February 3, 2013

'I'm the kind of person who's 100% or nothing'

Ed Kemp
Charlotte Edwards has captained England to two World Cup wins and is at the centre of a fight for greater recognition and professionalism for women's cricket

England's World Cup challenge has been undermined after a shock defeat in their opening match against Sri Lanka. The challenge has never been greater for Charlotte Edwards, the figurehead of English women's cricket. Just before she left for India, All Out Cricket magazine got behind the public face of one of British sport's great crusaders.

Charlotte Edwards is singing. It was Sarah Taylor, England's star wicketkeeper-batsman, who, bounding into our photo shoot, had put the music on. And now that Edwards has finished being photographed, official duties done, she launches herself into the high notes of Maria McKee's early Nineties power ballad "Show Me Heaven". Behind her, fast bowler Katherine Brunt is pulling faces at the camera - it's her turn to pose now - and Edwards (in between verses) keeps telling her off - "Nunny [Brunt's nickname], are you doing what you're told?" - as the Yorkshire-born quick dances and bites the white cricket ball she's holding as a prop. For anyone who accuses the England captain of being a "cricket geek" - and they do, her team-mates especially - she now has an answer: "You heard it here first. I tell you what, this time next year… X Factor."

It's been a long day. Here at Edgbaston, England women have just finished their last home training camp before they fly out to India for the World Cup - Edwards' fifth - where they are defending the crown they won four years ago in Sydney. Having narrowly missed out on the World Twenty20 title in October (they lost the final to Australia, by four runs), there has been an extra edge to their preparation here: their reputation as the best side in the world is at stake. More than that, after the inspiring events of 2012, women's sport is firmly on the map, and they don't want to let the side down now.

So it's understandable if they're blowing off a bit of steam. Edwards has been captain of England since 2006, and is the face of the game in this country; her contract with cricket charity Chance to Shine - which allows women cricketers to play and train while being paid, in "coaching ambassador" roles - has allowed her to become the closest to a full-time professional the women's game has known. Whether it's encouraging the next generation of young cricketers in schools, appearing at a club training session, presenting prizes at an awards do, giving interviews to media, practising in the nets, slugging away in the gym, planning for games or playing in them, cricket is not only Edwards' job, it's her life.

Lucky then that she loves it. I mean, really loves it. I've rarely met anyone whose passion for the game is so complete. "I just absolutely love it," she says. "I'm a bit of a geek! That's what I get told anyway. I'm always learning about it, watching it - just this morning I was watching the Big Bash and being excited by it. It gives me a wonderful feeling. And I'm very fortunate that I've been able to play at the highest level for as long as I have done and still feel the way I feel. I hope I put my love of the game across to other people."

In truth, it's this commitment that has kept her in the game. These days, talented young players are identified early and treated to high-level coaching from the start; then, when they reach the senior England squad there is a whole team of support staff dedicated to them, from the head coach, Mark Lane, to the assistant coach, specialist skills coaches, a physio, strength and conditioning coaches, data analysts and a media manager. When Edwards debuted in 1996 at the age of 16 she had to pay for her own cap and blazer.

"My first England game was also my first and only played in a skirt! [England's women's team still played in traditional culottes until 1997, when they finally switched to trousers. Edwards, who had been used to playing boys' cricket - very much in trousers - was relieved.]

"I can still remember that day like it was yesterday. We didn't have a sponsor, I didn't even wear three lions on my shirt. But that doesn't take away from what a feeling it was to make my England debut. I've still got the blazer and the cap I paid for, and they were brilliant days. I think the blazer was about 60 quid! But I would have paid any amount of money to play cricket for England - that's where we were back then. But to have been part of it and watch it all evolve over the years - it's unrecognisable from the game I started playing."

And as befits the maternal way she has with her players - most of whom are in their early 20s - Edwards is not shy of reminding her girls how things used to be. "Don't you worry, I don't ever miss an opportunity to tell them! The support the team gets now, they're incredibly lucky, and it's so important they know that and appreciate what they get - I certainly do. And I won't let anyone get too big for their boots in this team, because we've come a long way. Ultimately the players deserve it now because they put in the hard work, but I keep them very much grounded, and it's important I keep myself grounded as well."

Edwards grew up in cricket. She used to watch her dad play at Ramsey CC in Cambridgeshire from "the age of three or four", and was such a talented young player herself that she captained all the boys teams, even her county Huntingdonshire's Under- 16 boys side (these days there are more opportunities for girls to play girls-only cricket at representative level, but for someone who scored as many runs as Edwards did, acceptance in male cricket was not an issue). She came into the England side with quite a reputation, proceeding to hit two tons in her first six ODI knocks and hardly looking back thereafter. In 2010 she became the most capped women's ODI player of all time.

"If I got annoyed every time someone patronised women's cricket or myself then I'd be a really grumpy person"

Her career has coincided with a huge development in women's cricket, particularly in England. The running of the women's game was taken over by the ECB in 1998, since when there has been a huge increase in investment. The majority of the squad are now either on Chance to Shine contracts, at university, or part of the MCC Young Cricketers programme, allowing them to play and train for most of the year.

That investment has borne fruit. In 2005 they regained the Ashes for the first time in 42 years, and in 2009 they won it all: the World Cup in Australia (after which Edwards was awarded an MBE), the World Twenty20 three months later in England, and then the Ashes, which they will contest again at home later this year. Today they are the world's No. 1 side.

But though the T20 format has helped market the sport, there is still much to do. Double- header events, where a women's match is played immediately before the men's, on the same ground, such as we saw in the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka, have been particularly effective in raising awareness and, crucially, showcasing the skill levels of the top players. But the battle to prove that women's cricket is worth watching is not over. When games are televised, there is enormous pressure to perform, and not only to achieve results for the team. The fight is on, and for Edwards the gloves are off.

"The whole time I've been playing, you're always having to prove yourself as a female cricketer. In more recent times we've changed a lot of people's perceptions of the game, but when I first started playing, it was: 'Why is a girl playing cricket?' Particularly when we were playing in skirts. But in the last four or five years I've seen a huge shift in what people say about the game."

Laughing, Edwards says: "Sometimes when people talk to me, they say, 'Oh, you can throw and catch, and you bowl so well!' It's quite interesting. They're positive comments, but they're surprised how well we play."

Does she ever feel patronised? "Look, as a female sportsperson, and especially a cricketer, I think I can't get too upset with people's comments. Everyone's entitled to their opinion, and if I got annoyed every time someone patronised women's cricket or myself then I'd be a really grumpy person. It's just water off a duck's back to me. The most important thing is our success on the pitch, and people can have their opinions, but hopefully we're changing many of those."

Edwards is happy to acknowledge that one reason England are the best team in the world is the increased investment. Financially England are the best-supported side in the world, and as Edwards readily says: "You're only going to get the success if you invest money."

But it's not the same everywhere. Of the eight teams competing in the World Cup, England and Australia are currently head and shoulders above the rest, with New Zealand and India behind them, and during the World Twenty20, in games between the smaller nations, there were occasionally incidents of the kind of sloppy cricket that does the image of the game no favours. (Of course, there are in men's cricket too, but the women's game will inevitably be judged more harshly.)

Is Edwards the stateswoman of women's cricket, rather than Edwards the England captain, satisfied with the standard worldwide?

"I think overall it's hard. There's a perception that maybe us and Australia are moving away from the rest of the nations in terms of skill, but I was really impressed at the World Twenty20 with how teams like Sri Lanka and Pakistan have come into their own; they're beating India, they're beating the West Indies, so I've come away from that event really pleased with where the world game's at.

"I think more teams are now competing. The support that the Sri Lanka and Pakistan boards have put in, you can see the difference it's made. Maybe the world game's not quite as strong as we would like across the board, as probably it was five or six years ago, so it's important that the boards are really supporting their women's programmes, because they will see a difference when they do."

And the difference can be lasting. One of the many advantages today's youngsters have over Edwards' generation is an abundance of female role models. The England captain barely saw any women's cricket on TV as a child. Now she and her team-mates are going into schools around the country, delivering a healthy mix of cricket and inspiration.

And then, of course, there is the impact of the Olympics, which did so much to highlight the strength of female sport in the UK. "We've got some amazing female role models now, which, when a lot of us were growing up, probably weren't around. So we've got to thank the Olympics for that. After that we went to the World Twenty20 and we felt like people were actually following us more now because we're female, which is something the country's really bought into."

True as that is, only a handful of England's players are widely known, even in cricket circles. When it comes to requests for interviews in the media on women's cricket, it's invariably Edwards who gets the call. Which means she is pretty busy. That's fine; it is a big part of her job. But making more of the players more famous has to be a goal if the game is to keep progressing. Whisper it quietly, but Edwards will not be around forever; the game needs new heroes.

"To really raise the profile of a lot of the players would be a great thing, but that also comes from performances on the pitch. They go hand in hand. We've got world-class players in our team - people like Sarah Taylor are now getting the recognition they deserve, and the more individuals we can have as role models, and written about, the better - rather than boring old me all the time!

"A lot of the girls are actually quite shy and they won't talk about their achievements - which is a good thing in one way, but when you're wanting to sell the team, sell the game, sell themselves, they probably need to be a bit less modest. We've got some wonderful people in the team who've done some wonderful things. Hopefully we'll see that in the next few months, and this time next year they'll be talking about 80% of the team instead of the 20% that a lot of people know at the moment."

That she should desire this is indicative not just of her commitment to the wider cause but also of her markedly maternal care for her team. Humble she may be, but Edwards is unquestionably the team's leader; looking after them, building them up, pushing them forward, guiding them through the difficult moments.

Taylor, who Edwards says is the best batsman in the world and "can be as good as she wants to be", was 17 when she came into the side nearly six years ago, and Edwards was already captain. She has been a key figure in Taylor's career ever since. "She's just always been proud of everything that I've done," Taylor says. "She always says to me she's proud, and I think that actually takes the pressure away a little bit. You think, 'She's proud of what I've done so far, so I'm doing the right things.' If anything, you put more pressure on yourself. She just lets me get on with it."

It's similar for Brunt, 27, who has played with Edwards since 2004, when Brunt's debut against New Zealand was marked by one of Edwards' ten international tons.

"Charlotte? Basically my whole life has revolved around cricket since I was eight, and Lottie has been a part of that for a huge chunk of my career. When I first met her she was quite wild, but she's very focused on what she does. She's a fantastic captain. She knows her game plans inside out for each team and every player we come up against, but then within that she works on instinct. She's a huge trier, and she's very competitive - she'll give it her all. In my opinion you can only have someone of that sort of character to lead you."

And is she a nerveless character? Before big finals, for example? "No, no one can really hide that completely. You can see it, but she never lets it affect her, and if she did, she wouldn't be a very good captain. You can tell she's nervous, but you can also see that she's excited and she wants it more than anything, so it doesn't unnerve you at all. If anything it makes you want to work harder for her."

Taylor calls her skipper "Mrs Cricket" and although a joke, there is a sense that Edwards is married to the game. Female athletes have always been under more pressure to find a balance between career and private life. They are invariably subjected to more questions about their "plans for the future" than the boys. "Aren't you going to retire and get on with your life?" they seem to be asked, however implicitly.

"She's a fantastic captain. She knows her game plans inside out for each team and every player we come up against, but then within that she works on instinct"
Katherine Brunt on Edwards

But things are changing. England allrounder Arran Brindle rejoined the national squad in 2011 after taking a break to start a family, and increasingly women are able to stay within the game without being lost to cricket prematurely.

But what of Edwards? Does she feel she's made sacrifices? Not a bit of it.

"My life for the last three months [between World Cups] has just been cricket. I wanted to throw everything into my preparation for the World Cup. You know, it might be my last, so you want to do everything you possibly can. I've just been training non-stop. But that's a choice I've made, it's what I love doing, and I wouldn't have it any different because I know I'm the kind of person who's 100% or nothing. That's how I've always been.

"Sometimes people think, 'God, you're just in cricket all the time!' But that's what I love and that's how I tick, so I don't feel like I sacrifice anything, because this is how I want to live my life, and I enjoy what I do. That's how you get the best out of yourself."

But what if cricket just plain didn't exist? "God, that's a really good question. I've been in cricket all my life!

"I do love my time just at home - I'm a bit of a home bird, I like spending time with my family. My brother's just about to have a little baby due near the World Cup, so I'm going to be an auntie for the first time, so I think that's going to be a nice release for me, to have something outside of the game.

"What else would I want to be? I've always been interested in the police - I'm not sure if I'd be any good at it, but I'm quite nosy. I quite like crime programmes…

"Or a property developer. I'm really into Homes Under The Hammer at the moment." The Simon Cowell-endorsed singing career can wait.

Though she has no intention of retiring - she's in the form of her life, one of the world's leading players, named Player of the Tournament in the World Twenty20 - Edwards will naturally remain in cricket when the time eventually comes. Next year she plans to develop her coaching experience at a more elite girls' level, and it's quite possible that she could one day make the transition from England captain to England coach.

"I won't be too far away from the game when I do decide to hang my boots up. I feel I've got too much to offer in terms of passion and knowledge. And I feel like I've got a lot to give back to a game I've got so much from… But I've got a lot more to achieve as a player."

When would be a realistic target for her, playing-wise? "Well, I did hear on the quiet that the 2017 World Cup is maybe going to be in England, and if there was any carrot, that would be it. But at the moment, four years - God! - it seems a long way off. But you see guys go on into their late 30s - I'd only be 37 then. Players are playing on longer now, thanks to all the strength and conditioning coaches and physios, so we'll see." Being asked so often when she might retire has made her consider it, come up with an answer: words to reply to the question. But she's going nowhere soon.

Good news. Whatever happens from now on, Edwards deserves to be seen as one of England's finest-ever captains - one of Britain's greatest modern sportspeople. And while, as she says, women's cricket today is now a world away from the game she joined at 16, these days it would be utterly unrecognisable without her at its heart. She is a star. No talent show required.

This article was first published in the February 2013 issue of All Out Cricket magazine, available to buy now from WHSmith