A few years ago, Chris Rogers was on 92* overnight and he was, as ever, happy to chat at the close of play. I wished him well, supremely confident he would get to his ton the next morning. He was out second ball and I’ve always felt somehow responsible.
Yesterday, meeting Sophie Ecclestone, the current ICC Women’s top ranked bowler in both ODI and T20s, I politely took the opportunity to wish her all the best before she took the field in Dubai for her Spirt team against the Tornadoes in the FairBreak Invitational Tournament. In no time at all, she had ripped out the Tornadoes’ top order and taken an incredible 5 wickets for 8 runs. A phenomenal effort in its own right, but in so doing, she also laid the ghost of my guilt at cursing Chris Rogers. Sophie will have been blissfully unaware of this of course.
What she will have been very aware of though, is how her beloved Everton were faring as they scrapped for vital relegation points against my Watford. 2-0 to Everton was her prediction, which I felt was conservatively low in the Everton ‘goals for’ column. It was, as it subsequently turned out, the dullest of goalless draws and almost certainly, the only thing Sophie got wrong all day. She was she said, “dreading going back home if we are relegated”. For what it’s worth, I think Everton and she will be fine.
So, with the important business discussed, we turned to the FairBreak Invitational Tournament, which has gathered together leading women cricketers from around the world. No less than thirty-five nationalities are represented across the six teams as befits the organisers global mission, which is “to create opportunities that progress gender equality on a truly global scale, using cricket as our primary vehicle”.
It’s an opportunity and an experience that is clearly exciting the players who seem to be having a ball doing it too. “It’s phenomenal to meet and play with people from different backgrounds and cultures” she said. So, which players that Sophie had not met before, was she particularly enjoying playing with here? For the Spirit, South African bowler “Ayabonga Khaka is a great bowler and great fun”, she’s also second only to Sophie as leading wicket taker currently, although that fivefer has taken Sophie someway clear on 13 wickets to Ayabonga’s 8. From the international blend in the Spirit alone, she was excited by the talents of Sarah Bryce (Scotland), Yasmin Daswani (Honk Kong) and GK Divya from Singapore.
The sense of that bigger mission for the tournament is clearly strong with Sophie and her fellow players. “It’s massive to give people round the world in so many different countries something to look up to, even Japan for example” The influence and motivation that the players can provide is an honour and responsibility they all carry with huge pride and often equally huge smiles.
There is no doubt who Sophie feels is the biggest influence on her own career. “Definitely my brother” she says. “He taught me how to play football and cricket. It’s down to him that I’m here doing what I do”. He is, unsurprisingly, “an even bigger Toffee (Evertonian) than I am!”
Sophie was certainly a star of the recent ICC Women’s World Cup. Just as here in Dubai, she was leading wicket taker in New Zealand and by a country mile too. After England’s tough start, losing their first three games, I was keen to know what finally clicked when they notched up their first win against India. It was she said, “the motivation of knowing it was a must win game. Lose and we were out”. What really shines through is the pride that Sophie has in her England team and their ability to fight for one another. The team were “incredibly aware of the gathering good will and support back home” as people listened or watched through the night, biting nails, particularly in the thriller versus New Zealand at Eden Park.
That led us, inevitably, to the elephant, or rather kangaroo, in the room. Just how do you beat Australia, I sense, is not a new question for England’s premier left arm spinner.
Sophie is adamant the gap is not as big as it is made out to be. “Remember in that first game we only lost by 10 runs and it was something like 310 plays 300. In the final there was one fantastic innings for them and one for us. They are a great team, but we are too. On our day we are so capable of beating the Aussies, I know we are”. This is not misplaced bravado, but genuine passion and belief I am hearing.
“It just needs someone to have a big day out” is how Sophie sees it. “Obviously, Alyssa (Healy) had her big day out, but so did Nat (Sciver). We just needed someone to stay with her”. “They are a great side, but so are we” she says.
With the Commonwealth Games coming up and then the World T20 next year, England will have a shot at their big day and listening to Sophie, I wouldn’t bet against them.
So, in the spirit of the FairBreak Invitational Tournament, what, I wondered, would be Sophie’s advice to any young woman starting to take an interest in cricket?
“Just enjoy it. When I started playing, I was the only girl at my club, but now there is a huge girl’s membership. Go along with your mates and just give it a go. I’m really enjoying what I do and I think I’m doing alright”
She certainly is doing alright and as the wickets keep coming, so does the unshakable belief in herself and her team. It might, next time round, be just too much for the Australians.
You can watch the Fairbreak Invitation live and exclusive on FreeSports, available on Sky 422, Freeview 65, Virgin TV 553, BT/TalkTalk 64, Samsung TV Plus and online through the FreeSports Player. https://www.freesportsplayer.tv/