England women back in action at last as West Indies come to rescue again
Knight ‘grateful’ to rivals ahead of five-match T20 series Captain says ICC must step up to help the female game
Biosecure bubbles have been a draining but necessary sacrifice for England’s top cricketers this summer. Some of the hardier members of the men’s national side endured almost 90 days of it in all, isolated from families and friends.
England’s women are weeks into their own bubble. They have been based in Derby, where two of their squad, Natalie Sciver and Katherine Brunt were “married” on Saturday, following the postponement of their actual wedding. But it is not simply the claustrophobia of lockdown that they have had to contend with.
Covid-19 has thrown the women’s game into chaos. First, next February’s World Cup, set to be played in New Zealand, was cancelled by the International Cricket Council, the day before the country announced it had gone 100 days without a domestic virus case. Then India pulled out of a tour to England. And South Africa followed suit.
This at a time when England’s men found themselves on course to, miraculously, complete a full summer of international cricket. And the men’s Indian Premier League was given the green light to be staged in the United Arab Emirates come what may. Women’s cricket, by contrast, had vanished.
England’s women faced the real prospect of a summer without a fixture, and a future void of anything to work towards. The Twenty20 World Cup final, played to more than 86,000 at the MCG in March, with so much hope for the future of women’s sport, seemed a long time ago.
“It was tough,” said England captain Heather Knight. “We were in our first bubble in Derby and within [the space of ] two days we found out very least. “We’re very grateful to West Indies for filling the void,” said Knight. “I think it was a 10-day turnaround to get them locked in to come over. I probably didn’t believe it until they landed.”
It is a smart move to schedule only T20Is, five in total. The West Indies’ ODI form is somewhat leaner; the last time they won an ODI in England was 41 years ago.
Even in T20Is they have struggled recently, the crown having slipped since their thrilling 2016 World T20 triumph. In this year’s tournament they failed to make it out of the group stages.
England’s desperate search for an opponent therefore reminds of us of another growing concern in world cricket. There is a widening gap between the funding, infrastructure and appetite for women’s cricket in the likes of Australia and England and, well, anywhere else.
It concerns Knight. “I think now is the real time for the ICC to step up and support countries to get women’s cricket on,” she said. “It’s a huge boost to get us back playing but we want people to play against and we want high competition throughout world cricket.
“We knew the ECB were going to do everything to get some cricket on and they’ve done exactly what they would have done for the guys, which is real progress. I don’t think that would have happened three or four years ago.” So, here we are. England have provided the financial necessities and a biosecure bubble, West Indies an opposition.
And Knight, as with her West Indies counterpart, Stafanie Taylor, understands the wider significance of this series too. Unlike England’s men, who have stopped taking the knee in their recent fixtures, Knight’s team intend to do so. Both teams will be wearing the Black Lives Matter logo on their shirts.
In all-rounders Taylor, Deandra Dottin and Hayley Matthews, the tourists have the quality and clout to turn West Indies’ flashes of brilliance into something more consistent. They will have to if they want to get a game off England. Under Knight’s leadership and with a fresh coach in Lisa Keightley, the hosts had appeared to be just about getting going as a new side before rain washed out their last match, the T20 World Cup semi final against India.
If Sciver can show her best form with the bat and spinner Sophie Ecclestone motors on, England will expect nothing less than a clean sweep.