“I keep thinking the girls might not think I’m cool enough.”
Considering what Karen Brereton has done for Leigh Cricket Club – both as a club and a social hub for the local community – that she’d even question her social standing is, well, absurd.
“I’m getting old”, she jokes, but even she knows, behind the self-deprecation, that the reverence those of Leigh have for her – girls, boys, men and women – knows no bounds.
Nothing of her time or work at the club has been uncool.
One of three daughters, Karen’s dad was a member of Leigh – first as a player, then as first-team manager and scorer – so she found herself in and around the club long enough to become the first-team scorer at the age of 10. It was from that point that she came into her own.
As a teenager, she got involved with coaching the juniors and one thing that struck her was the appetite from a few parents, particularly mothers, to play the game. While nothing further came of casual chats about organising a few friendlies, Karen spotted an opportunity.
“When I got involved with the junior boys, we got a few girls down – about six or seven of them. It all went from there.” With that, Karen took it upon herself to build Leigh’s women’s section.
“We started from the bottom up: from under-9 girls, all the way through to under-13 and under-15.”
Those sides, now established, gave rise to a full women’s section that was set up in 2015. That year, Leigh Women played their first competitive match.
Creating a legacy
Now, they have around 60 active women and girls playing cricket. As well as the women’s team, there are three girls-only junior teams, along with mixed cricket that takes place midweek.
To understand the scale of Karen’s work, consider that there are as many junior girls playing as boys. That, Karen says, fills her with immense pride.
“We have some quite strong boys’ teams – the girls are getting in those teams and meriting their place, they’re not getting in because we feel like we’ve got to rotate them.”
“It’s just taken off and been phenomenal to see it continue to evolve. We’ve actually got one under-13 girls’ team playing in the boys’ league, which is brilliant. And we’ve got quite a lot of girls playing in the boys’ league as well.
“We have some quite strong boys’ teams – the girls are getting in those teams and meriting their place, they’re not getting in because we feel like we’ve got to rotate them. It makes us really proud.”
Thriving women's section
Such participation has been helped by Leigh going from strength to strength. What was once a fledgling women’s section is thriving and competing on a national level.
They have been successful in the Cheshire Leagues and have moved up to the top division. Karen has also entered the side into a new league in Lancashire, ensuring further opportunities for girls and women to play the game.
“We have girls playing for their county and we got to a national finals day last year through the Lady Taverners at under-13 level. It’s brilliant on that side to get these big competitions and see the girls doing well.”
It has helped Leigh in becoming a more inclusive club. Last season, when the men’s team won the ECB Liverpool Premier League for the first time, celebrations were a unified affair, with the club coming together as one – “one big family” as Karen puts it – to mark the success.
Despite the rapid growth, Karen understands the challenges of maintaining the standards of the women’s section, along with the day-to-day running of a cricket club. One such issue is the importance of getting more female participation at coaching level and above.
“I think that draw of having a female coach is massively helpful.”
“A huge factor now, on the female side, is getting coaches on board. We have a lot of male coaches that are heavily involved with the women and girls’ section. I think that draw of having a female coach is massively helpful. Girls need that person to relate to and have a girly chat with.
“It’s quite a lot to do with branding for girls as well. I think.
“The big thing that took off for us was getting a sponsor involved, who provided coloured kit. We gave ourselves a nickname – the Lionesses – and got a theme of a kit that goes through the girls’ team and into the women’s.
“For girls, I think that’s part of it as well, the social side. It isn’t just about playing cricket but about getting mums involved. It is a bit of a brand and is more of a social event than just being about the cricket.”
Still, Leigh’s current standing in the current landscape of women’s cricket sees them as an affluent and established institution. As for the next step?
“The biggest thing would be to see one of the girls, particularly one we’ve brought through from nine or 10, playing women’s cricket for their country. That would be the icing on the cake. We’ve got some really good girls coming through so fingers crossed it won’t be too far away!”
Karen’s work has seen her acknowledged by the International Cricket Council (ICC) for her contribution to women’s cricket, something of which her friends, family and the club are immensely proud.
As one parent put it: “Without Karen's enthusiasm and attitude the women's team at the club would not be anywhere near as successful and participation for women would not be as high.”
The words cheer Karen: “That’s really nice to hear. It inspires me to carry on to know that’s what the parents think of me. It just makes you want to carry on, thinking that you’re having an impact.”
There are plenty of opportunities to support or play during this exciting summer of women's cricket. Find out how you can follow England in the ICC Women's World Cup, kicking off on Saturday 24 June, or why not grab some friends or family and take part in your local Women's Soft Ball Cricket Festival.