“It was obviously a really tough summer. Definitely the toughest I’ve been involved with as a captain and as a player.”
Heather Knight is speaking at the end of a long and hard summer for the England Women’s cricket team she has captained since 2016. She carries a relaxed air, sat in balmy September sunshine at the Kia Oval, but also a pensive one. Understandably so: she speaks not just at a time of great change for her side, but also ahead of major changes to the structure of English cricket, and particularly women’s cricket, as a whole.
England were thoroughly beaten by Australia by 12 points to four in the multi-format Ashes series this summer. It was a series of great disappointment after England had drawn the last series in Australia, and one that precipitated the departure of head coach Mark Robinson, who stepped down.
“We obviously lost those first few games and really struggled to get the momentum back from Australia. They got on a bit of a winning streak and are obviously a very good team,” Knight reflects on a summer that saw her team promise much and deliver little.
“I guess the frustration is there were moments in those first few games where we could have won but just didn’t necessarily capitalise.”
Such a comprehensive defeat came at precisely the wrong time. It was a fine cricketing summer, one of the men’s first World Cup win, an enthralling men’s Ashes, and two brilliant and dramatic finals days.
The manner of the Australia win meant that Knight’s side largely missed out. In a summer where cricket filled pages front and back, the Women’s Ashes became an uncomfortably one-sided footnote, rather than the headline news it might have been.
The defeat also came just before domestic women’s cricket in England undergoes sweeping structural change. Three new competitions and an investment injection of potentially £20million arrive next year, with, pleasingly, many more female players to be paid.
The Hundred, the great spectre that looms over English cricket, is vitally important to the women’s game, more so than to the men’s. Whereas it exists as an additional fourth competition to a men’s schedule of familiarity and tradition, the women’s Hundred is directly replacing the Kia Super League, a flagship competition that has been vital to taking women’s cricket forward.
Knight is sad to see the KSL go. Her Western Storm reached finals day in all four seasons, winning the competition twice, including this summer. It is not often as a professional athlete you get the opportunity to help a team be built from the ground up, but Knight has enjoyed that privilege.
While excited about the Hundred, she admits that she will miss the Storm particularly. It is, in her own words, “bittersweet.”
“I think it was the final that the competition deserved,” Knight says of the 2019 final, in which she starred with a match-winning unbeaten 78. “The four years have been brilliant. It was great to end it with a brilliant close game down at Hove.
“I say bittersweet because I’m excited for the future but also disappointed that the Western Storm, the thing we’ve created over four years, will be no more. I am very excited for The Hundred, the opportunity it gives the women’s game to be alongside the men’s.
“I think it is really important that the women’s competition doesn’t get lost, which occasionally can happen when the women’s game is put alongside the men’s. I think it is important that doesn’t happen.
“It’s important that journalists following it and the players make sure that the women’s Hundred is up there with the men’s. It is going to be a brilliant competition for young girls to see men’s and women’s cricket alongside each other.”
Concerns over the women’s tournament being overshadowed are increasing. ESPN Cricinfo report each men’s side will pay two players £125,000 each. The total budget for the 15-player women’s teams will be £120,000.
Further, while the men’s team to be based at Manchester will play their home games at Old Trafford, the women are likely to play at Sedbergh in Cumbria – 80 miles from their supposed home. The Cardiff-based side may be called the Welsh Fire; the women’s team are expected to play three of their four home games in England.
The Hundred will have to carry forward the progress the KSL made, but beyond there are wider improvements needed as English cricket looks to narrow the gap to the all-conquering Australia side.
There are hopes that the restructuring will lessen the player base disparity – Australia has five times as many professional female cricketers.
And while the KSL did plenty of good for the visibility of the game, the competition was largely dominated by overseas stars and entrenched England names.
Robinson has been criticised for his failure to bring talent up into the England side. Though he improved those within the set-up considerably – Knight points to Danni Wyatt and Tammy Beaumont particularly – the gap between the 20-or-so centrally contracted players and the rest has only widened.
Knight believes the restructure should help.
“I think it is going to be a real gamechanger.
“It will take a few years to bed in, but hopefully it will give us a bigger pool of players to pick from, and give players who maybe lose their contracts something to go into below and try and fight their way back.
“To have a structure in the long-term is going to be great and it’s going to provide England girls more games, more pressure environments and that’s how you learn as players – the more you are tested against tough opposition.”
It is important that women’s cricket continues to grow, particularly with such strides being made across women’s sport on a macro level. This summer alone has seen a record-breaking FIFA Women’s World Cup, a superb Netball World Cup and the innovative Women’s Rugby Super Series, to name but three events to have caught the eye.
“It feels like a sort of community of women’s sport,” Knight says of cross-sport kinship. “We often talk to women’s footballers, rugby players, and it’s great to follow what they are doing and talk about our experiences.
“Do we have a duty [to take women’s sport forward]? I think yes, but it doesn’t feel like a duty, it feels like the right thing and something we are desperate to do. As players it is our job to keep driving things forward and play exciting cricket that people want to come and watch.
“It’s crazy how much things have changed in the past few years and I know players around the world just want to keep raising the bar.”
Girls’ cricket continues to grow. Some clubs now have more female youth players than male, and twice as many girls took part in the ECB’s All Stars scheme in 2018 as compared to 2017.
“It’s great to see. For any young eight-year-old girl to see the same path as an eight-year-old boy is important, to see it as a game for girls as much as it is for boys,” Knight concludes. “And I think that’s what you want, isn’t it? We want to see as many people as possible, boys and girls, enjoying the game and seeing the game thrive.”
Heather Knight was speaking at Finals Day of the Kia Summer Smash. Kia are long-term sponsors of the England Women’s cricket team. Visit kiasummersmash.co.uk to find out more.
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