there, really.
"With a World Cup 12 months away and a Commonwealth Games 18 months away, that really needs to be a priority for them. They need to invest money in their women's programmes or nothing will change."
In particular, Edwards highlighted the example of West Indies, whose sloppiness in the field and with tactics during their 5-0 defeat in their T20I series against England last September spoke of their recent stagnation.
"They won the World Cup in 2016, and in many ways they've gone backwards since then. It's really sad to see. They lit up that World Cup and then it was wonderful to see the public get behind them in their home tournament in 2018. But they just don't seem to have invested: it's still the same crop of players who are getting a lot older now.
"That comes down to investment in grassroots and in pathways. It's similar with New Zealand: they don't seem to have those young players coming through that are competing. England have dominated them in many ways and that is a concern. We want international cricket to be really competitive, and I'm not seeing enough competitive cricket at that level at the moment."
Perhaps the true test will come next year. In the space of 12 months, from March 2022 to February 2023, World Cups will be staged in both ODI and T20I cricket, with a Commonwealth Games in between for good measure. It is not simply because she is a former England captain that Edwards hopes Australia do not blow everyone else away.
"You just hope the boards get behind it, really invest, and that we see the best of the women's game with lots of different countries competing to a high standard. We know that when it's at its best, it's a great product and it's fantastic to watch."