Edwards leads England into professional era
Charlotte Edwards has been around the game long enough for it to hold few surprises but when an email landed to inform her that England women cricketers were to become full-time professionals it was still a shock.
Edwards, who will lead England in the semi-final of the World T20 against South Africa on Friday, began her international career as a teenager nearly two decades ago. She can remember having to work in a shop selling cricket bats to subsidise her earnings and paying for her own blazer for a Test match. Soon she will become part of the first group of full-time contracted England women, thanks to a significant funding increase from the ECB.
It has taken a long time to get here, after 80 years of England's women playing international competitions. Edwards herself has taken part in five World Cups and four World T20s, as well as multiple Ashes campaigns. After back-to-back successes against Australia in 2013 and 2014, and as they attempt to claim a second World T20 title, England players will soon receive the rewards to match their success.
"To know they can have a career in cricket is hopefully going to attract a lot of girls to the sport," Edwards said. "Combined with the success the team's having and the exposure of the women's game to the whole world, the future certainly looks bright. As players we're certainly excited about the next few years."
Edwards referred to winning the World Cup and World T20 five years ago as a recent benchmark. "Even the success of 2009, we saw a knock-on effect there. But the recent Ashes wins, and hopefully this, we'll take another leap forward. It's exciting for the game. I've never seen so much profile in my time as a player, so hopefully that will continue. From the Ashes last summer, to see some of the grounds packed full of people, to then have the support we had over the winter in the Ashes and hopefully now with this, I've seen a complete curve in people's interests."
Edwards may be a figurehead for equality in the game - she is the only woman to sit on the MCC's world cricket committee - but she is just as important with pads on and bat in hand. With 151 runs, she helped carry England through their group after a tricky start that involved losing the opening game to an increasingly dangerous West Indies side. They now face South Africa, a team they have never lost to in T20, but who surprised some by qualifying ahead of New Zealand with a gutsy win in their final group game.
"In recent times, we've been pretty successful against them," Edwards said of England's semi-final opponents. "But two years ago, when we played them I said they would be a force to be reckoned with within the next few years, and to see them play so well the other night kind of backed up what I was thinking a couple of years ago.
"Anyone can present a challenge in this form of the game. They've certainly got some good young players, a variety of bowlers, which we haven't seen, so the unknown is there a little bit at the moment. I would say they've got the core five or six players, but they've got a couple of legspinners now who are quality bowlers, and a varied attack that could be quite threatening."
Intriguingly, England have yet to hit a six in the competition. Australia's Meg Lanning has six of her own while South Africa have cleared the rope ten times but Edwards suggested England's bowlers would make it hard for them to add to that tally. "They've got some big hitters up the top of the order. They've been playing well, and obviously it's going to be a threat to us."
While England's men endured a traumatic winter in Australia, culminating in defeat to Netherlands in their final World T20 game, Edwards and her side continue to sail smoothly on. As the ECB attempts to cultivate a new team ethic among the men, Giles Glarke and Paul Downton would doubtless have been pleased with Edwards' assertion that there are "no egos within our dressing room".
Comparisons with the men may currently be favourable but does that mean they always want to share the same stage? The women's World Cup is still held separately and Edwards suggested increasing popularity could also lead to greater independence. "We're right to have standalone events, and the support we've had, especially at home, it's been fantastic. There's still a place for the double-headers, but equally as we saw from the summer - 8,000 at Chelmsford to watch a standalone game was fantastic."
Another sign of their raised profile was the minor brouhaha after Edwards said she would be celebrating England's Ashes win earlier this year by getting "absolutely smashed". That aim could be a little harder to achieve in Bangladesh, should England claim another title on Sunday, but Edwards recognises the added scrutiny a new era for the women's game will bring.
"We're paid professionals now, and there's going to be a huge expectation on us, without a doubt," she said. And when England expects, Edwards usually delivers.
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here