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England basking in Knight’s new dawn

Adam Collins speaks to the England captain about a brilliant summer and a challenging future

Six starts, six wins. Automatic qualification for next year’s World Cup almost secured. A new pair opening the batting who can’t do a thing wrong. New players blooded. Experienced veterans keeping on keeping on.

It may have been a brief international window for England’s women this summer against Pakistan, but they sure made it count.

The Cricket Paper spoke to the woman overseeing it all, shiny-new skipper Heather Knight, to get her assessment of her first summer in charge.

Not hard then, this captaincy caper? “It is quite an easy job to be honest,” she opened, tongue in cheek. Of course, Knight freely admitted “tougher challenges” are coming her way, but also that it’s timely to praise the emphatic clean sweep in the three-match ODI and T20I series.

“I don’t think it is that they were terrible, I just think that we were very good.”

This all feels a world away from the atmosphere when she was appointed. Opinions weren’t divided on her own suitability, but were as the move related to the leader she replaced: the incomparable Charlotte Edwards, who wasn’t ready to leave coach Mark Robinson’s squad.

The coronation was complicated. Yet from the moment she led the side out at Leicester, marking her captaincy debut with five wickets and an unbeaten half century, it’s just worked.

“The girls have been great and made the transition very easy and have done everything that me and Robbo have asked of them,” said the 25-year-old, who wants to set a relaxed standard, leading from the front rather than indulging in “big Churchillian speeches”.

“One of the themes that people have told me, looking from the outside in at the squad, is the amount of fun we are having and it feels like a great dressing room.”

It’s a style that fits in neatly with the rationale of coach Robinson in creating space for the next generation to prosper. He wanted to see 20-somethings with considerable talent convert into something more, no two embodying this description better than Tammy Beaumont and Lauren Winfield.

He wanted them to believe.

By the time the two set up England’s final T20I victory over Pakistan in Chelmsford, they had put on 100-plus for the third time in six attempts. Individually, Beaumont finished with an astonishing 484 runs in six hits at an average of 97, while Winfield impressed with 332.

Knight is effusive that the “freedom to go out and show their natural game” was the catalyst to this accomplishment. In turn, they had repaid the faith invested in them. It’s a theme threaded through comments from the England camp: confidence.

“It’s the biggest plus for us to get that opening partnership right and hopefully it’ll be nailed on for years to come,” she said.

Knight credits Robinson and batting coach Ali Maiden for getting the English batters “thinking a little bit more about their games” to prompt that growth. For Winfield to move beyond “that classy 30 before getting herself out” and Beaumont “getting into the right head space” to bat for long periods.

For Robinson’s part, he’s credited with liberating batsmen to take on attacks, fluctuating boundary sizes a notable part of that. Knight’s take on that debate: “It’s about finding the middle ground.”

“When batsmen know they can clear it comfortably bowlers have to really up their skill level and that’s when your best bowlers come into their own, so it improves the standard of the game,” she said.

No one capitalised on the philosophical approach of dominating the opposition quite like Nat Sciver. Her 33-ball 80 (and 22-ball 48) evidence that she didn’t need a second invitation. With innovative strokeplay and fast feet, she looked every bit the modern match-winner.

Knight couldn’t be happier, saying her all-rounder has the tools to become one of the best in world: “We have always known Nat can hit a long ball and take games away from people, and she has shown glimpses before, but the innings at Worcester was something else.

“She’s also a gun in the field and a brilliant bowler. A captain’s dream, really.”

Another key element of the Robinson regime is fitness, improving standards they keep across the disciplines, while also binding the team off the field.

“Everyone bought in, so when you are running around a muddy park in Loughborough and running up hills it brings you closer,” Knight said. “In terms of batting, it has a massive impact on your mental game and how you craft an innings; being able to run those twos and still be fresh and mentally clear for the next ball and also when you’re putting a shift in to play a really long innings.”

Casting forward there’s the inaugural Women’s Super League. The six-team T20 competition is an attempt to develop a product with similar success to that experienced in the first edition of the Women’s Big Bash in Australia.

Knight will lead the Western Storm, the round-robin season beginning on July 30 before Finals Day on August 21. She cautioned that expectations should be managed when making comparisons to the WBBL (where she captained Hobart) because men’s teams already existed, bringing a ready-made fan base and infrastructure. “It’ll be a little bit harder to have that success straight away, but in the long term I think it’ll be just as successful,” she said, noting that with three overseas players in each team the standard will be “really good”.

As for national duties, England tour the West Indies this winter, Knight acknowledging the World T20 champions will be a “big test”. A visit to Sri Lanka is also booked, those performances leading into to a home World Cup campaign.

“There is massive competition for places,” she said. “In the one-day series we had Jenny Gunn and Danni Hazell on the sidelines, and they’re world class bowlers. Then you have Sophie Ecclestone and Alex Hartley who have come in and done quite well.

“There is a lot more to come from this team and we have shown really exciting glimpses of the cricket we want to play.”

But have they found the formula that can win a World Cup? Knight won’t quite go that far. Yet. “Maybe we’ll talk this time next year and hopefully it will have been the winning formula,” she said.

If we do, this summer will be where it began.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, Friday July 15 2016

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