After a lacklustre 2016 World T20 campaign, England needed a spark. The women's game in general was making rapid progress in this country with professionalisation, a new T20 league and greater media coverage, but the national team was in danger of going stale.
Mark Robinson, appointed head coach in November 2015, had been damning in his assessment of his side after the World T20 semi-final defeat to Australia, criticising their fitness, attitude and dynamism. "We're looking for players who can stand up and be counted and play under the pressure and have the aerobic fitness to do the job necessary," he said. "That will be a necessity for any women's team going forward."
Robinson took the controversial step of calling time on Charlotte Edwards' illustrious career, insisting it was time for the next generation, several of whom were failing to live up to their potential, to start taking responsibility.
In search of a new opening pair he turned to Lauren Winfield, who hadn't been included in the World T20 squad, to partner Tammy Beaumont, one of few bright spots from the tournament - two great mates from their days at Loughborough University who had spent their careers vying to open with Edwards.
Beaumont, 26, had debuted for England as far back as 2009, with Winfield, also 26, making her international bow four years later, but both averaged below 20 from a handful of ODIs and had spent as much time out of the side as in it.
A fairytale summer followed, as they put on a stand of 235 in their second ODI as opening partners - a new English record for the first wicket - and each scored their first international centuries in the process. "We haven't really looked back," says Beaumont.
Beaumont went on to score 484 runs at 96.8 across the ODI and T20I series against Pakistan, capping the season by being named England Women's Player of the Summer, while Winfield has a century and five fifties from her last 13 knocks.
The Beaumont-Winfield partnership has been the biggest success story from Robinson's tenure so far, giving the team the impetus and aggression he demanded from his top order in order to challenge Australia in the forthcoming World Cup. And they've had a blast doing it.
How far do you two go back?
LW: We'd played against each other for years from when we were little tinies.
TB: My first memory of Lauren is her actually…
LW: Abusing you?
TB: Abusing me! We were playing in the junior Super 4s and I was batting - I was only about 15 so you'd have been about 16 - she was keeping wicket and she was having a wager with first slip on how I was going to get out because I was batting that bad. I turned round and said, "Can I have bowled?"
Were you in the same circle of mates when you were studying at Loughborough Uni?
LW: Yeah, we were. We enjoyed a few Wednesday nights out together…
TB: Lauren joined in my second year. We were heavily involved with MCCU [Marylebone Cricket Club University] cricket and we made a lot of close friends through that. During Wednesday afternoon training sessions we'd work out what fancy dress we were going to wear that evening and then go home and put it on.
LW: You slept on my floor in halls a few times, didn't you?
TB: Lauren lived right next door to the nightclubs so instead of going home we'd all crash at her place.
LW: My housemates were triathletes so they'd be getting up early for a swim or a run or something and there would just be a mass of cricketers on our floor.
TB: With the face paint running down my face! We've settled down a bit since then.
Lauren, if someone had said to you then - when Tammy's lying on your floor, a bit worse for wear, covered in face paint - that you'd be opening the batting together for England a few years down the line, would you have believed them?
LW: Probably not!
TB: I didn't necessarily think that we'd play for England together but I knew Lauren was something special. I remember batting with you in one of your first games against Birmingham Uni - I think you got your first hundred - and I told you off on 95 for nearly getting out. I was like, "Get your hundred!"
LW: You'd been involved with England for a while by that point so we were at very different stages. I don't think I necessarily set my sights on England. In my first year at uni I was still kind of exploring my potential and I didn't really think I was that close but because you're on a full-time programme you improve so fast.
TB: I don't think you realised how good you were in your first year.
LW: I was just cruising along, enjoying my cricket and having some fun and not necessarily thinking, "If I knuckle down here I could play for England". But being surrounded by Tammy, Anya Shrubsole, Georgia Elwiss, who were involved with England, I thought, "You know what, I'm not a million miles behind them". I pushed on a lot at uni. The MCCU system has produced some pretty good cricketers.
TB: Particularly in the women's game. A lot of our current squad went to an MCCU. It made a big difference because it was almost full-time training at uni, which you couldn't have done anywhere else five years ago because we weren't professional.
Fast forward a few years, how exciting was it to be told at the start of last summer that you were England's new opening partnership?
TB: It was really exciting. Since uni we'd been great mates and in that interim period there was one batting spot available and we were in competition against each other, but now it's just nice to be able to be that close again because we're not fighting for each other's position. If something annoys us, we can tell each other because we're working together as a partnership. It was only about four or five days before the first game that we knew we were going to be opening together. There had been a few combinations tried out in the warm-up games so it was nice to know that was going to happen for definite. We haven't really looked back.
Could you have imagined a more perfect start than the ODI against Pakistan at Worcester, when you shared that huge partnership and each scored your maiden centuries?
LW: It was a bit of a rollercoaster few days because we'd got rained off at Leicester in the first game and had a whole day bored out of our brains in the dressing room. Then we came back the next day and I snicked off first ball.
TB: Then we had an hour-and-a-half drive to Worcester that night, got to the hotel about 9pm and had to get up at 7am to go to the ground. It was a mental few days.
LW: That was my worst prep ever. It must have rained heavily the day before because the nets were absolutely soaked so we were having these underarms that were just sticking in the ground.
TB: I was stressing about it because I'm massive for that, I've got to do exactly what I want to do in the nets.
LW: So a lot went wrong but fortunately it all went right when we got out in the middle.
It looked like you were having a lot of fun out there together.
LW: We talk a lot about what we look like when we're at our best. We're very different people and cricketers, which is why it works quite well, but in terms of how we like to play our cricket we're both quite similar: laughing and joking around the group, mucking around and stuff. We like to have some fun. It helps you relax.
Can you remember what you were saying to each other during that partnership?
LW: I always have a packet of chewing gum in my right pocket and I dropped it.
TB: I found it!
LW: It was not quite on a length but it was on the pitch and she was like, "Is this your chewing gum?' Imagine if a delivery had hit that!"
TB: We laughed quite a bit about how many times I was diving on the floor. I dived in to make my ground when I was on 99. Lauren was like, "Tammy, seriously, you look a mess".
LW: When she got the hundred I said, "Thank God, you absolute idiot, come here!" When I got my hundred I didn't know if it had gone for four so I was stood at the wrong end and the umpire was like, "Get down the other end, it's gone for four". I was a bit glazed over.
TB: It was carnage really. There were some comedy moments.
Neither of you had the easiest start to your England careers and spent quite a bit of time out of the side. Do you think you appreciate the good times more because of how hard you've had to fight to get here?
LW: I think so, massively. We've both been on a similar journey where we've been favoured and then not favoured so much, in and out, up and down, been on tours and then been left at home. When we had that partnership at Worcester it was like, "We've been through the worst and this is meant to be". It definitely makes you appreciate what you've got. Every trip you go on and every time you pull on an England shirt is special.
TB: I went through a phase where I genuinely thought I'd never play for England again. I don't think I'll replicate some of the stuff I did last summer ever again but every single moment of that has made all the tears and the heartache worthwhile. Even if I never played again for England I'd be really proud of what I've done and having that resilience to keep coming back. I know I'm not just going to keep on getting hundreds, I'm going to go through hard times again, but I've been there and I know I can do it. Before the summer I almost doubted myself. "Am I actually good enough to do this? Can I be an international batter?" Well I've done it now, and I can do it again. There's proof.
As a team you seemed to play with more aggression and freedom last summer. Is that Mark Robinson's influence?
TB: Robbo has been quite clear since coming in. He's said, "This is how I will judge you, this is what I want from you." What he said to me was: "I see you as a T20 opener, I want you to go out there and hit the ball hard. If you hit the first ball for four and then get caught at mid-off the next ball, that's okay. But if you dot-up five balls and then get out trying to nudge it to square-leg to get a single, then I'll tell you off." I knew I had to go out and strike it hard, and that was that. If it came off, it came off. And if it didn't, then I could at least be true to that. That gives you freedom.
Lauren, were you given a specific role?
LW: I don't necessarily think that Robbo defines a role, I think he just lets us play our way. For a lot of us, we play better when we have that intent and we really strike the ball. It's okay to say play your way, but if you're in and out [of the team] all the time then you're going, "If I don't make a big one today, I'm going to be back doing drinks again." Whereas with Robbo it's very much about how you're going about your business, not necessarily a statistic. He'd rather we got 20 playing well, playing our way, making good decisions, picking up good lengths. He'll look at the more intricate details rather than just looking at a scorebook and going, "You only got 20 today".
This article was first published in All Out Cricket magazine