There’s a big smile on Kate Cross’s face these days. One that says she’s enjoying her cricket again.
She had to work hard to regain that love of the game. A tough period out of the international spotlight came as she struggled with anxiety and depression before making a successful comeback last summer.
“I was almost learning how to be happy again,” she tells Women’s CricZone ahead of the one-off Ashes Test match against Australia in Taunton.
Test cricket is a format in which Cross has excelled as a fast bowler. She took six wickets on debut at Perth in January 2014 to help set up a thrilling England victory, and bagged a further six against India at Wormsley later that year. Yet there were times when she wondered whether she might play for her country again after she took time out from the game following a tough one-day international at Worcester in the summer of 2016.
On her return to international action last July, Cross talked openly in a BBC documentary about her struggles with mental health. Twelve months on, she is a key and ever popular member of this England side.
Cross sounds relaxed and in good spirits, happy to talk about her experiences. She reflects on the time when she became one of the first 18 English women to be awarded professional contracts and the pressures that came with that sudden shift.
“When we turned professional, we said that with that there’s going to be a lot more scrutiny. That was something a lot of us had to adapt to. It was relatively new and something that we had to learn how to deal with.”
“I think everyone’s mental health battles differ quite significantly and for me it was learning what the issues were and how best to combat them.”
Cross cites performance anxiety as one of the issues she faced, pointing to the big life change brought about by a professional contract.
“My hobby became my job overnight effectively, and that was something that I really struggled with, learning how to get to grips with. I think for me it was sitting down and almost learning how to be happy again, whether that was with cricket or without cricket.”
For a time, Cross wasn’t sure whether she would ever play for England again.
“I took a break thinking that could be it. I didn’t even know if there would be a door open when I was ready to return. I’m one of the lucky ones that the door was left open a little bit and I did have the opportunity to come back.”
Her biggest learning curve has been to recognise that no career in professional sport is ever long. That realisation has highlighted the need to enjoy rather than fear the opportunities that come her way.
Historically, such opportunities have been somewhat limited in the women’s game.
“We were at a stage where we didn’t get that much time to showcase that [our skills] on the big stage because there wasn’t a lot of international cricket, or the only competitive cricket we had was international. So, if you’re not in that best XI then it’s almost that all those hours you’re training, not to be able to put that out there in the big arena. So, it’s just now learning that it’s not going to last forever and enjoy it while I can. And just smile while I’m doing it. That’s been something that a lot of people have said to me that they’ve noticed in the last 12 months that I just seem to be enjoying myself.”
Cross believes cricket can take pride in being at the forefront for conversations around mental health, evidenced by the number of people who have felt comfortable to talk about the pressures of professional sport.
“It’s almost paved the way for other sports to talk about it a bit more. I’m not surprised that other sports have felt that they’re OK to open up about it which is really important.”
It’s this kind of open and honest conversation that Mark Robinson, head coach of England, has encouraged within the team change room.
“It’s learning about vulnerability as well,” Cross explains. “As a team we’ve got better at understanding each other and how we all function. Not everyone has the same personality and you’ve got a group of 20 girls effectively that are thrown into the common goal of cricket and not everyone works the same way. It’s learning how that works out in a team environment. A lot of it is accepting each other and having those difficult conversations.”
That has perhaps never been more important than the past week with Australia already six points ahead in the Ashes series.
“The one-day series hasn’t gone remotely how we would have wanted it to, so those honest conversations are what you then have to have. Now as a team four years on of Robbo working with us, those conversations almost become easier and you can probably move on a little bit faster. So, we’ve done that, we’ve had our warm-up game and we’re ready to go now, to try and turn the Ashes around.”
With so few long-form games, it meant that donning the whites for that recent warm-up game at Millfield School was extra special.
“I’ve played three Test Matches in my career so far and personally I’d love to see more of it in the game,” she says. “Even just playing the warm-up game, you realise how much your skills get tested over a longer period. That’s something that would probably evolve us a little bit more. The discipline that you have to have to be able to bat long periods of time and bowl when the ball’s not doing a great deal or there’s not much in the surface. It’s just so special when we get to play in Test Matches.”
She vividly remembers her six wickets at Perth five years ago, when she took the new ball on the third evening to remove three of Australia’s top order. Her overriding memories though are a mixture of elation and physical exhaustion.
“I’d never played any kind of cricket like that before and for it to last four days, my body just wasn’t used to it. We won on lunchtime on the fourth day and we were all out celebrating in Perth and I fell asleep by three o’clock! The adrenaline was so high for four days and then it just hit me after the game.”
“That was probably my first real taste of adrenaline and how that all works, but it was just an incredible game to be a part of regardless of how I’d done. Everyone said that the game just ebbed and flowed and you just genuinely didn’t know who was going to win until that last wicket which was something really special to be a part of.”
Fascinated by the tactics and strategies required in the longer-format of the game, she has learned all she can from Robinson and his own experiences in four-day cricket.
“To me it’s just really interesting and the passages of play that you have and how sessions can change so drastically as well. And 15 minutes can win a game for you. I just find how it all works so interesting.”
“We’re in a situation now where we need to try and win this Test Match, so hopefully that’ll make our game plan a little bit clearer because we’re going to have to be aggressive. We’re really going to have to play our best cricket to give ourselves a chance of getting ourselves back into the Ashes.”
While acknowledging Australia’s dominant position, Cross says Taunton still provides a chance for England to turn things around.
“The Aussies can’t make any mistakes now and if they let us back into this then you know what it’s like in T20 cricket, anyone on the day can win. So, we do have to win everything, but for us now it’s almost like a World Cup knockout.”
Looking back at the ODI series, she says England were almost more frustrated with their losses in the first two games— because of the chances they had to win— than they were with the comprehensive defeat at Canterbury.
“It’s the first two that we have kind of reviewed more and that last one-dayer, it’s not a common occurrence that you’re 70-odd all out. So, you can almost brush that one under a carpet and move on. We’re now the absolute underdogs and it’s theirs to lose and ours to win.”
She believes the margin between the two teams is much closer than the scoreline suggests, which is one of England’s biggest frustrations.
“I felt like it would be a close series and I really don’t think the scoreline has reflected that. The Aussies will be aware of that as well that we’ve got a world class team and we’ve got some of the best. Katherine Brunt is going to go down as one of the best bowlers that England’s ever produced. I don’t feel like there’s that much between the two teams and either of us could beat either of us on a good day.”