Source: Bruce Perkins

We meet England’s women cricketers at Loughborough

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Six days before England women fly out to the subcontinent to take on India and Sri Lanka, Mark Robinson and Heather Knight (head coach and captain) answered a searching set of questions from the media. Then some of the players made themselves available for chats about how things are going on a more personal front.

English women’s cricket is in a state of flux. Robinson knows that the current system isn’t optimal. He and some deep thinkers at the ECB are looking to build structures that will best exploit the present and future talent available.

Much thinking went into the contracts recently awarded. Equally, the names on the three lists of touring squads involved juggling names to ensure Knight could always lead a side capable of victory while giving newer players the chance to spread their wings.

This means trying to balance long and short term aims, never an easy undertaking. The coming tour is not – and could never be – merely a warm-up for the coming Ashes. India have done their own warming-up in New Zealand while the English girls have had to make do with the nets at the National Centre. Underestimating the Sri Lankans would be another unwise error.

Sarah Taylor spoke movingly and frankly about surmounting the problems she has faced over recent years. The authorities are helping her with understanding and patience. Obviously she would like to be back going full blast, which matches her adoring public’s wishes.

It’s great news that she’s in the touring party, but won’t be expected to do the whole tour.

Katherine Brunt was keen to get started again. ‘I feel like a 21 year old’ is just what you want to hear from your leading bowler, who happens to be a fine batter and fielder as well. But her fitness is being closely monitored.

The broadest smile visible on the whole Loughborough campus belonged to Freya Davies, the recipient of a new full-time contract. She made a positive impression during her KSL appearances for Western Storm, and she fills a long-felt want. She’ll go to India for T20s to get her feet under the table, then on to develop further in Sri Lanka.

Robinson and Knight are aware of the national shortage of quality quick bowlers. When fielding captains want to take pace off the ball, and the faster ball can be hit to all parts of the parish, it’s not conducive to producing quality replacements for the splendid Anya Shrubsole and Brunt.

It was Katie George’s misfortune to be injured just when she’d made such an impression last summer. While Robinson hopes to see Kirstie Gordon restored to the ranks by the start of the summer, George’s rehab may take a little longer.

England’s spinning hopes devolve upon the admirable Laura Marsh – the only front-line off-spinner left after Dani Hazell’s decision to retire – Sophie Ecclestone and Alex Hartley, the Lancashire left-handed spin-twins, and Linsey Smith, whose style differs markedly from theirs.

To judge by the comments by several players in interviews, they are very confident of success in what is bound to be a demanding tour.

The full squad can be seen here.

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Full Q&A

Transcript of Media Day Q&A with Mark Robinson and Heather Knight

Loughborough 7 February 2019

ROBBO on Freya Davies:

Heather spoke highly of her from the Super League. She’s had a couple of good KSLs on flat tracks at Taunton. She takes a lot of responsibility for the team, to bowl in the powerplay and at the end. She had a delayed start due to her education at Exeter. She had a first year Rookie contract and she’s grown, and she needs opportunity, to play if we can – get her away in Sri Lanka, to see how much growth she’s got in her. A full time contract will help with that.

She’s not Katherine [Brunt] – Katherine bats, bowls and fields. That would be unfair to label that on anybody really. But she’s somebody who can swing the new ball, which would be a wicket-taking threat. She’s got a good back of the hand slower ball. She’s bowled at pressure moments for the Storm – whether she can transfer that, who knows? We’ve just got to let her grow and have that chance now.

ROBBO on fast bowlers:

Katie George has unfortunately been injured – she’s been out since the end of our international season last year. She’s doing well in her rebab. I don’t think she’ll be ready for the start of the summer – we’ve got to be slightly careful with her comeback. She potentially bats, bowls and fields – she’s nearer to being a junior Katherine [Brunt] in that sense.

It is difficult trying to find seamers – the women’s game underneath or international doesn’t help that. Every country’s desperate for seamers. There aren’t that many when you look around because everyone wants pace off the ball. There’s a girl Lauren Bell who’s doing well on the Academy. They’re girls that you hope to nurture all the way through. We’ve still got Kate Cross, who’s done OK in the WBBL. She hopefully will get some opportunity on these two tours coming up.

ROBBO on dropping Tash Farrant:

Tash was contracted very early, 16, 17. It’s difficult – you have to be fair to them as well. For Tash it’s really really hard, she’s a model pro and does everything right, and gives herself every opportunity, but she doesn’t play. The wickets suited her in the West Indies and she didn’t play – that’s a lot of disappointment for a young person at the age of 22, to keep having that tap on the shoulder to say ‘bad luck’.

You’ve got to create financial room for other players and room for opportunity on the pitch for Freya, etc.

TREV

In the women’s game you need the seamers to have the skill – a good slower ball, a bouncer etc – not throw them in too early – keeping them fit is a big thing. Being able to manage them, when to throw them in and when to protect them. 2020 is likely to mean more cricket for the girls coming through the system – that’s a good thing. International wickets are flat.

ROBBO

She’s going to India to be ready for Sri Lanka, not to play.

TREV

She’s got potential to play in both. She’s played a lot more in pressurised situations in T20. We haven’t got the 50-over equivalent at the moment in T20.

ROBBO

Of course there is [a way back for her]. Go into a new structure and be semi-professional.

Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind to players because you don’t want to release them at 26 and you’ve messed up your whole life.

Tash now has a choice, she can go in a different direction with her life or she can hang in there and see where she is in two more years, but you don’t want to be releasing players at 26 or 27 when they’ve never played, that’s the worst bit. 

We couldn’t necessarily see her playing in the next two years and it’s unfair to have her just as a cover bowler when she’s been doing that already for three or four years. Then, as I say, it creates room for Freya, Katie George if she gets fit. 

Q: The 50 competition that the KSL was planned to expand to a couple of years back was jettisoned, is that’s something where you feel progress is being made towards being a 50 over comp which complements the KSL or soon to be the artist formerly known as the KSL when it becomes the Hundred?

Robbo: We hope that there’ll be more support underneath. You have the experience of the WBBL played in Australia where there are full-time S&Cs…

Heather: I think it’s obvious that Australia are slightly ahead of us in terms of where they’re at with their domestic structure and we are playing catch-up a little bit. We don’t know exactly what 2020 will look like, the ECB are still working the details out but it looks like we’ll have some sort of domestic 20 over and 50 over competition that’s going to be able to feed into the game. At the moment the county system isn’t strong enough. It’s played on pretty average pitches, it’s very amateur, the standard isn’t good enough to prepare the players for the next level. Obviously with the Hundred starting we wouldn’t have been playing any domestic T20 cricket of a good standard so we’re hopful that whatever competition it is that comes will be able to do that. 

Like Robbo said, in Australia it’s a great system, you see a lot more non-internationals, the sort of county equivalent players coming through and putting in consistent performances. We haven’t quite got to that stage yet which is why we’ve probably added a few extra contracts, Freya for example hasn’t played for England yet, to try and counter that a little bit. So hopefully we’re at a stage where a few years down the line whether it’s semi-professional or some sort of professional system and it can feed in and there are more players there or having the opportunity to train and work on their games full-time. 

Q: Can you expand on the workload management of Sarah and Katherine?

A: Sarah was reasonably close to the West Indies, we sort of made a decision for her as much as anything else. It wasn’t the right thing to do with where she was at that time, she continues to work really hard to try to be able to control her anxiety that sometimes gets the better of her. She knows it’s something that will always be with her and managing it is the key. 

To do the whole of India would be a big ask, to do half of it would be really good. From our point of view we’d love her to be at the next World Cup which is in Australia so we need to get her on a plane, getting her through that type of situation then she can come back, do a bit of recovery and hopefully she’ll be ready for a busy season first with the West Indies then Australia’s coming. 

Katherine’s done remarkably well, she’s come to moan at me last week because she wants to go to Sri Lanka. She said “I feel like a 21 year old” which is lovely to hear. The medical people were always positive that she’d recover, it’s just if she would recover in time for the actual World Cup to play a part which she obviously didn’t in the end. Touch wood, she’s ready and raring to go.

TREV

It’s obvious that Australia are ahead of us and we are playing catch-up. We don’t know what 2020 will look like – the ECB are still working that out. Domestic structure is played on substandard pitches, it’s very amateur, it doesn’t prepare players well enough for the next level.

ROBBO

Sarah was reasonably close to WI – we made a decision for her as much as anything.

She continues to work really hard to try and be able to control her anxiety, which sometimes gets the better of her. It will always be with her – managing it is the key. Part of that would be to do the whole of India would be a big ask. We’d love her to be in that next WC which is in Aus so we need to get her on a plane. She can come back, do a bit of recovery and hopefully be ready for a busy summer.

Katherine’s doing really well. Last week – ‘I feel like a 21 year old’. She’s fit and raring to go at the moment. But management of her – she could end up going to SL if anything happens to Anya – we would leave her to rest and use that as a bit more rehab stage. It creates an opportunity for Freya.

They get supported really well in terms of up to 3 months after, from a medical point of view, but no there isn’t. For Beth and Tsh their decision now is do I play KSL and then the year after when hopefully the semi-pro comes in, do they do that.

It’s a lot of mental set backs, they’re training really hard and they put everything on it. Tash doesn’t want to be a cover player for the rest of her life.

TREV

We’ve never won an ODI series in India – we’re not treating it as a building block for the Ashes. It’s going to be a massive, really challenging tour for us. It’s a tough place to go.

ROBBO

Dunks will go as much for learning – the cover batter will be between Winfield or Wyatt. Dunks might play in the T20s.

Hazell – decision was made long before. We wanted her to stay.

The Rookie contracts is done to support people who are out of education and are going to have to get a job to support themselves, so they can come in and concentrate on cricket.

Juggling the contracts:

It’s making the best of what we’ve got. We’ve got to be creative. We tempted Katie George not to do football. We’ve got to use our cards.

MR:

 “The transition from a promising young seamer to one that is able to have a repeatable enough action is not an easy one. We’ve got a few girls knocking underneath but it is hard because generally they don’t get enough overs.

“Beth had a lot of injuries,

 Tash… we couldn’t get her a game. We’d end up playing another spinner.

“We have to be fair.

“We use Lloyd Tennant, Steve Oldham etc to try to get a group of young bowlers who are 16 to 18. That’s more down to necessity than who is around.

HK:

 “You can start them young but with pace on the ball sometimes it can get hit. In T20s and one-dayers you need your seamers to have the skills – a good bumper, a good slower ball, a good yorker. Players coming through the system, like a Katie George, aren’t going to have that straight away.

“It’s finding how to manage them, not throw them in too early and try to develop them all the time and keep them fit.

“It’s like a young legspinner, knowing how to manage them and when to throw them in at the right time and when to protect them a little bit.

Would the domestic schedule need to be looked at if you were to bring more quicks through?

HK:

 “It’s more cricket, for any of our players coming through, not just the quicks. With the announcement about 2020, we don’t know what that will look like at the moment but it’s likely to mean more cricket for the girls below and for the girls coming through

 the system, which can only be a good thing.

MR:

 “Seamers need to bowl, that’s the trouble. They don’t bowl enough because they get whipped off, because it’s easier to play a spinner.

“We had the schools games here to pick the development squad and we made all the games on the last day where you had to bowl seamers in the first six because all the captains were bowling spin at the front. We had to make a rule. They have to bowl and learn.

“We’re taking a lot of players on the Sri Lanka and India tours because we’re trying to be creative. We need to win, but can we win and get other people’s careers off and running. That’s always a tricky one.

“That’s why Freya and Kate Cross are coming. If we can get her (Davies) away she’s going to be better for the experience but you can’t just throw her in in the Ashes against Australia.

Will the pitches in India be conducive to that sort of bowling?

MR:

 “When have we played on a seaming wicket? Worcester? St Lucia? International wickets are generally flat so we don’t play on what we do in county cricket where it might seam. International wickets are flat, they’re not typical English seamers.

HK:

 “In India and Sri Lanka they’re going to be a little bit slower but that’s another stage of the bowlers’ development; how are they going to bowl in those conditions, have they got a good slower ball, are they able to keep the stumps in play 80 per cent of the time? It’s another string to their bow that they can develop out there.

“Obviously it’s not the most seam-friendly seam conditions and I’m sure spin will play a big part but it will be a good experience for them.

You’ve selected Freya for the T20s in India and not the ODIs, do you see her more as a T20 player?

MR:

“She’s going to India to be ready for Sri Lanka. She’s going early so we can get her ready to

 hit the ground running in Sri Lanka as opposed to having to get off a plane and scramble to be ready. We’re trying to give her the best opportunity to be ready.

HK:

 “I think she’s got potential to play in both. She’s got advanced skills in T20, she’s played a lot more in pressurised situations but she can be a brilliant asset in 50 overs. She swings the ball, hits a heavy length and I can see her as a bowler in both.

 She’s obviously had reasonable success in the Super League but we don’t have the 50-over equivalent at the moment to see her in that.

Safety Net for Tash & Blangers?

MR: They get supported really well, in terms of 3 months after from the medical point of view, but then no there isn’t; and that is the sad bit. It is the same as a county cricketer being released, if he doesn’t get another job or doesn’t get another county that’s it – he is playing minor counties or whatever. It is the same. So for Beth and Tash their decision now is: do I play KSL, county cricket etc., then the year after, when hopefully semi-professional comes in they do that; or they go on a different career. That is the unfortunate place we are in.

What exactly is the support?

MR: Everything – after their contract ends – all the players have a nice transition to help them into the next stage.

HK: The PCA also support them in terms of what their next steps are and giving them opportunities to study or do other things.

Cruel to be kind?

MR: When I was head coach at Sussex it was exactly the same with young players, because you don’t want to string people on. It is a lot of disappointment sometimes – you’ve not made this tour; you’ve not made the XI – that is a lot of mental setbacks – all the girls are training really hard, you put everything on it and then you get let down. It is a lot to take mentally. I think at some point you’ve got to say ‘we can’t actually see you coming through’ Tash doesn’t want to be a cover player for the rest of her life; so she might re-invent herself – she could be a major player – we want people who can win games for England, not fill the squad and make our numbers up to 19, so Freya is now at the beginning of the cycle – she is where Tash was at 17 and Beth was at 18 when she got a contract.

Balance of “now” and “future”?

HK: We’ve never won an ODI series in India, so we are not treating it as any sort of building block for the Ashes at all. In the history of the women’s game we’ve never beaten a team out there, so that is obviously a big thing that we want to change – they are a very good team – just gone to New Zealand and beaten them 2-1 in their home conditions and they are playing brilliant cricket at the moment so not in any way are we seeing it as a building block for the Ashes. It is a massive tour for us – to go out there and win it is a tough place to go – we want last year with a slightly younger team and lost 2-1 in the decider in the ODI series and played some good cricket in the T20s as well, but it is gonna be a real challenge and we are not taking it lightly at all.

HK: The T20s are building into another World Cup but there aren’t championship points on the line so there might be slightly more opportunity to give younger players a go; but obviously Sri Lanka will be a slightly different test – it will be the back-end of that India tour and 6-7 weeks in the subcontinent is a long time to be out there so it is gonna be a tough trip – tough to go there and bring those young players in so hopefully they will give us a bit of energy and a little bit of lift later in that tour.

MR: Dunks will go as much for learning – the cover batter will be between Winfield and Wyatt and then we will have Dunks for learning. She is in the T20 squad so she might play in the T20s but it is a great chance to have a young player working every day in the nets with Ali and the other coaches. Last year we were 2-0 up against New Zealand and we can go for the ruthless 3-0 but again we looked to play Crossy and we rested Katie George and Sarah.  We’ve never been scared not to play our best players; but it is getting the right balance – you’ve got to win the series first – got to be confident you’ve got enough in your house to win it, and that is where we have to be careful with Sri Lanka – we can’t underestimate them – we’ve got to have enough senior players there that you can rely on to win the games.

How many bodies are you taking? 

MR: We generally have 15. Dunks (Sophia Dunkley) will go as much for learning. She’s a cover batter between Winfield or Wyatt, whoever is going to bat at six out of those. Then we’ll have Dunks for learning and then obviously she is in the T20 squad. It’s a great chance to have a young player working every day in the nets with Ali (Alastair Maiden, batting coach) and the other coaches and extra bowling with Gareth Brees. 

You’ve got to be brave. You’ve got to have one eye on what’s happening now but otherwise… when I came in, the pool of players we used was really small. Then suddenly we’ve got two off-spinners who are both at the age of 30. There was almost no transitional, long-term planning in it. We have to look at that bit. To have no off-spinner cover and to be left with a 33-year-old and a 31-year-old, that’s what you try and avoid. At some point you have to try and find solutions down the line, but you can’t do it against an Australia. But you might be able to when you’re 2-0 up. 

This conversation play a part in Dani Hazell’s retirement? 

MR: No. Not at all. Dani decided long before this tour was talked about, in terms of selection. I think her back, family…

HK: Speaking to her out in Australia, I think it was just the perfect time for her. She was completely happy with her decision. She had a lot of back issues throughout her career and got herself in decent shape and had to do a lot of work off the pitch to stay on it. I think it was the right time for her to move away. I’m sure there’ll be some young kids running around in a few years. She’s completely happy with the decision. 

MR: We’ll miss her. 

Dunkley missed out on a contract…

Dunks is at university. Generally, the rookie contracts is done to support people who are out of education and are going to have to get a job. Like Freya, she did her law degree, comes out and is going to get a job to support herself. So how does she have half a chance of coming through? We set the rookie contracts to bridge it. It saves them being part-time so they can come in and concentrate on cricket. Dunkley and Kirstie Gordon are still full-time education so they weren’t considered. 

Well in contention to play in the best XI after T20 World Cup displays? 

No, she’s on the tour. Definitely. She’s in the squad. Obviously, if Katherine plays she probably wouldn’t have been there (T20 World Cup). She’d have been a cover batter to do the role she did. That’s why we want her with us. 

Alex Hartley. Where do you see her place re: team? 

It’s a juggling act. If we can find out more about Linsey Smith. We know a lot about Alex, but can we find out more? If Marshy gets injured, what are we going to do? Linsey Smith is a completely different bowler to the normal left-armers. Would that do a job as a more defensive bowler? Is it Heather and Danni Wyatt who are having to do the role. We have to find out because at the moment we have one off-spinner. We know Alex. Alex will cover Sophie Ecclestone. And obviously Kirstie Gordon, when she’s fit, will come into that contention. 

So Alex will be there for India and then we’ll use Sri Lanka to find out about other people. 

How is Kirstie?

She’s a bit ahead of Katie, but she’ll be ready for the start of the summer.

Comfortable with dealing with contracts tactically?

MR: It’s making the best of what you’ve got. Suzie Bates and Devine do not come out of a fantastic system. Fantastic players will just appear. But better your system is you can attract the better athletes at a young age. Mandhana hasn’t come out of a fantastic system. Sarah Taylor didn’t come out of a great system. They came because of the love fo the game etc. We’ve just got to be creative: we tempted Katie George not to do football, we’ve taken a girl to the Academy who hopefully won’t choose football. We’ve got to use our cards, until hopefully in five years time there’s a better system underneath where hopefully cricket is the No.1 choice for girls. 

I just used five years off the top of my head – I know it’s going to take a while. Heather and I should always have little rows about short-term and long-term – she’s the captain, she wants this today, and I want her to think ahead. Every now and then she’ll say “well, we’ve got to sort this bit out first.” We have those discussions really well, but we’re all aware of what players are out there. There are some good players out there who are maybe 16, 17. 

Berkshire: sad?

HK: I guess it’s a bit bittersweet. It’s got to happen, the Hundred is going to be great for the women’s game, and if they get the set-up right it will create that safety net, because at the moment you’re into the abyss if you lose your contract. I’m sure Berkshire will be involved as some sort of feeder for one of those hubs, whatever it might look like, and be involved in the youth development. It’s what’s needed to move the game forwards in this country, so I’m perfectly happy to move on.

MR: In the World Cup, there were some things we knew were going to happen but couldn’t announce. There are some people working really hard with the ECB to try and make things right. It will take time, and they’ve got to get things through boards. We’ve got to make the best situation we’ve got.

Bring on the Aussies. I love it when people say they’ve got the best system and the best players, and we’re not meant to be any good. I know our stats. I know where our players sit in it. I know where Danni Wyatt sits as a T20 player, and it isn’t where the ICC say. We’ve got some bloody good players and we’ll be ready. We might not win, but shit we’ll have a good go.

T20 final: wake up call?

Australia changed. Australia woke up, that’s for sure. They’ve changed off the pitch and on the pitch. We played them in 2017 and they were quite conservative. And they got a bloody nose, as any team do. Good teams react, and they changed how they play. They play all around the wicket now, they smile more off the pitch, they’ve changed more off the pitch. And fair play – that’s what champion teams do.

We drew the Ashes, but if that had gone on for a week longer we’d have won it. We’ve been very close. It’s whether they’ve made a move and whether we’re at the same level, but we’ll find out. We’ve got some players who are ready for it. But we can’t underestimate India, because they come first. We’ve come out of the indoor school while they’ve been playing in New Zealand, so that’s our first challenge. 

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