2021 was a landmark year for women’s cricket in England.
The Hundred, while still deeply divisive for its impact on men’s cricket and its costs, afforded the women’s game its biggest ever platform. Records tumbled as attendances and television audiences broke all expectations. Meanwhile, the impact of professionalising domestic cricket was seen in higher standards on the pitch throughout a first full season of regional domestic cricket. South East Stars took the inaugural T20 crown while Southern Vipers successfully defended their 50-over title.
Having 41 full-time professional cricketers with year round access to high-quality coaches and training facilities also saw more players challenging for England spots and a greater competition for places than ever before. The days of over reliance on the core group of centrally contracted players seem over. Charlotte Dean, Maia Bouchier and Emma Lamb all made debuts while Central Sparks’ Emily Arlott’s 5 for 29 (including four wickets in an over) against Southern Vipers also won her a call-up to the Test squad. Playing on the biggest stage of their careers in The Hundred also exposed cricketers to high-pressure environments that will equip them well for the Ashes and World Cup this winter.
England won the multi-format series against India and both the T20I and ODI series against New Zealand but will need to address the batting frailties that manifested against both opponents. A far stiffer test awaits them in Australia.
Women’s CricZone looks back at some of the highlights, a few of the lowlights and the lessons to come out of England's home season.
When Dane van Niekerk’s Oval Invincibles lifted the inaugural Hundred trophy after a month of competition it was the culmination of the most radical innovation in English cricket since the advent of T20 two decades ago.
Big, bold and brash, The Hundred finally exploded in a blaze of colour and pyrotechnics at the Oval in late July, after a year’s delay due to Covid-19. With LED tunnels, fireworks and live music from DJs and pop stars it ushered in a fresh new image for cricket in England.
The 100-ball tournament was designed to be action packed and fast paced with an emphasis on entertainment to open cricket up to more families and young people. While the final was a one-sided affair, there was plenty of action throughout the tournament, tight finishes and more runs per ball than in the Women’s Big Bash League.
Overseas stars like van Niekerk and Jemimah Rodrigues topped the run scoring table, but close behind them were Sophia Dunkley and Evelyn Jones with Natasha Farrant comfortably finishing as the leading wicket taker.
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Talking towards the end of the tournament Georgia Elwiss told Women’s CricZone that it was no coincidence that homegrown stars were putting in such performances so soon after the game had professionalised domestically.
Perhaps teenager Alice Capsey, still 16 when the competition started, most neatly encapsulated the ECB’s vision. Capsey’s breakthrough innings on her first appearance at Lord’s saw her take 59 off just 41 deliveries with few signs of nerves at playing on such a big stage. To add to the fairytale, Capsey has been coached at Bede’s school by Sarah Taylor, who herself made a storied comeback in the competition.
On paper The Hundred was a startling success as the bare statistics attest:
- Attendance across the competition was the highest ever for a women’s cricket event globally
- 267,000 people were present for the women’s games, smashing the previous record of 136,000 who watched the women’s T20 World Cup in 2020
- 1 million people watched some of the action on TV during the competition
- Viewing of the final peaked at 1.4 million for the women’s game
- The opening match was the most watched women’s cricket match (across both international and domestic) in the UK on record
- Two thirds of those aware of The Hundred believed it is equally for men and women – higher than rugby union (36%), football (50%) and other forms of cricket (50%)
Elwiss, whose Hundred side Birmingham Phoenix sold out Edgbaston twice, said she had never experienced crowds of that size in her 10 years of playing international cricket.
“The fact that we're getting people out there filling stadiums wanting to watch just women's cricket and then staying for the men's game as well… I just think it's brilliant,” she said. “We've had games on the BBC and Sky. That's the most important thing for women’s sport is getting it out there for people to see.”
“I think people have been quite surprised by the standard and how good it's been. Women's cricket has come such a long way in the last few years and the standard’s improved so much and now we're finally getting to show that to the world. A lot of the media that I've seen around it has been really, really positive. I'm hoping that just continues.”
The competition also brought greater investment in the women’s game extending to commercial partnerships designed to appeal to children and young people as well as lucrative terrestrial and satellite TV deals.
“Without doubt The Hundred has single-handedly changed women's cricket in this country,” said Charlotte Edwards, Southern Brave coach and former England captain. “I never thought it would have the instant impact it's had. It's been a pretty special experience for everyone involved.”
Echoing Edwards’ thoughts, England head coach Lisa Keightley also pointed to the positive benefits for the national side.
“The Hundred is going to move cricket in England forward really quickly, and players are going to stand out through that and put their hand up for selection in the England squad and teams.”
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However, challenges lie ahead. The issue of the disparity between men’s and women’s pay scales were raised by Kate Cross among others. The question of scheduling remains a key issue too. England’s men had no red ball preparation in the lead-up to their Test series with India, prompting debate about when in the summer The Hundred should take place. Next year’s calendar leaves little manoeuvre though. Women’s cricket makes a landmark appearance in the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham between 28 July and 8 August.
It’s true too that while the tournament’s immediate metrics are uniformly impressive, it will take much longer to assess whether the format achieves its long-term goals of driving up female engagement with cricket, both in terms of watching and playing the game and maintaining those for the long term. There was an important start though with revenue from The Hundred going back into the grassroots game funding programmes for thousands of girls and boys.
Last December the ECB awarded 41 full-time domestic contracts in addition to the 17 centrally contracted England players, allowing those players year-round access to coaching and training facilities. Tara Norris, whose innings contributed to Southern Vipers’ victory in the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy Final last month, admitted that she had spent more time hitting balls in the off season than ever before.
As well as a first full year of the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy, the new professionals competed in the T20 tournament named after Charlotte Edwards. Performances in these competitions alongside their stints in The Hundred earned players like Dean an England call-up while Jones, Issy Wong, Maia Bouchier and Linsey Smith all picked up berths in this month’s Women's Big Bash League.
This winter Heather Knight will lead England against an Australian side who introduced professional domestic contracts long before. Knight has been calling for England to follow suit for some time.
“Now it is professional, you're going to get people coming out of the woodwork,” she said. “These girls are having the opportunity to train professionally throughout the year, which is the biggest difference, to work on all aspects of their game and be more ready if they do get that England call up.”
“That’s what we really want as a team, to have that competition to have players below really pushing the players that are in the team and pushing us to go to new heights as individuals and as a team.”
Sophia Dunkley and Farrant both spoke about how the regional contracts had given them security. It allowed them to focus purely on their performances during England’s tour of New Zealand in February and March without worrying about the future if they had one or two bad games.
“I was able to go out and enjoy playing in New Zealand, being on the pitch with the girls and not have too much else on my mind about the future,” Dunkley told this portal in an earlier interview. “Because I know that, either way, there's going to be good quality cricket and training. So, I think it definitely takes a lot of pressure off and gives a different and new opportunity.”
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Echoing those sentiments, Farrant added that a winter’s training with South East Stars had equipped her to perform in New Zealand.
Accepting her PCA Women's Player of the Year award, Jones admitted her new status as a professional had played a big part in her success.
“We’re very fortunate that we’ve got the professional contracts, so I’ve had a whole winter of training full time and we’ve been able to focus a lot more on actually training and not having to earn a living elsewhere,” she said.
Knight’s priorities for the summer were clear ahead of arguably England’s biggest ever year with an Ashes series and World Cup defence in the winter ahead of the Commonwealth Games next summer. Getting the right players in the right positions was a key part of the team’s preparation as England built towards those challenges.
With series being played in a concentrated spells and The Hundred in between, there was also a need to manage workload. That gave England the chance to take an extended look at some fringe players. Farrant and Dean seized their opportunities and surely did enough to book themselves seats on the plane to Australia.
Multi-format series against India
The international summer began with a drawn Test against India at Bristol. England passed 300 thanks to Knight’s 95, but it was Dunkley, making history by becoming the first black woman to play Test cricket for England, who underlined her growing maturity with a brilliant unbeaten 74 to allow England to declare on 396. After bowling out India for 231 and enforcing the follow-on though, Sneh Rana’s heroic rearguard 80 not out at number eight ultimately frustrated the hosts. That was despite a marathon bowling stint from Sophie Ecclestone whose eight wickets in the match came from 64 overs.
There were bright spots for the home side in both the ODI and T20I legs of the multi-format series. Tammy Beaumont’s 87 ensured an eight wicket win in the first ODI. In the second game at Taunton, Dunkley scored another unbeaten 70 to bail England out of trouble and get them over the line in a record sixth-wicket stand with Katherine Brunt. Cross though earned the player of the match award for an excellent five-wicket haul. A pleasing outcome for a player who admitted that her main job is usually building pressure at one end while her teammates take wickets at the other.
Despite a blistering half-century from Natalie Sciver in the opening T20I, India had the chance to square the series in the final game at Chelmsford after winning the third ODI and a tight second T20I at Hove.
Danielle Wyatt, who had been overlooked for Lauren Winfield-Hill in the ODIs following a disappointing tour of New Zealand, came into her own in the final T20I. She admitted her match-winning 89 was overdue and continued her form throughout The Hundred.
Series wins against New Zealand
New Zealand were the second tourists of the summer, playing a three-match T20I series followed by five ODIs. England overwhelmed an under-cooked White Ferns at Chelmsford in the opening T20I with Beaumont blazing 97 off just 65 balls, before a lacklustre batting display at Hove saw New Zealand set up a decider at Taunton where the hosts won off the penultimate ball.
With five ODIs in the space of 11 days England rotated their bowlers. They experimented by playing Wyatt as a finisher at number seven, a role she played to perfection at Worcester. Her unbeaten 63 rescued another uninspiring batting display to push England up towards a competitive total. Brunt too played some key innings in the middle order. Her 49* at Leicester though could not prevent a Kiwi victory.
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Knight hit 89 at Bristol and a brilliant 101 at Derby but England’s batting frailties continued to give cause for concern. They were bowled out in each of the first three ODIs.
Despite Knight registering a rare duck, the final ODI at Canterbury was perhaps England’s most complete batting performance. On her home ground, Beaumont scored her eighth ODI century, while the rest of the line-up all contributed scores allowing England to take the series 4-1.
Talking at the end of the summer, Keightley identified lessons learned from the summer’s internationals and outlined preparations for the winter ahead.
The summer was the busiest ever year for England’s female cricketers. Keightley admitted that while the players had relished the opportunity to play more cricket, it had led to fatigue and some tired decisions.
“They're not used to it. We got through it, but I think at times, players struggled with a bit of mental fatigue. They've got to get used to it because it's only going to be like that moving forward, but I think we'll learn and grow from the experience.”
“We'll reflect on how they can do that better to make sure from an international game through to the Hundred, to the back end of the summer, they can be more consistent in what they do. And make sure they get the break that they need in between.”
Keightley conceded that there were a number of soft dismissals in the ODIs. She traced the batting weaknesses in the ODI series against with New Zealand back to playing so much short-form cricket through T20 and the Hundred.
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“Our transition into 50-over cricket, I thought we were too slow and we were playing high risk shots too early in our innings and not hitting down the ground. Our middle order, at times we lost clusters of wickets which we need to improve on and make sure we can stretch partnerships," she explained. “There were key moments where we had New Zealand on the ropes and then we lost double wickets and we didn't capitalise on the good work that we did at times. We just lost clusters of wickets that stopped momentum and put pressure back on us and New Zealand bowled really well at times as well.”
Praising the batting performance at Canterbury where England posted 347, Keightley underlined the need to post big runs and make it hard for teams to chase. She stressed the need to post a big partnership up front and had been pleased by the contributions made by Beaumont and Winfield-Hill at the top before.
Winfield-Hill made a number of contributions throughout the summer after her return to the side following illness. While she did not go on to post a significant score, her coach is backing her to succeed.
“For Lauren, I think she's working really hard. We need to help her with her game and continue to improve. When she's going out at full flight, and we've seen that throughout the summer, she can be really destructive. It's just working with her to get her in a good mindset and confident to go out and score the runs that she needs to score up the top.”
A question of balance
With Brunt’s all-round ability and Wyatt’s emergence as a finisher, England are not short of options in 50-over cricket. Playing seven batters and five bowlers plus Knight’s spin offers the team plenty of balance. It seems to be in Keightley’s planning for the World Cup at least.
“I think if we're going to put pressure on Australia, India, South Africa and New Zealand, we need to get more runs,” said Keightley. “And to do that if we go in with seven batters, I think we can be really powerful at the back end of the innings, which we saw at Canterbury. It was great to have a look at that and see what the team looks like with seven bats.”
Rotating the bowlers also allowed Keightley and Knight to look at different combinations with Farrant, Brunt, Freya Davies, Anya Shrubsole and Cross all featuring in the New Zealand ODI series.
“We changed up nearly every game. We want to make sure that we've got all our bases covered when we’re playing different teams. It was really good to have five games to do that."
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“Throughout the Ashes, I wouldn't think we’d change so much. We'd probably have to make some really tough decisions on what that looks like. But it was really exciting to see that every time we made changes and looked at different combinations, that we were able to win games of cricket.”
An England A side will also tour Australia this winter, opening up opportunities for a wider pool of players who could be drafted into the main England party. As well as increasing competition for places it will provide valuable experience. While more established domestic players like Jones, Sophie Luff and Georgia Adams could find themselves in the squad, youngsters like Wong and Capsey will also be in the running.
The players are taking a well-earned break before winter training begins. That includes stepping outside the restrictions of bubble life for the first time in several months.
During the winter, the players will be spending time with their domestic squads as well as the England camp at Loughborough. Keightley is keenly aware of the need to use this time wisely, allowing the team time to decompress, have a change of scenery and then begin the build-up to January.
“It’s massive, isn't it?” she said. “It's a really crucial time and we've got to make sure we get it right. They need a holiday, and we’ll prep really well and we will review really well and we’ll work really hard in the build-up.”
Keightley who managed to spend some time back home in Australia during the Hundred will be staying in England until the team leaves in January.
“I'm back and will be eyes on the prize, working really hard with the girls leading up through the next few months through Christmas and going out with them in January. So, it's game on!”