Equal pay on the agenda but England's women have a long way to go

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'It's an exciting time to be in women's cricket' - Knight (1:19)

England women's captain Heather Knight reacts to her team's pay rise, and the implications of full professionalism (1:19)

Almost a year on from the Women's World Cup, England's are set to return to international cricket on home soil for the first time since that joyous occasion at Lord's.

They will do so with more money in their pockets than ever before but with the future of English women's cricket remaining uncertain.

The announcement that the overall salary pot for England Women has increased by 40%, with 10 of the contracted players having gained pay increases of 50% or more, is not before time. Since the ECB became the first board to announce the introduction of professional contracts in May 2014, the world of women's cricket has moved on significantly.

Australia are leading the charge. Under the new MOU for Australian cricketers, announced in August 2017, their female international players are now earning an average of USD137,000. The BCCI, for so long behind the times when it came to remunerating their women's team, revealed a new set of annual contracts for the Indian internationals back in March which saw pay levels increase by 300% to five million rupees (USD76,988) a year.

Viewed in that context, it is the ECB who are now playing catch-up. They have never confirmed precisely how much their women's contracts are worth, but with the new pay rises in place, the leading England players are now likely to be earning something in the region of GBP50,000 (USD67,000). The aim, according to Clare Connor, the ECB director of women's cricket, is to double their 2017 pay by 2021. Even so, it seems clear that the Australian Women will remain the highest paid female cricketers in the world for a long time to come.

More money is of course welcome, but perhaps more significant is what this step represents. One only has to look at the top-of-the-range Jaguars and Range Rovers in the car park at Lord's during a men's Test to know that a women's contract still pales in comparison to the salaries of Joe Root and co. And yet the success of last year's World Cup appears to have convinced Connor that larger strides towards more equal pay for male and female cricketers should now be on the agenda.

"We should be bold," she says in a match-day programme piece for the England v Australia Men's ODI series, "and demonstrate a commitment to closing that [pay] gap." In a week where the Forbes List of the top 100 paid athletes in the world revealed that not a single woman had made the list, this is an aim that should be applauded. It is a significant about turn from someone who tweeted in 2014 that equal pay in cricket was "economically absurd".

Indeed it seems that equal pay is increasingly on the agenda globally. When the BCCI announced its new increased contracts earlier this year there was a significant undercurrent of disquiet as many queried why women in the top grade would still earn half of what the C-grade Indian men take home. England's opponents tomorrow, last year's World Cup semi-finalists South Africa, will no doubt take heart from the statement by acting CSA Chief Executive Thabang Moroe earlier this month that the MOU currently being negotiated between CSA and the South African Cricketers' Association should feature a commitment to equal pay. "The pay is obviously not going to be equal from the word go," he later clarified, "but this is a start towards working for [it]."

From an English perspective, today's news also points to an attempt to not just increase the amount which individuals are earning but to spread the largesse amongst an increased number of players. There are now 19 fully contracted England players, up from 18 last summer - Sophie Ecclestone has been added to the list - and three "Rookie" contracts, held by Freya Davies (Sussex), Alice Davidson-Richards (Kent) and Katie George (Hampshire). All-rounder Davidson-Richards and fast bowler George both made their international debuts in India earlier this year; Davies, a quick and accurate pace bowler who took 3 for 24 in Wednesday's England Academy game against the South Africans, was unlucky not to have done the same.

The Rookie contracts, Connor states, are "to help bridge the gap between the Academy and senior England level". This is another area where the ECB are playing catch-up behind Cricket Australia. Last year's MOU guarantees all Australian female state players earnings of at least AUD19,500, and those playing in WBBL AUD7,800 on top of that. "Australia have 92 pros, we have 18," lamented England coach Mark Robinson earlier this year.

The Rookie contracts are a good first step, but their significance should not be overstated. They are thought to be worth considerably less than the full contracts, with the current three Rookie players remaining reliant on other sources of income or parental support. None of the "Rookies" have been selected in this summer's squad for the first two ODIs, despite Davies having the best return in the Women's County Championship of any bowler this season, with 6 for 10 against Derbyshire.

The phrase "bridging the gap" is also an interesting choice by Connor. It was the catchphrase of the Kia Super League in its inaugural season, a competition designed to address concerns that women's domestic cricket in England was being neglected. The recent announcement of its cancellation and replacement by The Hundred has been heavily criticised, amidst concerns that this is a retrograde step for the women's game, with no replacement elite T20 competition in place for female players. A pay rise for England Women does nothing to resolve any of the concerns about the entirely amateur domestic structure in place underneath.

The ECB are reviewing this structure at the moment. In a recent column for the BBC, captain Heather Knight alluded to this: "We need to make sure that from 2020 the structure below the new [Hundred] competition is right. We've had discussions with the ECB and I know they're working hard on it." Again such a review is long overdue. More World Cup victories will not follow unless due investment is made in the players of the future - beyond the lucky 22 who hold current contracts. The hope is that the new independent ECB Board, due to meet for the first time in a few weeks, will make such investment a priority.

At Lord's on July 23, 2017, as the sell-out crowd flooded through the Grace Gates, anything seemed possible for the women's game. But will that World Cup win have proved a game-changing moment for English women's cricket? For now, it appears to be a case of "wait and see".