'Managing expectation will be key to England's success' - Robinson
Mark Robinson, England's head coach, has praised the professional manner in which his new-look squad has built towards this summer's Women's World Cup, and believes they are entering the right frame of mind to manage the expectation that will come with being the host nation at cricket's oldest global event.
England will not go into the World Cup as favourites - that is the top-to-bottom message from the squad as they begin the countdown to their opening fixture, against India at Derby on June 24. But, after a year of dramatic upheaval in 2016 that centred around the enforced retirement of Charlotte Edwards, Robinson feels that the squad's ambitions have been recalibrated and their professionalism renewed ahead of what promises to be a defining year.
"There's nothing bigger than a World Cup in England, so I'm feeling that excitement and so are the girls," Robinson told ESPNcricinfo during the launch event at Lord's. "This is one of the reasons why I came to do this job, to take part in the big global events.
"The goal is to get back to being the No.1 country in the world. We're not there yet, but we've made some big strides and big improvements, and this will be a big test to see how far we've come this summer."
Twelve months ago, the challenge awaiting England's women was made abundantly clear as Australia dumped them out of the World T20 with a five-run victory in their semi-final in Delhi. Though the margin may have been tight, the gulf between the teams was not, and in a remarkable post-match press conference that effectively marked the end of Edwards' decade-long reign as captain, Robinson blamed their shortcomings on an inability to run sufficiently quickly between the wickets.
"The fitness should be a non-negotiable," Robinson said. "It shouldn't be an issue that you have to talk about as an England coach, so hopefully we've addressed that. There's still some room to go, and there always will be to a degree, but we've made such a big shift."
Now, with Heather Knight installed as Edwards' replacement as captain, England are unbeaten in four series to date (three in ODIs and one T20) during which time many of the players who could help them challenge once again for major honours have been identified.
At the top of the order, Lauren Winfield and Tammy Beaumont have emerged as a dynamic and record-breaking opening partnership, Nat Sciver has blossomed to become one of the leading allrounders in the world, while Alex Hartley's emerging left-arm spin was a critical factor in a hard-earned 3-2 series win in the Caribbean in October.
"We went to the West Indies for a tough series in incredibly tough conditions and our fitness stood up, so that's all you want as a coach," said Robinson. "We've won, and won in a style that probably hasn't been seen before. We've made some really good progress, all we can do is keeping having attention to detail on the little things and see where it goes. Embrace the expectation, but manage it at the same time. Don't live with any challenges that you might regret down the line."
One of the key moments of England's regeneration came against Pakistan at Worcester in June, during Knight's second match in charge. As if primed to produce a statement of intent, Winfield led the line with a career-best 123, adding a record 235 with Beaumont, before Sciver applied the coup de grace with a remarkable 80 from 33 balls. England finished on 378 for 5, their highest ODI total of all time, and set themselves a template for the season to come.
"It's about trying to let them go, and let them understand they are allowed to make mistakes," Robinson said. "Heather is a young player at 26, her best years are ahead of her, and that is exciting. It's about not thinking of the burden and worrying that 'if I don't get these runs, we've lost'. And that is the case for all of our batting line-up."
Winfield's opportunities had been distinctly limited in the previous regime. In 29 appearances spread over three years, she had mustered a solitary half-century in a T20 at Edgbaston, and played no part in the World T20 after yo-yoing up and down the batting order in both forms of white-ball cricket.
"In the previous era, there was probably talk of the team relying on one or two players and if those players failed then we generally failed," she said. "I don't think there was extra motivation in terms of wanting to perform, but we were hugely excited about the opportunity. Myself and Tammy had been in and out of the team in various different positions at the top and in the middle of the order, and we finally got an opportunity to do the role we'd always wanted to do.
"As a team it was important not just to win, but to really heavily dominate, and we managed to do that. We were convincing and showed the world what we can do.
"We've got the foundations and performances under our belts now that give us confidence and belief that we belong in the arena which, to be honest, when you're in and out a lot, you don't have that. You go in and tell yourself you're confident, but it's a little bit false. Once you've got a few performances under your belt, it's more instilled and the belief is really there."
Winfield epitomises the more hardened professional edge that Robinson has brought to the England regime in the past few months. "Something we are striving towards as a team is being the best possible athletes that we can be," she said. "And if we do that, we've got half a chance of being pretty good cricketers as well.
"A talking point for a number of years has been our fielding," she added. "The game has moved on, and the gaps are not as big between the teams now. If you have ten runs between a win or a loss, then that special catch or that boundary save, or that over where you are up and down for twos, is crucial."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket