Ruthless Heather Knight revels on her match-winning century

Heather Knight hits one through the off side. © Getty Images

Earlier this month, Katherine Brunt underlined the importance of Heather Knight to this England team not just as an inspirational leader but also as a high-class batter. “She’s a match-winner,” Brunt said. “She’s just very great at tempo and seeing games through to scores we want, or we need to chase down. Just having her on the pitch makes us a much better team.”

Given England’s recent batting frailties, Knight needed to play exactly that kind of match-winning innings in the fourth ODI against New Zealand at Derby, to help her side seal the series with one game to spare on Thursday (September 23). A decent crowd bathed in warm, late summer sunshine were treated to a true captain’s innings which took the home side to the brink of victory.

After having reduced New Zealand to 89 for 4 in the 23rd over and failing to capitalise on a few tough chances, England had conceded more than they hoped with the ball. The visitors’ total of 244 for 8 meant England would need to record their highest ever successful run chase in order to win the match and wrap up the series.

Tammy Beaumont and Lauren Winfield-Hill’s half-century opening stand – the first for England in ODIs since December 2019 – was a bright start. But that was only a prelude to another one of those mini batting collapses that have plagued England of late. Three wickets fell for just 19 runs, but Knight was determined not to be forced to rely on the tail to bail out the top order again.

“We haven’t been at our best as a batting group for the last couple of games,” she conceded. “So, I was desperate to be the one to try and score a big score for the team and get us over the line.”

Knight described her thought processes walking at the start of her innings: “I think whenever you go out to bat, you’re trying to go through the process of each ball and trying to win each ball and not think too far ahead. I knew that I was going to have to bat long and generally if we bat 50 overs as a side, we’re going to chase that down, even though it was a little bit of a slow wicket.”

Knight and Amy Jones began the job of rebuilding the innings. The going was slow at first with the pair finding Hayley Jensen particularly hard to get away. The strategy was clear if challenging, absorbing the pressure without letting the required run rate climb too high, all while keeping wickets in hand.

Hannah Rowe and Jensen dried up the scoring for a time. Just nine runs came from the first five overs after Natalie Sciver’s dismissal, two of them maidens bowled by Jensen. But Knight and Jones found a way to release the pressure valve when Sophie Devine threw the ball to Leigh Kasperek, taking 10 runs off her first over. Knight greeted the off-spinner by reverse sweeping her first delivery for four, the first boundary for six overs.

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Knight agreed that it was hard to get the ball away early on: “I think we soaked up that pressure really well and managed to get a partnership going and target the spinners a little bit and kickstart that partnership a bit more. To chase that down, it wasn’t a particularly easy wicket. It was a little bit easier when it got dark, and the lights kicked in and there was a little bit of dew on the wicket which helped it skid on. But it wasn’t a straightforward wicket, it was one we had to be quite smart with who we targeted. Me and Amy talked about targeting the spinners a little bit more which we did quite successfully.”

Knight and Jones were content to play low-risk cricket, running hard between the wickets and dispatching the occasional bad ball for four to keep the run rate just below six an over. It was a stern test for Knight’s troublesome hamstring which forced her to miss the first two T20Is against New Zealand.

“It’s funny actually,” she laughed. “Lisa [Keightley] said to me at half time, oh, you won’t have to do much running today because it’s a quick outfield and I ended up doing ridiculous amounts of running! There was quite a lot of twos, so that’s quite funny. It’s okay. It’s something that I’ve had to manage for a long time. I had a slight tweak to the tendon at the start of the T20 series, so I missed those first two games, but it’s held up alright actually. It’s more the morning after!”

“Hopefully, I’m fine, I’ll get in the ice bath and look after myself a little bit, but yeah, it feels okay. It’s obviously been a long old season. It’s something I have to manage quite consistently, so it’s ready for block of rehab that’s for sure.”

Knight played a rare false shot when a top-edged sweep off Amy Satterthwaite fell safe, but after bringing up the 50 partnership, she took a confident step down the track and hit the same bowler over mid-wicket for four.

Devine conceded a free hit which Knight swung away high over backward square for four before also hitting the next delivery to the boundary to reach her half-century off just 58 balls.

When she deployed the reverse sweep to plunder another boundary off Satterthwaite, Devine turned back to Rowe and Jensen to curb the scoring. The pressure likely told on Jones who after running two to bring up the hundred-run partnership, toe-ended Rowe’s next delivery straight to mid-off.

Knight hit Jess Kerr aerially through mid-wicket for four and then swept Satterthwaite confidently for another boundary, but England soon lost their fifth wicket, Sophia Dunkley without scoring.

If the dismissal set nerves jangling in the dugout with 60 still needed off the last 10 overs, England had a familiar face in an unfamiliar position to play a vital knock in support of her captain.

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Danielle Wyatt has found a new role in the middle order after losing her ODI opening slot to Winfield-Hill. She coolly took a lot of the pressure off Knight’s shoulders.

“Danni was brilliant the way she came in,” said Knight. “She had really good intent, ran really well and was pretty calm actually. We know each other pretty well and bat together quite well.”

“It meant that I could just kind of sit in there a little bit, didn’t have to take too many risks and we could just get that partnership and the bulk of those runs together. It wasn’t the easiest wicket to get to come in and start on, so for her to do that was really nice.”

Wyatt’s success in the middle order during this series has opened up a selection headache for England.

“We’ve obviously played around with the balance of the team a little bit, do we play a batter at seven, do we play Katherine Brunt as that allrounder?” said Knight.

“We’ve seen Danni come in and do the job for us on a few different occasions now. It’s made me think a little bit more about what the best option is for us. So, it’s a nice headache to have.”

“Maybe it’s a role that she’s started to carve out a little bit for herself, being that finisher and backing up that game at Worcester where she played outstandingly.”

Wyatt, who got off the mark by cutting Kerr behind square for four, freed her arms with a huge six over mid-wicket off Rowe before Knight drilled her through mid-wicket. It left England needing 24 from the final five overs.

Knight might have hoped for a more elegant way to bring up her century than face down, diving to ground the bat after completing a sharp second run off Devine, but every run counts. It was her second ODI century and had come off just 103 balls with 10 boundaries.

With Jensen conceding just three runs from the 48th over, Knight was determined to get the job done quickly but chipped Devine straight to Brooke Halliday at deep mid-wicket who took a low catch coming in off the boundary.

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“Super frustrated with myself that I got out when we needed eight to win,” said Knight ruefully. “I want to be really ruthless and just finish games, bit annoying I made it a bit nervy for everyone, unfortunately.

“I got a few expletives out of the system whilst I sat on the bench. But yeah, I just stood next to the dugout next to Lisa. I hate watching anyway. I much prefer being in control and being out there. So, I was pretty relieved when we finally did get over the line.”

Wyatt followed her captain back to the dugout at the end of that penultimate over, leaving England needing six to win off the last six deliveries. Anya Shrubsole almost settled it by smashing Kasperek back over her head for four, before a single brought the scores level and the match was won via a wide.

Reflecting on her century, Knight said, “It’s a bit of a monkey off my back, to be honest. I hadn’t got another ODI 100 since that first one in the 2017 World Cup.”

“I think it would be hard to beat that Ashes hundred, my first hundred in an England shirt to save that game at Wormsley. But definitely, this is my best ODI one, doing it in a chase.”

“I think generally I’m reasonably good at chasing, but I’ve definitely not got that really big score, that big 100 to win a game. I’ve got a lot of fifties, but not gone on to convert so yeah, I’m really pleased that I’ve done that. Particularly with the way we batted the last couple of games, it hasn’t been the standard we wanted, and I was desperate to be the one to do that today and after a long old season, I delighted that I was.”

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