Katherine Brunt: On The Pitch I’m A Different Being

England’s greatest ever fast bowler Katherine Brunt opens up as she takes on the tournament of her life.

Katherine Brunt is still pushing off the sightscreen, a shiny new ball wedged tight between her fingers. Wardrobe-shaped shoulders, nimble on her feet, heart fit to burst. Born to bowl. But now the popping crease is approaching, and she’s ridden it before; and it’s coming, that day when she has to run right on through.

Because it’s been 13 years now. Thirteen years bowling fast for England. Thirteen years of bowling the fastest for England ever, going all the way back, to the first Test at Brisbane more than 82 years ago.

Thirteen years. The fastest and the sturdiest. Thirteen years, and amateur for a decade. Two Ashes wins, two back operations, two world titles. Player of the Match in a world final at Lord’s. Three times England Women’s Cricketer of the Year.

Once, she hit Charlotte Edwards in the nets. Edwards pulled away in pain, looked up, saw Brunt running down in tears. For most of those 13 years, Edwards was her captain. “She’s a different person away from the cricket environment. Everyone thinks she’s gonna be this loud, brash person… You can barely hear her speak sometimes.”

Sure they clashed. “It could be difficult. Sometimes it would boil over, and for other people that’s quite intimidating.”

There was one occasion. A World Cup game against South Africa. Brunt wanted one more over. She didn’t need one more over, but she wanted one more over. Edwards had to shut her down. “My ‘emotional control’ had gone overboard,” Brunt says. “I’d gone in the swede.”

We’re at Lord’s, overlooking the Nursery Ground. Practice is winding down. The plan is for England to contest the final here on July 23. “I didn’t even know about Lord’s,” she says, “until I saw Darren Gough bowling on TV. I didn’t think of this place as that.” She throws both hands up and laughs.

It was Gough – Barnsley, big heart, left it all out there – who really swung it for her. “I just saw him, and the action. I didn’t care about the grounds and the accolades that come with them. I just saw the extremes of the sport. The physicality, and the competition.”

“It became an escape.” And only by escaping could she find what she was looking for. She tries to convince herself that this will be her last 50-over World Cup, but she can’t resist the caveat, leaving the future ajar: “Never say never. But for now it’s my…”

So let’s start with this summer. You’ve played in some big ones before, but is this the biggest?
In terms of World Cups this is the biggest I’ve ever done because a) we’ve had a long run now of disappointment, b) we’ve had a big change-up, c) we’ve not got a lot of sturdy old experienced rocks, d) it’s at home, and e) because of these new contracts – you can’t deny it, the pressure comes with responsibility. So for all those reasons this is definitely the biggest. It doesn’t necessarily make it more terrifying, they’re all as terrifying as each other, but in a good way.

I avoid sports psychologists like the plague. My dad would just not understand one. And I’ve got the same mentality, probably because of him. He was a miner for 25 years, he couldn’t have had it any harder, down the pits, six kids to provide for, a stay-at-home mum, so he’s the breadwinner. It rubs off, doesn’t it

Charlotte Edwards thinks that the best might be yet to come – that despite your injuries and the march of time, she thinks you know your game so well now, that the next year or two might actually be your best.
It’s funny because I do actually feel really strong. I feel just as quick. I would never want to play if I was depleted in any way, if I started losing pace I just wouldn’t be able to enjoy it. That’s really lovely of Lottie to say that. I hope she’s right, I’ve learnt more in the last year than I have in my whole career.

What were the operations that you had to have?
I had one not long after my first Ashes with England, in 2005. I got to the end of 2006 with a disc bulge which prolapsed in 2007 and then again at the beginning of 2014.

How bad was it?
I couldn’t even pull my trousers up at one time. I remember [ex-teammate] Jane Smit dressing me. I was on pills every day, when I went to the Ashes in 2013/14, I was dragging my back leg behind me in the mornings. This was three months before the second operation. My body was contorted and I got an hour-and-half’s sleep every night. I’d get to the point where I’d cry myself to sleep every night because I was so exhausted, and then I’d wake up at three in the morning and I’d just think, “Oh Christ, not this again”, and I’d have to walk around for hours.

And this is what you’re maintaining by playing day in, day out.
It’s depressing. I was one hundred per cent depressed and I had to see someone outside of the game. I love to be strong, so if I’m in rehab doing little exercise, it’s not good for me. I want to dead lift, I want to squat, but I couldn’t do any of those things, I had to do all the tedious, hard work. It gets you down, and you don’t know when it’s going to end.

For you to feel strong today, have you had to adjust things technically, with your action?
There are always little refinements. It’s more about being more skilful. I do know my game well now and it’s about being around the circuit and knowing all the experienced players but knowing all the fresh ones, too. It’s about knowing each player that comes in front of you, so then you know which skill to use. Do I use my stock ball, do I use my cutter, do I use my leggie, do I bring it back in late, do I swing it away early or late, do I draw you in, do I bump you? You have to have all these skills.

This tournament is definitely the biggest, but it doesn’t necessarily make it more terrifying. They’re all as terrifying as each other

So do you feel like your repertoire of skills is better than it’s ever been?
The one thing that has always held me back would be my emotional control. It’s always taken the best out of me, but it also brings the best out of me, because I’m in the game, I’m aggressive, I’m focused, and everything is angled at doing the best I can for England, taking wickets and being intimidating, but it’s all controlled. And then the flipside of that is seeing red, and I’m just going to bowl at you, and I’m just going to keep bowling, but if you talk to me in that moment, I’m not sure which ball is going where, and I haven’t got a plan, I just turn around and I’m bowling. At the moment I’m working on being in the middle of that, on using it as a bonus and not overstepping the mark. It’s so hard, because when I’m on that pitch, honestly, I’m a different being.

This is Charlotte, on the record: ‘She’s the heartbeat of the England team. The way she plays her cricket, she sometimes rubs people up the wrong way, because of the way she plays, but you’d always want to have her in your team. I don’t think there’s anything hidden there.’ Fair?
Lottie has got it down to a tee. I’m an honest person, very loyal and what you see is what you get. I will not hold back for you, I’ll run under a bus for you, and that’s why, I guess, I always play up to the point that I need surgery, because I’ll give it everything. I can’t hold back. For instance, sometimes I can’t comprehend something I see with other players. If somebody is slacking, there’s obviously a reason for everything but I take it at face value. If you’re not dying then just crack on! But I’ve had to learn to be a little bit more empathetic! My personality just doesn’t work in that way.

Charlotte also said: ‘She can be quite intimidating for others, especially the younger ones in the team, they drop a catch and end up scared that they might drop another.’ You say that you’ve had to work on being more empathetic?
I grew up playing men’s cricket. I was the tamest person there, and I was still the same. You can imagine them effing and blinding and I would just blend into the background, whereas here I am in the limelight. I didn’t know this until we all did personal feedback for one another. I saw it and I was like, ‘Shit, there’s something to work on here’.

At the risk of sounding like we’re on a Radio 4 interview here, it seems to me that you’re this intriguing mixture of aggression and sensitivity. Maybe it’s a good act, but you’ve always come across to me as having those two extremes quite closely aligned.
You get me on the pitch… In one instance, my emotional control went overboard. It was in a World Cup game against South Africa. I made a comment back to Lottie and she shut me down instantly.

What did you say?
Something along the lines of, ‘Let me bowl another over’, but I did not need to bowl another over. I’d gone in the swede, I definitely didn’t want to say that to her, but I am instantly quite sensitive, one hundred per cent. I am quite a softie at heart, no matter what you see on the pitch. This aggressive person, I can swing from one end to the next quite easily.

Because everything is so ultra-professional now at elite level, and I guess you have sports psychologists and so on, they must have great fun with you.
I avoid them like the plague! My dad would just not understand one. He’d be like, ‘What do you want one of them for? Just get on with it’. And I’ve got the same mentality, probably because of him. He was a miner for 25 years, he couldn’t have had it any harder, down the pits, working his arse off, six kids he’s got to provide for, a stay-at-home mum, so he’s the breadwinner. And the parents he had, they wouldn’t necessarily have said, ‘Son, I’m proud of you or I love you’ every day, because that’s not the way. That’s the kind of dad he was. He’s way more sensitive now, but that’s what it was like. It rubs off, doesn’t it.

So as a young kid, with five siblings, in Barnsley, in a working-class area, what was it like?
It was a happy childhood, but I became a bit introverted towards the end of junior school. And because I’d turned into this introverted, shy kid, I’d never stuck up for myself, I was a pushover and I got bullied a lot, from age 11 all the way up until about 16. And this girl followed me at junior school and into senior school before she got expelled and it tailed off after that. But cricket at senior school, I don’t know how I ended up joining the team. To join a team as the only girl in the entire Yorkshire area playing with boys that outside of the game would give me shit at school. Suddenly I was one of them, I was accepted and it felt good. This became an escape, and this is why I’ve done it for so long and loved it so much. It’s been a massive battle outside and this has kind of saved me in a way. I don’t know where I would be without it, to be honest. I wasn’t going along a good path, that’s for sure.

When did you start to realise that you were really good at it, and that there might actually be some kind of personal expression in this game over and above simply playing with your local club and impressing your dad and your brother?
It was one hundred per cent a hobby. The next one up from me is Daniel, I’m the youngest and he’d say he taught me everything I know. He’s a keeper-batter, so he needed someone to bowl at him, so I obviously became a bowler! I wanted to kill him because he wound me up like nobody’s business, which is how I ended up being able to bowl fast.

You made your England debut at 19, so it was quite a quick turnaround from developing a learning of the game to being an international player…
So being bullied through school, I never wanted to play for England. It was never a massive ambition. Not one iota of me. I’d say I was about 17, I was as fat as anything and I lost about three stone in about four months, all by myself with my own willpower. So then when I got rid of that I met Paul Shaw [future England Women’s coach], who was doing his level three [coaching qualification], and he said, ‘Katherine, if you want to, you’ll play for England. In three years you’ll play for England’. I said, ‘Yeah, but I just enjoy playing with the boys and that’. I was basically being safe. I played a county year and New Zealand were over, I’d been on Connie’s [Clare Connor’s] radar, she had a list of bowlers, and I had a good season with Yorkshire, this was a year after that chat with Shawsy. She came up to me and she had this list, she had someone injured and she needed someone to come in and bowl. I said, ‘No! No I don’t want to!’ And my sister Rachel was with me, and she said, ‘Katherine, you’ll regret it’.

So that reticence came from where?
I was 14, and I went to an England trial that my parents forced me to go to at Trent Bridge. I hated every minute of it. There was a coach who I won’t name who kind of bullied me, and was a bully, and put a lot of people off. I begged my dad not to take me to one of those things ever again. That could have been the breaker for me. It didn’t put me off altogether, but it did shun me away from the England set-up.

I said, ‘No! No I don’t want to!’ And my sister Rachel was with me, and she said, ‘Katherine, you’ll regret it’

So you get to 19 and Clare Connor gives you a nudge.
I was like, ‘Oh, she’s a nice lady! There are some nice people at the ECB!’ All I knew was that one person. This is 16 years ago now, so it’s a long time ago, and a lot of things have changed.

When you began, and for many years after that, it was an amateur sport, you were driving yourselves up and down the country, paying for your own meals. How does a young girl make that kind of decision to be so selfless to sacrifice so much? What drove the 20-year- old Katherine Brunt to throw her hat in with cricket? I understand why a 20-year-old Katherine Brunt would do it today, but why did you do it back then?
There’s two reasons. One was, there’s a massive escape. So I can be as depressed and lonely and sad or whatever on this side, and then I can be the happiest, most delirious person on that side. That’s something not many people experience.

Is that ongoing today?
Sure, extreme highs and extreme lows. That’s sport in general. Getting Man of the Match in the World Cup final here was such a high…

…And how did you feel a week after that World Cup when everyone had gone home?
Just that I was part of something special. For 90 per cent of things we do outside, to the one-per-centers on the pitch, that’s what you do it for, that’s the aim. It’s the escape. You can’t describe it. Money never occurred until it got introduced. It wasn’t a thought until it came and then suddenly, once you’ve got something, you want more, and you start fighting for your rights. But before, you just do it for the love of it.

As a female cricketer, it was amateur for a long, long time, is the bank balance kicking on OK? If you walk away from the game, with all your medals and all the adulation, would you need a job just like that?
Not just like that, no. But all my money, I’ve saved. Not many people have done this, but I’m my dad’s daughter. I’ve saved every penny I’ve ever earned since I was 16. When I was playing for England I had three jobs, and the more I got along, I dropped a job off, to the point where up until a year-and-a-half ago I still had a job on the side. So all that money was saved and then I put some of it into property. I still have money in the bank, because when I leave myself open I can’t think about it, I hate the idea of being insecure. It’s scary, that’s the scariest thing about retirement. I have not received 300 grand a year, if I’d been on a man’s wage for the last 15 years I’d have been less worried about retirement because I would have saved every penny of it.

Is there a frustration that you got to be the best bowler in the world, and won world tournaments, and the amount you’ve been paid is comparatively a drop in the ocean?
I’m not bitter, but you always have that thought, and you know what your family is like, ‘Oh, it’s unfair! Women get treated poorly, they don’t get paid what the men do!’ But if you think along the lines of what you could’ve had, you’re going to get nowhere in your head. I try not to do that. I’m glad I was a part of something special in the past 13 years to help get to this point. I’m dead sure that’s how Lottie would feel as well. She won’t be bothered that she didn’t get paid because she paved the way for others, and for them to reap the rewards.

Do you think we’ll ever get to the point where the women’s team is recognised and respected as immediately as the men’s team always is?
I think we’ll get damn close to it. I believe in that. And I know Connie is doing everything above and beyond what she is paid to do. It’s part of where we are now because of her. You have to look at other sports, if other sports weren’t doing it, you’d have no hope, but they are. The more successful we are, the more popularity we bring to the game, the more players we produce. You need to bring entertainment. You need to get people to the game. You need to bring the money in. I do believe we’ll get damn close, but I don’t think it will be on the same level.

You need to bring entertainment. You need to get people to the game. You need to bring the money in

What is that hinterland for you? What is that world away from cricket? Who does it feature and what does it involve? You said you wanted to bear a child?
It’s so hard. You make so many sacrifices. I was in a relationship, and I thought that was it, and it went away because I ended up going away for six months and it was so difficult.

Does it have to be someone within cricket?
No, I wouldn’t recommend that! You have to separate work. You’ve got to find that balance and it’s so hard. They need to be as supportive when you’re away as much as you’re pissing them off by always being away. What you do is so special and so different that you need to find someone who’s supportive of that, and it’s difficult. It’s hard for everyone, and believe me I’ve gone through ups and downs. At the minute I’m just happy with me, and concentrating on becoming something more than I’ve always been. And that is through the batting and becoming an allrounder.

I wanted to ask you about batting. Whenever I watch the women’s team play, I always think, ‘Why isn’t she batting five or six?’ You’re a player for a crisis as well, and that’s so much more valuable than being able to play a nice cover drive. You’ve got that thing.
I just want to bring it to them. As a person I’m quite protective, and if I see something or someone failing, I want to help. So if one of our batters just got bullied and just got out and they’re in this really bad internal place, I see that and I want to help, no matter how many runs to win, I want to get out there and help. As a sportsperson you’ve always got to be confident, and if you’re not confident then do your best to try and look it! Just act confident, even if inside I’m shitting myself, you never know, Conor McGregor might be shitting himself but he puts his arms behind his back and he carries himself.

I like to express myself when I bat, I want to be able to play 360 [degrees], I want to be able to take on anyone in the world. That’s how I feel. And sometimes I wish other people did, but I think maybe I’m just a bit strange…

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