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Female Umpire Breaks Ground in Tradition-Laden Cricket League

They call cricket a gentleman’s game. And for whatever positive connotations that might evoke — sportsmanship, stiff upper lip, well-mixed drinks at the interval — it has also brought a reputation for stodginess and a glacial rate of change.

But change does come, even to cricket. On Tuesday, Sue Redfern will become the first woman to serve as a standing umpire in the England and Wales men’s county championship, in a game between Glamorgan and Derbyshire in Cardiff, the Welsh capital.

Redfern, 45, a former player herself, has already knocked off other milestones. She has umpired in a men’s county game of Twenty20, a shorter form of cricket, and has been the fourth official, not one of the two main umpires who stand on the field, in a Twenty20 game involving England’s national team.

Redfern served as an off-field official in an international match in 2021.Credit…Julian Finney/Getty Images

Perhaps appropriately, one of the last bastions is the county championship, an event steeped in tradition but sometimes a soporific one. While Test matches involving the England team pack stadiums around the country, county championship games are often played in front of small crowds. Games are sometimes relegated to “out grounds,” or glorified school fields. The audiences there on a weekday afternoon may comprise a few hundred people, mostly retirees, and perhaps a dog or two. (As the punchline of an old joke goes, “and the dogs left between innings.”)

It’s a sport in which, until recently, a large chunk of players have come from upper-crust educational institutions like Oxford and Cambridge, and Eton and Harrow. A sport in which a customer in the shop at the venerable Lord’s Cricket Ground in London can be scolded for trying to buy a club tie without being a member.

With that touch of stodginess comes tradition. The county championship is one of the oldest organized sporting activities in the world — the first official champion (Surrey) was crowned in 1890, and unofficial titles date back to 1864 (also Surrey). As if to underline the slow rate of change, the leader of this year’s championship is … Surrey.

Into this bastion of tradition comes Redfern. “It has been an ambition of mine for a long time, and while it is a new challenge that will test me, I know that I am ready for it,” she told the BBC. “I hope my journey can also be an inspiration to others.”

Redfern in action as a bowler for England in a women’s World Cup match in 1997.Credit…Craig Prentis/Allsport

The breakthrough in the men’s game comes as women’s cricket is growing rapidly around the world. While women have played cricket for centuries — Jane Austen wrote that her character Catherine Morland of “Northanger Abbey” preferred cricket over playing with dolls — the game was typically at the margins.

But over the last 20 years, attendance for the women’s game has risen, and names like Heather Knight, England’s captain, have become widely known among even casual sports fans. Redfern was a bowler who played for the England team in the late 1990s.

This year, a women’s equivalent of the phenomenally successful Indian Premier League began and, by some measures, immediately became the most valuable women’s sports league in the world.

In North America, the N.B.A. added its first female referees in 1997, and the N.F.L. recruited its first full-time female official in 2015. Major League Baseball has not had a female umpire, but women have made it as high as the Triple-A level, one below the majors.

At the continuing men’s Rugby World Cup in France, Joy Neville is the first woman to serve on the officiating panel.

Despite the advances, gaps remain. At this summer’s edition of the Hundred, a short-form cricket tournament in England, umpires for the men’s games — all of them men except for Redfern — were paid three times as much as umpires at the women’s games, seven of whom were women.

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