England captain Heather Knight hopes her side will be able to deal with the pressure of a major tournament better than they have before as they host the 2017 Women’s World Cup.
Despite being one of the women’s game’s best funded sides, England haven’t won a world tournament since 2009 (they went out to world No.1 side Australia in the semi-finals of the 2016 World T20) and have been accused of underperforming in crunch games in recent years.
Knight, who returned from a foot injury which had hampered her preparation for the tournament to hit a century in the warm-up match against Sri Lanka this week, took over the captaincy in May 2016 after Charlotte Edwards was sacked by Mark Robinson. She has high hopes that the increasingly professional environment created by the Championship-winning former Sussex men’s coach will reap rewards for her team on the big stage.
“I think we’re a good team and hopefully we’ll deal with the pressure a little bit better than we have done in the past – we’ve done a lot of preparation in terms of addressing that,” she tells AOC.
“We’ve probably talked about it and addressed it a little bit more. We’ve had a tendency to sweep it under the carpet a little bit and we’ve now done some really good work in being a lot more open and knowing how each other are feeling.
“It sounds like an AA group…! We’ve just talked about how we deal with pressure, we’re a group of players that know each other very well, a lot of the girls have lived together, a lot of us grew up playing cricket together – we’ve tried to tap into that togetherness and the fact that we know each other very well. Because when you’re under the pump it’s your mate up the other end who’s probably going to be the best person to understand that and help you get out of it. So we’ve tried to get better at knowing how each other react to certain situations and how to get the best out of each other.”
Admitting to feeling the pressure has been key for a group of players who – though they are fully professional – still play a fraction of the competitive cricket their male counterparts enjoy.
“It’s feelings that every professional cricketer has – its normalising them a bit and being a lot more open about them, being willing to be vulnerable. Quite often in professional sport you put a face on and pretend that you’re invincible but that’s the case with no professional sportsperson I’ve ever met. It’s a case of being a lot more open about them [your feelings] and actually trying to address them – putting ourselves under the pump a lot more in training. When we had a big training block towards the start of the year we did a lot of games designed to push our buttons and put ourselves under a lot more pressure, games with funny rules that you had to adapt to and find a way to win. We’ve done a lot more in training.”
Knight is hopeful that the team’s attacking style – adopted with huge success against an admittedly weak Pakistan side last summer – continues to serve the twin aims of entertaining and winning matches, in what is set to be the most watched women’s tournament ever, with every game broadcast live.
“The way the team is we’re quite a fun team, we play our best cricket when we’ve got a smile on our face and we’re out there enjoying ourselves. We’ve got some massively exciting cricketers that we’ve tried to give a little bit more freedom and tried to give them the ability to express their talent, play the way we know they can. We want to be a team that plays exciting cricket that’s good to watch and hopefully we play with a smile on our face as well.
“It’s about winning as well – we’ve tried to develop a game that’s going to do a bit of both: going to win us games of cricket and is also going to be great to watch. This World Cup is going to be the most watched, the most visible Women’s World Cup ever, so for us the main goal is to win that trophy at Lord’s on July 23, but if part of that is getting lots of people out to watch us then that’s a welcome by-product as well.
Success, says Knight, who as the team’s No.4 anchor and an increasingly full-time off-spinner has a huge role to play as a player as well as captain, can only be defined as a place in the final – though the team’s preparation was dealt a blow by the news that opening batsman Lauren Winfield is likely to miss the first two group games with a wrist injury.
“We’re here to get our hands on that trophy. The journey this team is on it’ll be a great test of where we are at and how we’ve progressed over the last year or so. But I don’t think this summer will define us as a team; were trying to develop a team that gets back to world No.1 and can stay there for a long period of time. Hopefully that will come sooner rather than later. The World Cup will be a good test of where we are.”
Knight, like most other players and pundits, is anticipating higher standards than ever.
“I think the skill levels in general have improved a hell of a lot over the last couple of years. The Big Bash and the Kia Super League have come in and that’s given the best players in the world the chance to improve and play on the big stage a lot more. That’s helped the top players really improve. And then the skill levels and the tactics, with a lot better coaches coming in all over the world, has massively improved as well. Robbo coming in for us has added that extra professionalism, added smartness and awareness. The big difference between men’s and women’s cricket is the amount of games you actually play. So sometimes that game awareness and smartness is not as ingrained. You need a coach to come in and guide you a bit on that.
“I think it’s going to be a great tournament. There are a lot more players that hit sixes now, there are higher scores. And hopefully we’ll play on good pitches that will let those skills be shown.”
It is to be hoped that the format of the tournament – a full eight-team round-robin which begins with England v India on Saturday, followed by semis and final – supports the kind of cricket that can do justice to what is an unprecedented level of exposure.
“We played in a World T20 in India where there were slow spinning wickets with massive boundaries and long outfields, and it was pretty much impossible to take down the spinners. It brought in the bowlers who wouldn’t be successful at grounds with good wickets and decent size boundaries. If you’re trying to push the game forward and make it exciting to watch, in India it wasn’t that conducive to that.”
Boundaries for the 2017 tournament are to be broadly standardised at 60 metres – just one of the conditions of play that all teams will need to adjust to.
“It’s a tournament where fitness and peaking at the right time is going to be huge,” says Knight. “It’s the first tournament that I’ve known where every team plays each other. Seven group games, potential of semi-final and final – it’s a lot of cricket, it’s going to be a long old tournament, lots of chopping around and playing at different grounds, adapting to different conditions and there’s bound to be a few used pitches as the tournament goes on. The teams that adapt to different conditions and have those rounded games will go far.”