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March 13, 2006
The news that Clare Connor has retired from international cricket may not have come as a shock - she had been thinking of quitting for some time after a persistent ankle injury refused to heal - but it is a definite blow. Not only has she strongly England since 2000, but during that time the articulate Connor also raised the profile of women's cricket greatly.
For years it was Rachael Heyhoe-Flint who, despite not having lifted a bat for her country since 1982, was the one name identified with England women's cricket. Then along came Connor - also media savvy, also a born leader.
She presented Channel 4's Cricket Show, she wrote in The Observer and she had a good story to tell, too, recapturing the Ashes after 42 years which earned her an OBE to add to her MBE. Her time at the helm wasn't always smooth - just as she took up the reins, England slumped to their worst-ever World Cup finish, coming fifth. Nevertheless, the young Connor emerged with credit for her leadership and slowly, surely, she helped to mould England into a force to be reckoned with and, with support from the ECB, made sure that people knew about it, too.
But she was making headlines way before then - becoming the first girl to play for Brighton College 1st XI, then in 2002, she was the first woman to play in The Cricketer Cup when she appeared for Old Brightonians against Lancing Rovers. Life will now centre on her old school once more, where she will continue to teach English and PE and where she has also taken on the responsibility of heading up the school's PR operations. And, while her international days may be over, she has nevertheless signed for the celebrity pub side, Lashings - always a sign that a career is, for whatever reason, on the wane.
In Connor's case injury was the final straw. But for a round of numbing cortisone injections, she would have quit even before the Ashes. The ankle, though, couldn't hold up forever and this winter she was "gutted" to miss her first international series in ten years when England headed off for a tour of the subcontinent.
Still, she has plans in place for the future, and will be a worthy commentator at least when England turn out against India this summer, being able to draw on a decade's worth of experience at the top level, where she has learned the key to success. "It is about perseverance, it is about learning from disappointments and it is about being brave." These words apply just as well to England's future without her. They now have a yawning gap to fill, firstly with the captaincy but perhaps equally importantly, the media profile.
Charlotte Edwards will become the captain full-time, having made an admirable stab at deputising in the recent tour of Sri Lanka and India. An integral part of the side for a decade, Edwards is a capable leader and has ensured continuity in the team, as she and Connor share tactical thinking.
Off the field could be more tricky, although the profile of the game as a whole has been rising ever since the ECB took over its administration and treated the women equally, even awarding them a spot on the stage at Trafalgar Square and their own Ashes bus to take them there. But now it's the end of the road for Connor, easily the most recognisable on the bus, and England will have to start a brave new journey.
What's wrong with their cricket? Well, what isn't?