Heather Knight hails increased depth of women's game as England prepare to face New Zealand

Heather Knight hails increased depth of women’s game as England prepare to face New Zealand

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ECB domestic contracts and success of the Hundred gives England their “widest pool of players” to pick from

The impact of increased professionalisation is already beginning to show in the women’s game, with England captain Heather Knight saying selection for the upcoming T20Is against New Zealand had featured the “widest pool of players” under discussion since she was appointed in 2016.

Last year, the ECB handed out its first batch of full-time domestic women’s contracts, with 41 players brought into the regional set-up as professionals, alongside those centrally contracted by England. That system has underpinned an increased playing programme this summer, featuring the 50-over Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy and 20-over Charlotte Edwards Cup, in addition to the Hundred (for which players were signed up separately).

The Hundred, which concluded at Lord’s just over a week ago, saw record-breaking attendances for women’s cricket in the UK, and contributed to first time call-ups for Maia Bouchier and Charlie Dean – although both will miss Wednesday’s opening T20I after being deemed close contacts of a Covid-19 case – as well as Emma Lamb, who was added to the squad as cover.
Another star of the new 100-ball tournament was Alice Capsey, the 17-year-old whose aggressive batting and canny offbreaks helped Oval Invincibles lift the trophy. Capsey caught the eye of Invincibles coach, Jonathan Batty, during last year’s Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy – because of her age he had to ask her mum’s permission before offering a spot at the Hundred – and she is already being touted as a future England international, albeit that studying for her A Levels may take precedence for now.

“Lots of people have talked about Alice, obviously she had an outstanding Hundred,” Knight said. “She’s been someone that’s been talked about a lot, as have a number of players, there’s been a lot of players that have stood up and put in performances and that’s been so good in terms of selection. It was probably the widest pool of players I think we’ve talked about since I’ve been captain, that’s for sure, and that’s a great things for the team.

“Alice is definitely one we’ve got on our radar, but we’ve gone with a few different players that we want to have a look at and want to see how they react to being around the group.”

Knight said that giving domestic women cricketers “the opportunity to train as much as the England players” would only increase competition for spots in the coming seasons, and pointed to the ability to follow performances much more closely than before. “The pool of players that we’re talking about now in selection is much bigger,” she said. “It’s just so great that we can watch every game and see these players in action just at the click of a button, through the streaming service and obviously having stuff on telly as well.”

The increased game-time means England may look at rotating their XI against New Zealand, with the three T20Is followed by a five-match ODI series that will aid preparations for the 50-over World Cup. Having been put back by the pandemic, the 2021 tournament will be held in New Zealand early next year, where England will be attempting to defend their title.

“Those ODIs are going to be a huge focus for us with the World Cup,” Knight said. “It might give us the chance to have a little look at a few players, and the schedule for the ODIs is pretty mad to be honest; we’ve got five games in I think, 10 or 11 days so I’m sure we’re going to have to look at potentially rotating a few players and looking after players.

“It’s been a long old summer with various bubbles, etc, so we’re going to have to make sure we look after players physically and mentally. But anytime you play for England, anytime you preparing for a series you’re looking to give your best and try and put together the best preparations to try and win those games.”

The Hundred was also an opportunity for those who have already played for England to remind the selectors of their abilities – and none did so more effectively than Tash Farrant, the Invincibles left-armer who finished as the tournament’s leading wicket-taker and impressed with her change-ups at the death.

“Having that squad depth and different players performing well – you saw Tash Farrant, how well she did in the Hundred, the performances she put in, and she was on the bench for the whole of the India series,” Knight said. “So people putting in those sort of performances and making it really, really tricky for us to leave them out is what we want.”

Knight was also in no doubt about the impact of the Hundred on the women’s game, particularly how the marked increase in attendances – ECB figures recorded 267,000 spectators at women’s fixtures across the tournament – would help players learn how to deal with greater scrutiny and pressure.

“What a tournament it was. The crowds that we had, the support that we had, and the cricket that was on show. It’s going to be a huge thing, I think, for women’s cricket, but I don’t think we’re necessarily going to see the impact straightaway in terms of the series coming up. I think the biggest impact will for us will be being able to play under that sort of pressure, and [in front of] crowds consistently, it’s is going to be huge for us how we deal with that as players. The players that really embrace it and grow, when they are under that pressure, is going to be a big learning I think.”

Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick