England news May 11, 2016

A cricketer who changed the game

Charlotte Edwards started when women's cricket was in another era, and shepherded, not just the English team, but the entire game, into this new exciting present

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I was told I was being dropped - Edwards

In women's cricket they played in skirts, paid for caps and blazers and had to take time off work to play. At the same time, the MCC did not allow women members at Lord's. That was not in the 1950s, that was when Charlotte Edwards made her Test debut.

Cricket had to change, someone had to help change it.

There were two women professional cricket teams in 1890. "The Original English lady cricketers" were split into the reds and blues. They were recruited through a newspaper ad, and played against each other for crowds of between 15,000 and 20,000. The women were not allowed to play under their own names and the good times ended when the all-men organising committee left, taking all the money with them.

The thought of women's cricket being professional seemed to disappear with those men and the money.

Women kept playing cricket, because despite the way men thought about them playing cricket, they loved it. They played even when on the first Test tour the England team could only be made up of single women. They played on when famous male cricketers mocked them. They played on when people suggested that females couldn't play sports.

Then Rachael Heyhoe-Flint arrived. She hit the first six in a Women's Test. When she retired she had made 33% more runs than any other woman in history. She was the cricketer of her time. She forced people to talk about women in cricket, and when they didn't, she would even write reports on games she played in. She went out to street corners taking donations. She found some of the first sponsors for the game. WG Grace wasn't out on street corners grabbing people's spare change or writing up a solid 150 words on matches he played in.

It was her team, in winning back to back Ashes, in winning two World Cups in one year, that forced the ECB to move into professionalism. The women simply couldn't be ignored or patronised any longer

It would be Heyhoe-Flint who would all but start cricket's, not just women cricket's, first World Cup. It would be Belinda Clark, an Australian women's cricket pioneer, who scored cricket's first one-day international double-hundred and move into male administration. And it was Clare Connor, Edwards' friend, team-mate and captain, who would be a pioneer in women's cricket administration. And even with these remarkable women, and cricketers, the ICC, then over 80 years into its existence, was still not in charge of women's cricket. That wasn't a veto, it wasn't even a discussion. As for professionalism, it was more absurd fantasy than daydream.

Edwards caused problems from the beginning of her cricket. Starring in boys cricket, some parents objected to their boys having to play against a girl. Some angry young boys who were sick and tired of being hit for boundaries tried sconning her with beamers. And when she started she didn't even know England had a women team, she thought she'd have to play for the men's side to get a game.

She was wrong. By 12 she was playing for England Under-19s; by 16, for the senior team she never knew existed. Still in her teens, she'd made Test hundreds. They throw parades for players like that, the ones without ovaries, of course. She was effortless with the bat, sweet timing and clean, like a feather floating on the wind that hit like a runaway truck. She had a Test average of 44 but she was also an amateur, playing for her country and paying for it. Either in money, or in missed work opportunities. She was one of the best players on the planet, but was working for a bat company that also sponsored her, while the 15th best player for Kent men's team was playing cricket as a professional. Even on the field it was a struggle; it took Edwards nine years to beat Australia. Although once she learnt how to win, she did it a lot. And she taught a generation of English women how to win through her leadership.

All the while her profile, the team's profile and the sport's profile, were rising.

Victories became rarer, but Charlotte Edwards' legacy extends to the whole of women's cricket © Getty Images

Yet eight years into her career she said, "I can't see us turning professional." In a 20-year career she played in only 23 Tests. Her first taste of professionalism, from what was already a billion-dollar game, was receiving a contract from cricket charity Chance to Shine, to essentially coach, spread the word and play cricket. She has received lower per diems at ICC events than her male counterparts, she has shared rooms for almost all her career, and travelled in economy while the men are up in business. Not many modern English cricketers have to drive a sponsored car that is made to look like a beer can.

Not that it mattered, she didn't play cricket to be famous, to get an MBE (tick) , a CBE (tick) , to become a Wisden Cricketer of the Year (tick), or to get rich. She played cricket because she loved it. While kids around her were obsessed with comic books, dolls and pop music, she wanted to know why her father had made a bowling change. As a young girl she was a captaincy fan; that is peak cricket geek.

In 2014 she became one of cricket's first true full-time professionals. Paid for not by a charity, but by a board, a board that didn't even exist when she started her career. Not to coach and spread the gospel of women's cricket, but to go out on the field and do what she had done against boys, do what she had paid to do, do what she had done for free, for her entire life, to play cricket. Again, she was leading from the front.

It was her team, in winning back-to-back Ashes, in winning two World Cups in one year, that forced the ECB to move into professionalism. The women simply couldn't be ignored or patronised any longer. They were simply too good.

Edwards now walks into schools as a World Cup winner, Ashes winner, as a professional cricketer, and she says to young girls, you can have a career playing cricket

In her own words she hadn't been beating the drum for women's cricket to be professional. Heyhoe-Flint was an activist, Clark and Connor were administrators. Edwards was a cricketer. But she was also the cricketer. She was England women's cricket, and she had played so long, lead so long, it felt like she had built this new world. The face of English women's cricket, and often the face of women's cricket everywhere. A girl who grew up not knowing women had their own team, to one who lead it for a decade, over 200 times and got paid for it.

When she started playing at Lord's, the only women in the Long Room were staff, players or the Queen. Now she is on the MCC World Committee. Now there is no one that would dare stop her from entering the Long Room, she is cricket's queen.

Yet, she was so normal. Unlike many cricketers, the ego and presence wasn't there when you met Edwards. Unlike many big name cricketers, when you meet her she is clearly a person who plays cricket, not a big cricket star. When she first met former England international Rosalie Birch - Birch was only 18 and a bit overawed getting a ride from an England star in her sponsored car - it was Edwards who was "down playing it and cracking some sort of joke to make me feel comfortable." There are also many tales of Edwards breaking into song to lighten the mood, or just because she can't help but break into song.

But Edwards isn't normal, Birch says. "How can someone with as dodgy knees as Edwards' manage to play international cricket, with all its training and physical strain, for 20 years? She turned like the QE2, but she knew that, so she stuck to hitting boundaries. And it would be easy as you come to towards the end of your career to stick to what you know, but she was one of the first women I saw sweeping seamers and playing inventive ramps." She inspired by playing, by continuing to play, and by how she played, and in 2014 and 2015 she was England's best player. Dodgy knees and 20 years of wear and tear be damned.

Her retirement was in many ways started by her own talent. That very professionalism her performances demanded has now caught up with her. Not her batting, but her leadership, and now she has been pushed out because professionalism demands performances or heads will roll. The queen, who will probably be one day a Dame, has been dethroned.

Charlotte Edwards (left) at 17 during the 1997 Women's World Cup © Getty Images

But even as she was disappointed with her team's performance in the World T20, and knowing that the end may come soon, there must have been a part of her who watched the West Indies team win the tournament and think about how far women's cricket had come. Edwards never even thought her team would become professional, and here was a West Indies team with a few professionals, being the first team outside the women's big three to win a major event. Look at what they had achieved, look at what she had done.

Edwards is modern women's cricket. Sarah Taylor might be a better player. Ellyse Perry might be a bigger star. Suzie Bates might be a better captain. Mithali Raj might be a better batsman. But it was Charlotte Edwards who started when women's cricket was in another era, and shepherded, not just the English team, but the entire game, into this new exciting present.

Many cricketers have played for their country. A few of those have won World Cups. Even fewer have captained those wins. But in the history of the game there is only a small amount of players who have changed the game. Charlotte Edwards is one of those.

Edwards now walks into schools as a World Cup winner, Ashes winner and with a CBE behind her name, but more importantly, as a professional cricketer, and she says to young girls, you can have a career playing cricket. She is now the poster woman for a new dream.

Steve Waugh was her idol when she was growing up. The next generation of girls have plenty of new heroes to choose from. And many already have chosen Edwards.

Her team-mates call her Lottie. It is an affectionate, if slightly unimaginative nickname. History will remember her as something else, one of the most important cricketers, of any gender or nationality, to play the game.

Charlotte Edwards led her side, and her sport, from the front. Because of that, cricket is in a better place than when she started.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber