It’s been the quite the year for the new England Women’s captain Heather Knight. She went ‘under the lid’ ahead of the Kia Super League.
There are some things in life you don’t get offered twice, like a place at Cambridge or the England captaincy. Heather Knight turned Cambridge down because it wasn’t right for her, but the captaincy, well, that she knew she had to take, even though it didn’t come at the most straightforward of times.
“I felt for Charlotte,” Knight explains to AOC as we meet up the day after England’s record-breaking second ODI against Pakistan at Worcester. “I’m good mates with her and it was certainly a case of mixed emotions. I’ve played with Lottie for a long time and knew how much it would hurt her and how gutted she would be to not pull on an England shirt again. I knew that was tough but I also knew that I was probably the best person to do the job.”
Cambridge, on the other hand, didn’t feel right. Cardiff did, so she chose there. Her family, on the whole, backed her in making that decision – undeniably a brave one. “They’ve always wanted me to make my own decisions and I guess my own mistakes sometimes, as well. Hopefully it wasn’t too much of a mistake. I think I made the right choice.” You get the sense that this is a person who isn’t afraid to forge her own path; a handy characteristic for a captain.
As captaincy gigs go, though, Knight’s is pretty tough. Replacing a universally popular standard bearer for the game who was still making runs, off the back of a decision which split opinion, with a squad that – while talented – is young and unproven. Vital then that the ‘new era’ started well. “We knew that if we started badly, or if we had a batting collapse, things would be said and people would argue that the changes that have been made aren’t right,” Knight outlines. Fortunately, they started well. Knight’s first game as skipper brought a win, and, individually, a half-century and a maiden five-wicket haul. Dream world. The second, which saw England make 378-5 – their highest-ever ODI total – was, amazingly, even better.
“Yeah, it was crazy, wasn’t it? Absolutely mental. I was sat there at lunch shaking my head thinking, ‘I can’t believe we just scored 380!’ We hit 11 sixes! After the first game everyone said it would be downhill from there but then our second game topped it. It was a pretty awesome day.”
The performance at Worcester ticked many of the boxes that Knight’s new team are aiming for. Can young players take their opportunities? Can they look more dynamic? Can they hit sixes? Can they improve their fielding? It was a day of yesses and even with Charlotte Edwards holding court in the commentary box – opining on the smallness of the boundaries and mischievously declaring that she wouldn’t have minded a bat out there – it began to feel like Knight’s England would, after all, be able to move forward as their own outfit, unencumbered by the goings-on of the past few months.
The England captain has come a long way since she first played cricket as a six-year-old in Plymstock, Devon. She was, she says, “a proper little tomboy with a dreadful barnet” who was desperate to do whatever her older brother Steve did. Fortunately for the English game, Steve liked cricket, so Heather followed. She followed him to Plymstock CC, where she first played a hard-ball game aged nine – bowling “dibbly-dobbly seamers that people would try to smash and get out to” – before eventually the siblings played together in the club’s first XI. Her success there, and at school in the boys’ side, eventually saw her stop playing for her county Devon (where, aged 12, she’d already played against her now vice-captain, Anya Shrubsole), to seek a better standard of cricket in Division One with Berkshire.
“I’ve always been quite a competitive character,” she explains, “and I enjoy things I’m quite good at. I found I was OK at whacking a ball and catching a ball. Part of what attracted me to cricket was that competitiveness. I was always against the boys and had to prove myself to show that I deserved to be there.
“There was also the social side of it, I liked being down at the club for hours while the men were playing. We’d play one-hand one-bounce in the nets or, when my parents were away, Steve and I would play in the house or we’d play in the garden and break a few garden chairs. Mum would never be too happy about that…”
Her concerns are bigger than broken garden chairs these days and she admits that, not a month into the job, she’s already struggling to get cricket off the mind. “I’d go mental if I thought of cricket 24/7 and sometimes in the last week I’ve found myself lying awake thinking about cricket and I try and tell myself to stop thinking about it and go to sleep! It’s silly things like field placements. I have to tell myself to stop.”
Fortunately there are other things in Knight’s life. She lives in London with one of her best friends from her days at university – not, like many of her teammates, in Loughborough – and has spent time over the last three years playing an active role in the Rwanda Cricket Stadium Foundation (RCSF), a charity building a cricket ground in the Rwandan capital city Kigali.
“I was injured a couple of years ago, I’d done my hamstring, and I had a bit of free time. A mate of mine was involved with the RCSF and he asked me if I fancied going to Rwanda and getting involved so I literally flew out for three-and-a-half days, coached the men’s and women’s teams, saw all the facilities – or lack of – and fell in love with the country. It’s quite fun to get away from cricket sometimes.”
Knight’s involvement has been about more than just holding up a few posters and scheduling a few tweets. She – along with 29 other brave souls (including our own Phil Walker) – trooped up Mount Kilimanjaro in 2014 to play the highest-ever game of cricket and raise some money.
“Going up Kilimanjaro, I wanted to get the job done! It was good fun, Clare Connor [director of women’s cricket at the ECB] was there as well and I had to sort of funnel her up the last 100 metres. Ashley Giles got quite moany at altitude – I think it had a strange effect on Ash! – but it was fun and it was all about getting everyone up there and making sure they were safe.
“The charity’s doing well. We had a charity fundraiser at Lord’s in June and raised £120k profit, I think, which was fantastic. We’ve pretty much got enough to get the ground built in Kigali and they’ve started building it after what’s been a fairly tedious process of getting permission and finding water and things like that. It’s something that I’ve really enjoyed doing and I’ve got a lot from. I’ve also had some pretty cool experiences, like visiting Rwanda and climbing Kilimanjaro. I enjoy doing it and if I can help a few people along the way then it’s all the better.”
Interests outside the game should protect Knight from the fatigue that you can associate with the treadmill of professional cricket, but there’s also her new role to keep her on her toes. Her relationship with her teammates, for example, is already different, something that she’ll have to get used to.
“Everyone looks at you in a slightly different way when you’re captain. The other day there was a decision about something completely irrelevant to cricket and everyone kind of looked at me and I had no idea. Ask me about cricket and I’ll tell you!
“My role is slightly different now. You’re part of the team but when you have a role in selection and things like that you are held in a slightly different light by the girls. It’s gone quite smoothly so far and I’ll always try and remain a player first and foremost and a captain second. At the moment, I’m enjoying that difference.
“The girls have made it very easy. They’ve ensured that the transition has been smooth and they’ve been supportive. I was really proud to be out there as captain for the first time and it’s gone well – I’m just waiting for things to go badly…”
It’s not impossible that it will. It would be wrong to assume that just because Knight’s taken over and some of the younger players have started scoring runs that success is inevitable. There is much work to be done. The runs against Pakistan could be tempered by remembering that during Knight’s introduction as skipper, the coach Mark Robinson said that “Lottie would have filled her boots” against Pakistan. We’ll know more when the new era starts performing against the bigger nations, or in alien conditions. As Knight herself says, “there’s a long way to go”.
Defeats and criticism will come, inevitably. It was something that Edwards found during her time in charge after the move to professionalism: more was expected and fewer excuses were acceptable. Already, during the second ODI at Worcester, there were some grumblings from the BBC Test Match Special team that the new skipper wasn’t more attacking in the field. How, then, will Knight, described as stubborn by Robinson in her introduction to the press as captain, deal with being told she’s doing it wrong?
“I’m sure there will be a time when I read criticism. That’s the nature of the job. Like Mark said, it might be a case of using it as motivation.”
One aspect of England’s struggles towards the end of Charlotte Edwards’ time in charge was the perception that too many of the team – young and inexperienced as they were – would gladly follow their skipper blindly into the abyss. As Edwards explained to David Tossell in his book The Girls Of Summer: “They are a young group and don’t want to say the wrong thing. But I don’t know everything.”
Knight is keen, therefore, that the new era allows everyone in the team their voice. “We’re trying to push all the girls to make their own decisions and be really forthcoming with their own opinions. We want everyone to be comfortable expressing themselves.”
Does that mean Knight, apparently so stubborn, will encourage advice from her teammates? “Yeah, definitely. I won’t always take it but I’m very keen to hear it!” Fortunately, whether Knight listens to her teammates or not, she’s demonstrated that she’s got a track record of making the right calls.