West Indies allrounders Deandra Dottin and Hayley Matthews believe that having a "strong mindset" proved pivotal in keeping themselves motivated through the Covid-19 pandemic-induced off season. It helped them overcome fears that "we wouldn't have any women's cricket for the rest of the year" after the T20 World Cup in Australia ended in early March.
The 2021 Women's World Cup has been postponed by a year. That along with the cancellation of several bilateral women's series, even after international men's cricket resumed in July, threatened to leave the women's calendar vacant for the rest of 2020, outside of Australia's home series against New Zealand which begins September 26.
However, the ECB successfully drew up contingency plans to make up for India and South Africa's withdrawal for tours in July-August by inviting West Indies. Their first T20I against England in Derby on Monday is set to mark the return of top-level women's international cricket 196 days on from the T20 World Cup final at the MCG.
"The whole time in the pandemic I just thought that that was it for the year for women's cricket," Dottin, the West Indies vice-captain, told ESPNcricinfo. "I think this pandemic [has taught] that mentally you've got to be strong. You've got to have a strong mindset. It [is] something that you can't easily give up.
"I actually thought we wouldn't have any women's cricket for the rest of the year. I just kept training and doing things here and there and kept motivating myself in all ways. I started playing cricket with my cousins, the boys, just to keep active and keep that work up: of playing cricket."
Matthews echoed her team-mate's apprehensions. She was, like Dottin, part of West Indies' 2016 T20 World Cup-winning side. She has also been a sought-after name in domestic T20 competitions, plying her trade in the WBBL, the now-defunct KSL and the Women's T20 Challenge.
"It's obviously something very challenging," said Matthews, who will play for the Hobart Hurricanes in the WBBL later this year. "You have to have a strong mentality to go out there, still be training, and putting in all the hard work, not knowing if you're going to be able to be playing again this year. I'm just really glad we are able to get back over again and that Cricket West Indies and ECB have [made that possible] for us to play.
"We also see the Women's Big Bash League; it seems it's going to come off as well. It's really good to see these boards are stepping up at this point and get cricket played - not only for the men's sides but the women's sides as well."
West Indies have lost (19) more times than they've won (17) in their 37 T20Is since their 2016 T20 World Cup victory. Like the side, Matthews, the Player of the final in that tournament, too, has struggled to replicate the abandon that became a hallmark of the side's maiden world title triumph four years ago. In her last 15 T20I innings, she has reached 30 only thrice, her maiden T20I hundred in May last year included.
In the T20 World Cup earlier this year, Matthews, who opens for the side, made only 26 runs in three innings as eventual semi-finalists England knocked West Indies out in the league stage with a game to go. Their poor performance prompted then head coach Gus Logie to describe their performance in the world tournament as "timid" and possessing a "fear factor".
Matthews, however, was hopeful the upcoming five-T20I series against England could be a starting point for West Indies to make up lost ground.
"Probably of late, the pressure [on us] has eased off a bit," Matthews said. "If you look at our performances [from the recent past], because they probably weren't the best, the expectations from us for a lot of people aren't as high.
"I don't necessarily say that as a bad thing, though. Coming back after the pandemic and being given the opportunity to start afresh, especially against a team like England, we're going out there knowing we're the underdogs. I think it kind of gives us that freedom to really be able to go out there and play our natural game and play freely and express ourselves as players and as a team as well."
With Logie's tenure having ended with the T20 World Cup, Andre Coley, who was West Indies women's head coach in 2012, has stepped in an interim capacity. He's overseeing the tourists' 18-member squad, which will be based in a biosecure environment in Derby throughout the tour and is without Anisa Mohammed, the veteran offspinner who declined the invitation to tour, with uncapped Guyanese left-arm spinner Kaysia Schultz included.
Matthews, 22, underlined that the opposition's lack of familiarity with the West Indian rookies could hold them in good stead as would the experience of the seasoned campaigners in the likes of captain Stafanie Taylor, legspinner Afy Fletcher, Dottin and herself.
"We have a lot of versatility," Matthews said. "We have a lot of different players that have stepped in, including the new players. Obviously, there wouldn't have been much footage on them out there and stuff, so it definitely brings something new to the table when we face up against England.
"We also have a lot of experience within the team: people have been playing for the last five, ten years now, so that makes our combination pretty good, and hopefully it will win us some games as well."