From within the snakepit: recounting Southern Vipers’ successful RHF Trophy campaign

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The author, who is a cricket statistician, worked as the scorer for Vipers during the Rachael Heyhoe Flint trophy.

It all came as something of a surprise.

I was sat in the bar at the Hilton Hotel adjoining the Ageas Bowl in Southampton, whilst within the bio-secure bubble for the England against Ireland ODIs when Charlotte Edwards, who had popped in for the final game, came over. I know Charlotte from working with her around the world on matches – from home internationals to the ICC T20 World Cup in Australia just a few months previously.

“I’ve been talking about you today,” she says.  “Oh blimey, what have I done?” came my reply.

“Would you be interested in scoring for the Southern Vipers this season in the Rachael Heyhoe-Flint Trophy?  I have been talking to Carts [Adam Carty, the Regional Director of Women’s Cricket for South Central area and also a club colleague and good friend of mine at Calmore Sports] and we would love for you to do it.”

The Southern Vipers were only ever a side that I had followed in passing.  They were a team in my extensive databases, the team that Charlotte coached and were one of the perennial contenders for the Kia Super League title, having been the inaugural winners in 2016.

“If I can fit it in around my Sky working commitments, I will do it for you.”

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And that was that. The fixtures were released and, because of the restrictions in place, I was only permitted to score the home games – a warm up game at Hove, the competition match there, and two more games at the Ageas Bowl.

I was nervous as I travelled down the A27 from my home in Southampton for the first game.  I have scored thousands of games, for Calmore, for Prestwich, for Army and United Kingdom Armed Forces, for anyone!  I score the games whilst working on them for the last 16 years for television.  Why nerves now?

This was something a bit new, after all, this competition wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the virus which has decimated the world.  It would have been The Women’s Hundred, not this 50-over competition named after one of the great ladies of our sport.

The warm-up game, against the South East Stars went the way of the visitors.  It wasn’t really that important, the Vipers were slightly decimated by unavailability and the Stars used their full 15-player squad.  It was no biggie, it was a hit out, a chance to play and feel bat on ball.

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Tara Norris celebrates a wicket. © Getty Images

There was a considerable amount of time when we believed we wouldn’t hear leather on willow this summer, especially when Mr Johnson described the ball as a ‘vector of disease’ in a speech at the end of June – when we were due to be midway through the season and having not seen a ball bowled.

Having recorded a couple of wins on the road at Chelmsford and Bristol, the latter a crucial away win against the much fancied Western Storm, the Vipers headed back to Hove for match three and a ‘proper’ eleven-a-side game with the Stars.

In many ways, it was this game that made me a fully-fledged Viper.

After scoring the game a couple of weeks previously, the team got to know me and, after contacting them all to create player profiles for the Vipers website, they knew who I was.  I had also bumped into Ella Chandler at Aldershot Cricket Club when they were playing against the Army Ladies, who I was scoring for.

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The Vipers completed a comprehensive victory by 111 runs against the Stars, skittling them for just 98 after setting what many thought was a sub-par 209-8 in their 50 overs.

It was this game that made me start to believe just how much this tournament meant to the players involved. Danielle Wyatt had left the squad to take up her place in the bio-bubble ahead of the West Indies series, as had Lauren Bell.

Captain Georgia Adams would be joined at the top of the order by a talented 17-year-old Sussex batter Ella McCaughan – pronounced McCacken by the way – and much would be relied upon the skipper and the experienced Maia Bouchier and Paige Scholfield at the top of the order. But it was McCaughan who stood up and struck her maiden 50.  It was a classy knock, patient, steady, supportive but also commanding within the 84-run opening stand with Adams.

The Stars were nowhere in the chase.  Tara Norris took 3 for 27 and Scholfield 2 for 10, but it was the first change bowler who really made me, amongst many others, sit up and watch. And it was her responses to my questions post-match which completely had me ‘bought in’ as a Viper.

26-year-old Charlotte Taylor had only been brought into the squad at the last minute following an injury to her Hursley Park colleague and best mate Emily Windsor. Taylor was due to be commentating for BBC Radio Solent until she received the call from Charlotte Edwards to say that she was to make her debut.

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She came on to bowl, from the Cromwell Road end – the end which had seen a mini-tornado earlier rip the advertising hoardings to all parts, including one that finished up in a tree on the neighbouring Palmeira Avenue! Seven overs later, she had 2 for 13, removing Maxine Blythin and Hannah Jones.  A lovely action, round the wicket, had the batters at sixes and sevens, not knowing if she was going to beat them on the inside or the outside.  It was a joy to watch.

It was afterwards that just made me, and I know Charlotte Edwards too, take her to our hearts. One of the questions on the form I had sent to all the players was “what is your career highlight so far?”.  Taylor’s response was “well …. it’s today.  It’s playing for the Vipers.”

For two years previously, ‘Tayz’ as she is affectionately known by all, had struggled to recover from an ACL injury.  She thought her dreams of playing professional cricket – like her uncle Neil had done for Middlesex and Hampshire 2nd XI in the early 1990s – had gone.

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Charlotte Taylor was not originally part of the Vipers squad, but finished as the highest wicket-taker in the tournament. © Getty Images

She had plied her cricketing trade for Hampshire but missed the 2018 Championship winning season having played every season since 2010 because of the injury.

But having scored a match-winning 77 for her club the week before, Windsor’s injury opened the door for Taylor to play and receiving the call from the coach.  Not as a batter – she came in number 10 – but as a bowler.  It mattered not, it was a dream realised.

During the course of the England against West Indies series ahead of the RHF Final, I have spoken to the coach about the squad.

She doesn’t understand the pull that she has over her charges.  She sees herself as the coach, a friend, someone who is helping the players develop. She doesn’t see herself as the Charlotte Edwards CBE, captain of England on 220 occasions, Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 2014, multiple time Ashes winner and captain of the 2009 World Cup winners.

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Ask any of the players under her and it was her telephone call, her one-to-one chats, where she expresses “you can do this, I have faith in you” that makes all the difference.

Emily Windsor is one such case in point.  A regular member of the Hampshire squad, there was some debate whether she would remain with the Vipers but a discussion with Lottie, a “you are with us, I believe in you” made all the difference. Her crucial 47 not out off 43 balls at the Oval in the chase to beat the Stars in the final group game proved her ability.  Her 37 in the Final was even more crucial as it lifted the Vipers to their eventual total of 231.

The confidence that the Hursley Park youngster would have taken from those innings is immeasurable.  The smile on the coaches’ face spoke volumes.

With an average age of just 22, to go through the tournament unbeaten was more than anyone could have expected.  In fact, they felt they were probably second favourites to get out of the group. Only Lightning regularly fielded a side with an average age younger than the Vipers.  Their final opponents, the Northern Diamonds, average age in that game was some five years older.

This tournament was so different from the Women’s Cricket Super League where the fully fledged England players and the overseas stars took centre stage and filled the majority of the top batting positions and bowled the bulk of the overs.

The RHF trophy gave players time to develop, time to work out their game and hone their skills but also be given their chances to do it.

The perfect example was Georgia Adams, who led from the front and it was another discussion with the coach that helped her greatly. Edwards said to her to ‘bat for 40 overs, it doesn’t matter what the score is, just bat for 40 overs and go from there’ – it worked superbly.

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Georgia Adams was phenomenal at the top of the order for Vipers. © Getty Images

500 runs in seven innings, including a sensational unbeaten 154 against a very good Western Storm side, was reward for her mindset.  The England door is being battered down by Chris Adams’ daughter who is already commanding her own name rather than the shadow of the ex-Sussex captain.

But it was also a huge season for Charlie Dean, the daughter of Minor Counties legend Steve. Somewhat under the radar, she was still one of just five players across the tournament to score 150 runs and take five wickets. Her nine scalps only trailed Georgia Hennessy of Western Storm of this exclusive group.

Six wins from six group games and into the televised final at one of the great Test match venues, Edgbaston in Birmingham. At such tender ages, you would have thought those three factors – televised, final, Edgbaston – would have set pulses racing and nerves shredding.

Charlotte admitted that they just took it in their strides, like another game of cricket on their local park, their local club, playing with their mates. It held them well as they went onto win the inaugural Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy on that chilly day in the West Midlands.

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Adams led the way with 80, posting a fourth century partnership for the opening wicket – two with Wyatt and now two with McCaughan, before they collapsed from 150 for 1 to 172 for 6 and 191 for 8. Windsor’s steadying knock was key and much needed.

But the day belonged to the eventual player of the match. That quiet, unassuming player who wasn’t even in the squad at the start of the tournament but ended up as the tournament leading wicket-taker with 15 and Sky’s commentators baffled as to what she was actually bowling!

Six for 34 in ten overs. The removal of Hollie Armitage with the Diamonds well set at 74 for 1 started the rush as Taylor saw off Ami MacDonald – incredibly hit wicket first ball – the highly experienced Jenny Gunn, ‘keeper Beth Heath, former England seamer Beth Langston and then the Diamonds’ last stand Sterre Kalis for 55 on her way to record figures.

Almost embarrassed, ‘Tayz’ stepped up receive her award and was interviewed by Charles Dagnall live on worldwide television, and then, as the players awaited their captain to bring the trophy over underneath the Winners banner, she stood at the back, out of the spotlight. She had to be dragged forward to take a central part in the celebrations.  It was her achievements with the ball that had been integral to the success.

This young woman, from New Milton in Hampshire, the daughter of the club chairman Steve, she as reliable a player as you could wish to have in your team, had become an inspiration to so many. An inspiration that your dreams can come true.

There are very few good news stories which have emanated out of this dreadful pandemic but this is one of them.

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Southern Vipers remained unbeaten through the tournament. © Getty Images

The Rachael Heyhoe-Flint Trophy wouldn’t have happened.  The Southern Vipers would have been resigned to the WCSL history books and superseded by the Southern Brave team in the Hundred. And Vipers players like Taylor, Ella McCaughan, Providence Cowdrill, Charlie Dean, Emily Windsor, Ella Chandler and Alice Monaghan may not have had their chance to shine.

Charlotte Taylor went back to work on Tuesday at a local plane parts company in Christchurch, Dorset.  She arrived at her desk to find it decorated with pictures of her achievements, her bowling, and her receiving the player of the match award alongside congratulation messages aplenty.

It was nothing but fully deserved.

For me to be at the final, to see the team that I had become so involved with, enjoying their success during and afterwards back at the team hotel, was nothing but a joy.

It would not have been possible but for Adam Carty and Charlotte Edwards’ bringing my name up, for the players, for the support staff, for everyone.  From being a casual follower to being a part of the set-up will live with me forever.

For the Vipers – the first ever winners of the WCSL and the first ever winners of the RHF Trophy. Stars have been created, experiences made and developed … I hope this competition continues in this guise as it worked and it allowed some 132 female players to play competitive, 50-over cricket.