DPhil student leads Oxford to cricket glory

After her recent successes with the Women's cricket Blues, we caught up with Vanessa Picker (DPhil Social Intervention) about what it's like juggling high-level sport with her fascinating research.

How did you become involved with cricket at the University? 

I played a lot of cricket back in Australia and always intended to get involved with cricket while in the UK. Shortly after arriving, I met some Blues players at the Freshers’ Fair and spoke to them about getting involved with the women’s team. I was invited to the weekly team training sessions and the rest is history! In my first season with the Blues (2016-17, while completing MSc), I was selected as a top-order batter, opening the batting in each of the games. This year (2017-18, first year of DPhil), I had the privilege of captaining the Women’s Blues.      

I got involved with cricket at the University, knowing that it’s a very exciting time to be playing women’s cricket. Attitudes towards female cricketers have changed drastically and the women’s game is receiving more exposure than ever before. Inspired by England’s success at the 2017 record-breaking Women’s Cricket World Cup, women of all ages and experience levels are quickly becoming involved in the sport. As I quickly learned, female cricketers at Oxford (whether beginners or advanced) can easily access high-quality coaching, support and resources. 

Through the Blues Performance Scheme, we have been able to access high-performance cricket coaching, regular strength and conditioning sessions, tailored nutritional guidance and team sports psychology sessions. In Michaelmas term and Hilary term, we train at the indoor cricket school at the Iffley Sports Centre. In Hilary term, we train outdoors at the historical University Parks. We have weekly matches against other Universities, as well as touring teams such as the Army. The training all culminates in the annual Varsity matches, one of which is always played at Lord’s. 


What have been the highlights of your time captaining the Women’s Blues?

The standout experience would have to be captaining the Women’s Blues to a very comprehensive victory in the 2018 Lord’s Varsity match. I was very pleased with the team’s all round performance. I think we played a positive style of cricket and it was a special moment when we secured our second Varsity win for the season (and 5th consecutive Lord’s win). We spoke between the Twenty20 Varsity victory (18th May) and the Lord’s match about what we wanted to do, and we managed to stick to our game plan. The 188 run victory was particularly satisfying as we had a lot of belief in everything that we’d practised and we committed to playing an attacking style of cricket. 

Another highlight was captaining the Blues team to a 106 run victory in the Twenty20 Varsity match and being awarded Player of the Match for scoring 74 not out. We scored 187 runs and restricted Cambridge to just 81 runs. To keep Cambridge to a score of 81 on a wicket like Parks was an outstanding performance, showing the quality of our bowling and fielding on the day. We had a lot of support, with a large crowd turning up to watch the women’s game. I know that many of my friends who watched the match weren’t cricket fans beforehand, but they had a brilliant time and have now taken an active interest in women’s cricket.    

In the British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) competition, team highlights included beating Leicester University by 344 runs and beating Warwick University by 211 runs. We also had convincing wins against teams such as Nottingham University, Nottingham Trent University and the Army (friendly match). As captain, it was pleasing to see that we performed well as a team and individually, with centuries, a double century and even a hat-trick in the non-Varsity matches! Overall, I’m very excited about the depth of our squad and look forward to taking the momentum into the 2018-19 season.  


Can you tell us a bit about your doctoral studies – what are you researching?

My doctoral research is focused on assessing how outcomes-based commissioning models (such as social impact bonds) affect the provision of social services. Social Impact Bonds (SIBs) (an investor-backed form of payment-by-results) have attracted considerable political attention since 2010. A SIB is a form of payment-by-results where the commissioner (often Government) pays for the outcomes achieved, rather than services delivered. The capital required to fund the intervention is obtained from external investors who earn a financial return if the intervention is successful. Since 2010, 108 SIBs have been launched in 24 countries since 2010, with a total upfront investment of over $392 million USD. Despite the political popularity of SIBs, opinions are mixed as to whether they have benefited the provision of public services.

In light of this, the overall aim of my doctoral research is to examine how the SIB funding model affects service provision. I am currently systematically reviewing the literature to develop an overarching model of causal pathways (including mediators and moderators) for how the SIB funding model might affect service provision. Secondly, I will conduct a qualitative investigation to identify practitioner perceptions and recipient perceptions about how the SIB funding model affects the service delivery ‘pipeline’. Finally, I will develop theories/models of potential harms and underlying mechanisms (‘dark logic models’) and conduct a mixed-methods evaluation to identify whether or not the concerns identified are evident in a ‘live’ SIB. Overall, I hope for the research to contribute to improving the quality of future evaluations, and enhancing our understanding of the benefits and risks associated with the SIB funding model.


What’s it like combining your research with your high-level involvement with University sport?

2 Blues, 3 Varsity wins, some amazing teammates and memories. Combining my research with high-level involvement in University Sport has been incredibly rewarding and I wouldn’t change a thing! Many of my best Oxford memories have taken place on the cricket field, whether at the historical University Parks, Lord’s or other opposition grounds. While the training commitments have often led to a very busy schedule, this has helped me to remain organised and efficient with my time. These are skills which have also been useful academically. I firmly believe that a healthy body is key for maintaining a healthy mind. If I have been at the gym or at cricket training, I feel much better for the rest of the day and my academic performance is often enhanced as a result. For example, in the EBSIPE program, I achieved my highest exam result in an exam which I sat only two days after a Varsity cricket match. 

From volunteering on the Committee to captaining the Blues team, I’ve had several opportunities to develop leadership and communication skills. These skills have been very transferable academically (e.g when presenting my research to diverse stakeholders) and I know they will be important later on, in the competitive graduate jobs market. In high-level sport, things don’t always go to plan. I’ve experienced injuries and other setbacks since joining the Women’s Blues team, but this has enhanced my capacity to be versatile and flexible (also important skills academically). Whether undertaking a Master’s or DPhil program, I’d encourage all prospective and current students to take up sport alongside their studies. While the decision to juggle both sporting and academic commitments might initially seem daunting, I think that high-level sport involvement can build the mental toughness and self-discipline required to succeed on a challenging academic program.