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Anna Harris is flying the flag for women umpires everywhere

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How does a young woman go about umpiring a match involving men who have been playing cricket for longer than she’s been alive? The answer, for Anna Harris, is simple: “As long as you’ve got a smile and a bit of a quip and a sense of humour, you go a long way.”

Harris, a 22-year-old second-year medical student who plays cricket for Wales, has umpired in the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy in 2020 and is set to do so again this year. She is also poised to stand in two men’s Premier League competitions this coming season.

The value of a smile was brought home to her most poignantly in her job as a healthcare support worker in a Cardiff hospital, treating patients on Covid and other wards, to build her practical skills while she studies.

“It is tough,” Harris says. “I’m still going in and caring for my patients in the same way that I would, but I’ve got a mask, I’ve got an apron, I’ve got a visor, and you’ve got these lovely patients who are greeted with that. They might come into hospital and not see a smile for four or five months. A smile conveys so much. And since it’s been taken away, it’s made quite an impact, I’ve found, on patients that I’ve come across.”

As hard as it is, working in an environment where resources have been stretched thin – even after the worst of the pandemic’s winter peak in the UK, more than 10,000 people remain in hospital with Covid-19 – is in keeping with Harris’ drive to always be busy.

Harris came to cricket when she discovered some equipment in her school gym on a rainy day, decided to give the sport a go and loved it. She’s a batter; her spin-bowling career “peaked at the age of about 15 or 16,” she says wryly. When her mum, Yolanda, took up umpiring, she suggested Anna follow suit, playing on Saturdays and umpiring on Sundays.

As and when life returns to normal in Britain, Harris is looking forward to resuming her playing career for Wales in the ECB County T20 competition, and umpiring more. The pandemic caused the cancellation of a great deal of cricket last year, including the Hundred and the launch of the ECB’s new women’s domestic structure, but it gave rise to the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy, a 50-over competition arranged to ensure the domestic women’s season could go ahead in some form. That tournament remains Harris’ highest-profile umpiring appointment to date and she is set to stand in the competition again this year.

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Claire Polosak and Anna Harris share their experiences of umpiring men’s games

First time around, she was able to lean on existing relationships with the players to mitigate the effect of any nerves and aid communication – which many umpires will tell you is key to match management.

“I played with quite a few of the players at either county level or junior age group, so it’s really nice to see them from a different perspective, where you’re not competing with them,” Harris says. “Not that they’re more forgiving [of errors] but just having that relationship can sort of ease you into the game a bit more.

“Knowing that it’s live-streamed is another big thing: ‘Oh goodness, what do I look like, what am I signalling, I’m going to get everything done right.'”

Harris also speaks of support from the ECB in terms of the development aspect, and the first-class colleague at short leg as other factors in favour.

She was to officiate in the men’s South Wales Premier League in 2020 but the competition was delayed. She remains on the umpiring panel for this year’s edition, though fixtures are yet to be announced. She is also due to stand with another female umpire in the West of England Premier League in May; when she does, it will be the first time two women will have umpired a match together in that men’s competition, it is believed.

As far as men’s matches go, Harris now has an impressive bank of experience, having stood in the Thames Valley League for three years and completed a season in Melbourne.

“That was my first full League season, so it was kind of chucking myself in the deep end,” she says of her Australian stint. “But they were brilliant. You have the odd game when you don’t quite see eye to eye with the players but most of the time they’re quite willing to work with you.

“News travels fast – if you had a good game, I’ll turn up to the next game and they’ll go, ‘Oh we heard you had a good one.’ It’s [about] building relationships with those players, starting from scratch almost.

“With women, it might be a little bit more educational, guiding them through the game, whereas with the men, they full-on know when they’re treading the line, so it’s kind of reining them in. If you’ve got a little bit of cheek, a little bit of nous, a bit of a sense of humour, it will go a long way, because with the men, if you’re trying to be too officious, especially myself as a young female umpire, it just doesn’t quite sit with them.”

While she has had the odd negative experience umpiring men’s matches, Harris says that is rare. “[There’s] the odd throwaway comment, or when someone says, ‘Oh you’ve done well today’, and you can sort of hear the follow-up in their head, ‘for a female, or for a young person’,” she says.

One of her “tricks”, simple but effective, is to throw the ball to one of the players, often the bowler at the beginning of the match. When they see she has a good arm, a new level of respect emerges.

“Suddenly they’re like, ‘Oh, she can play’, and you open up that dialogue,” Harris says. “Then I can slip in that I’ve done a season in Australia, so, you know, you better step it up if you think you’re going to trouble me! Little tricks, opening up conversation, and then once they’ve had that fun with you, it’s generally fine.”

The key message, whether it’s umpiring men or women, though, is the same.

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Claire Polosak talks about officiating a men’s Test match and her hopes for female umpires in the future

“From a player’s perspective, I can understand some of the frustrations that they feel during the game,” Harris explains. “So when I’m umpiring, I really try my best to make sure that, yes, you might get frustrated, but I’m going to try and work with you here.

“Because umpiring is not ‘We are in charge of the game’, umpiring is ‘You are playing the game, we’re just helping you play.’ It’s been a more recent change to that narrative, and I think what’s really helped is knowing that the umpire is not a big, bad person, they’re there to help you enjoy the game.”

Harris is following a path walked by the likes of Kathy Cross from New Zealand, now retired, and more recently, Claire Polosak, who in January became the first woman in 144 years of history to officiate in a men’s Test when she was the fourth umpire for the third Test between Australia and India in Sydney. Polosak and Harris both agree that when it comes to umpiring, gender really shouldn’t matter.

“The feedback that I’ve heard from players is, they just want the best umpires,” Harris says. “If we can perform at that level, the men that I’ve come across have been more than happy.”

The ICC has 12 men on its Elite Panel of Umpires, followed by 47 in the next tier, its International Panel of Umpires. Then ten women from eight nations, including Polosak, make up nearly a fifth of the umpires on the International Panel of ICC Development Umpires.

Under the ECB’s Women’s Umpire Pathway, aimed at increasing the number of female umpires across all levels of women’s cricket, some 30 female umpires are set to stand in this year’s County T20, the top competition in the women’s recreational game. Last year, there were ten women umpiring in the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy, making up 57% of the competition’s umpiring staff, compared with 12% in the six years of the Kia Super League.

In 2019, the last full cricket season in England and Wales, there were 27 women umpiring in men’s cricket, including one on the ECB National Panel, six at Premier League level, and seven at the feeder level just below that, with the remainder in a range of other leagues.

In Australia, where Polosak is from, there are 305 women accredited as umpires, with five officiating in 1st XI Premier Cricket.

Harris and Polosak can both can see a day when women umpiring men’s matches is part of the norm, just as men umpiring women’s matches is now. Polosak says it’s still a long way off, and she’s okay with that.

“I’m just concentrating on doing the best that I can at the next cricket game that I’m involved in,” she says, “because the players, it doesn’t matter what level they’re involved in, it’s a Test match for them, and they want Test match umpires. I think it is really important that we continually work towards increasing the number of female officials that are in the role.

“I wouldn’t want – and I know all the other female umpires I know across any sport, they don’t want – appointments to be made from a token point of view, they want appointments to be done on a merit-based system.

“So I think it’ll happen eventually, but you need to make sure that any umpires that are in a Test cricket environment are ready for the environment and will perform strongly when they’re there. There’s no point setting people up for failure.”

Polosak, 32, never played cricket but she loved watching it and decided at 15 to become an umpire. As far as she remembers, she was the only girl on the course. Once qualified, she worked her way through the Premier Cricket grades in Sydney. In 2017 she became the first woman umpire to stand in an Australian men’s domestic fixture – a one-day match between NSW and a Cricket Australia XI.

She and fellow ICC Development umpire Eloise Sheridan were the first women to stand together in a professional match, between the Adelaide Strikers and the Melbourne Stars in the WBBL. Then, in 2019, Polosak was the first woman to officiate on-field in a men’s ODI in a Namibia vs Oman game. She now works full-time umpiring and developing other women umpires through Cricket New South Wales.

“I really had a minimum of negative experiences, everybody’s been very supportive and friendly,” she says. “To be honest, if there’s anything behind my back, it really doesn’t bother me. As an official in any sport, not everybody’s going to be happy with your decisions straight away, and that’s a part of sport. It’s having a thick skin, I guess, and being able to work through that, if needed.”

She has a message for any women and girls considering taking up umpiring: “Give it a go. Like anything, you don’t know until you try. The conflict resolution, the communication, the match management are transferable across many aspects of life.”

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