Cricket Brasil have a new captain. A unique six-month programme helped appoint her, while also polishing the next generation of leaders, writes Karunya Keshav.

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The open-air ‘escape room’ was set up on the cricket field. The players, divided into teams, collected bottles blindfolded. They transferred water across 20 yards with just two sponges. They found quiz questions in the bottles and deciphered puzzles from a secret box.

Over 45 minutes, they were drawn outside their comfort zone. They raced the clock and worked with people they barely knew. They quickly realised that success came faster when they worked as a team and communicated well. Even when they didn’t finish first, they finished with a pretty good idea of what kind of people they were when thrown into stressful situations.

The elaborate set-up was part of an intensive six-month process to decide the new captain of the Brazil Women’s cricket team and their next generation of leaders.

The initiative was prompted by a question that came up for management group over the last couple of years: how does a young woman find her voice?

Back in 2022, when Roberta Moretti Avery was trying to identify her vice-captain, she noticed that her teammates barely asked questions or challenged how things were done. Avery herself, inspired by her mother, is very vocal about things on and off the field. So she didn’t understand this.

“The girls, they knew the game, what they were working on,” Avery told Wisden. “But they very rarely asked or answered questions, or even ‘battled’ the system.

“I asked a few senior girls, ‘What’s happening? Why don’t you use your voice?’

“And Laura Cardoso – she has been playing FairBreak (invitational league cricket), she’s a superstar of our team, such a confident girl – but she said, ‘I don’t have a voice in my house, I don’t have a voice in my family, I don’t have a voice in my school, I don’t know how to have a voice here.’”

That stopped Avery and the management team in their tracks with a realisation: “The girls don’t know how strong they are, how they can use their leadership, how they can impact other people. Because socially and culturally, that was not something that was obvious to them.”

The women needed a nudge, because the world needed their strong voices and the team needed a leadership group.

This month, Cricket Brasil named Cardoso as the vice-captain, appointing her as deputy to skipper Carolina Nascimento. Nascimento, 20, has come up through Cricket Brasil’s development programmes and earned her central contract in 2022. An off-spinner, she’s their second-highest wicket-taker in T20Is since her international debut at the 2022 Kwibuka Women’s T20 tournament in Rwanda, taking 18 wickets in 20 matches.

Cardoso, 19, is an all-rounder. Having made her debut aged 16, she was the first Brazilian to take a hat-trick. That memorable feat came during a dramatic five-wicket over against Canada in 2021 when the batting team needed just three runs in the final over to win.

In most teams, these youngsters wouldn’t have been natural choices for leadership. Even in Brazil, six months ago, they were not obvious choices. There was a leadership gap in the squad.

Avery, now 38, began as a ‘Big Mom’ and then became a sister to a group mostly in their late teens and early 20s. There was a gap in age, maturity and life experience between her and the next generation of players. For a few years, there’s been the question: After Avery, who?

During the 2022 South American Championships, for instance, Avery was the leading run-scorer for her side. Brazil made it to the final, but personally, her mental health was at its lowest and she went through a nervous breakdown during a pivotal match. She probably shouldn’t have played, but she didn’t think she could skip the assignment.

So, 18 months ago, she, head coach Liam Cook and assistant coach Luis Felipe Pinheiro began thinking about preparing the team for the future. Avery, who was part of the inaugural batch of the ICC 100% Cricket Future Leaders programme in 2021, was convinced that leadership could be taught, and mentorship could bring out innate leadership skills.

Women, she points out, don’t always see themselves as leaders. Even when they do have natural leadership abilities, they don’t believe that they do. Research over decades backs her assertion: Traditional leadership characteristics almost always default to the ‘masculine’. Women are rarely the loudest voice or the biggest personality in the room, and this works against the perception of leadership.

Leadership programmes often work on giving women these stereotypical skills. But as important is facilitating a fundamental identity shift, and that takes time.

“Sometimes you’ve not seen yourself in a leadership position, so when someone tells you that you are a leader, it takes them a bit of education and belief to take them through,” explains Avery. “So we said, let’s actually teach them, let’s form them as leaders – starting from who they are, how they see themselves, how they see other people, how they manage other people and groups, and manage the team.”

“They wanted to make sure they prepared all the people that wanted to take the role and were keen on the role,” said Matt Featherstone, the CEO. Featherstone, like most of the cricket world, was more used to a system where the vice-captain took over from the captain after a chat in the boardroom or change room, but he too recognised the merit of doing things another way. After all, Cricket Brasil, with its pioneering contracts for female cricketers and thriving grassroots cricket programmes in football country knew the value of creating an environment for women to succeed.

[caption id=”attachment_612064″ align=”aligncenter” width=”1200″]The escape room activity that was part of Cricket Brasil’s programme The escape room activity that was part of Cricket Brasil’s programme. Courtesy: Cricket Brasil[/caption]

The programme began with five candidates, whittled down to three for the later modules, before the captain was finally identified. Apart from the usual PPTs and lectures, every module was supported by feedback and self-reflection at every stage to help the candidates identify their strengths and values.

Communication, building trust, emotional maturity, and upholding the values of Cricket Brasil were common threads. A full month was spent on establishing connections though empathy – finding similarities, sharing stories, and creating an environment of trust.

Nascimento saw herself open up through the process. Described by her predecessor as a quiet ‘doer’, she’s still the same person, but she’s now more confident in who she is. Her biggest learning has been about her voice; where she thought dealing with people was her weak point, she now trusts herself to communicate well – “even when someone is angry”.

The escape room, she said, was her biggest challenge. It forced her to communicate, collaborate, strategise, delegate and think under pressure. But, in the next steps of the programme, when she and other candidates had to lead sides in the women’s national league and then lead the development side in a series of matches against the junior men’s team, she wasn’t perturbed as she had already been taken through many of the situations.

“We did it in a way that it was a big learning process,” Avery explains how they prevented the exercise from becoming a cut-throat reality show. “We were very clear about feedback. Very clear communication and very clear, honest feedback created an environment where people felt safe in knowing that we wanted them to grow. And also we were open that we need leaders in the group, and regardless of the position, they would be vital for the group’s growth from now forward.”

Despite all the preparation, the biggest challenge for the new leaders lies ahead of them. For one, they have big shoes to fill. Avery has been an ambassador – for the voice of women, for cricket, for Associate cricket.

“In my first module, I did speak to them about that. My leadership style is not necessarily the right leadership style or the only one,” she insists. “They [know to] captain how they think is best, according to their beliefs, personality and intuition.”

“It’s creating your own individual mark,” says Featherstone. “We’re not looking for instant success. We know it’s a lot of pressure for a young person, but as we say in our ‘ten commandments’ we have here, pressure is a privilege. It’s having that privilege to lead Cricket Brasil and putting your individual mark.”

Even after the final session of this programme, the process of growth and change will continue for the individuals and the organisation. Cricket Brasil’s ambitions are high, especially for women’s participation and their developmental squads. They are still looking to identify another player to liaise between the women’s squads, the management and the board, and speak for what the players need.

For too long in cricket, the voice of a woman was heard through a CEO or a man, Featherstone says. The clarion call for long overdue change is here.