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Alex Hartley: Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy provides 'good stepping stone'

New 50-over tournament is first step towards professional domestic women's structure

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Alex Hartley will play for the Thunder in the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy  •  Getty Images

Alex Hartley will play for the Thunder in the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy  •  Getty Images

It has been a good week for women's cricket in England and Wales. After CWI announced West Indies would tour for five T20Is in September, less than two weeks after discussing the possibility for the first time with the ECB, it was confirmed on Wednesday that the final of the one-off Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy would be broadcast live from Edgbaston on Sky.
The 50-over tournament will serve as a curtain-raiser before the ECB's new domestic structure takes shape next summer: the teams from the eight new regional centres have been split into two groups of four, with the two winners progressing to the final on September 27 - one day after the BBC will broadcast live women's international cricket for the first time since 1993. A tranche of new retainer contracts were awarded earlier this year as the women's game moves towards a fully professional domestic structure.
The international dates are later than those initially planned for the re-arranged series against South Africa, but have ended up working well: England players have been released to play for their new domestic teams this weekend, giving the new competition a shot in the arm with some added publicity, and the fringe players omitted from the final squad will then be available for the latter stages.
It is a situation that would have seemed wildly optimistic at the start of May. Two weeks after Tom Harrison, the ECB's chief executive, pledged to do "everything we can to get women's cricket on", Alex Hartley, the left-arm spinner with 32 international caps to her name, told the Wisden podcast: "I haven't heard a single thing. I'm finding things out through the media."
"Coming out and saying it's not great that we've had no communication, it kind of gave them a kick up the backside," Hartley says three months on, with a retainer contract secured and ahead of her Thunder team's opener against the Lightning at Trent Bridge on Saturday. "I know they had a lot on their plates to sort out, but it gave them the kick they needed - they've been absolutely brilliant since."
Hartley provides a good example as to why the domestic game's professionalism is so important. When she was released from her central contract at the end of 2019, Hartley was not certain that she would keep playing after falling out of love with the game, but landed a commentary job during the T20 World Cup at the start of the year and soon realised how much she missed it.
But even a few years ago, that might have been that for her professional career. "If I'd lost my England contract two years ago, I wouldn't have had this chance - I'd have had to get a normal job," she says. "If there was a time to lose my central contract, it was definitely when I did."
As a result, the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy represents a significant step towards the Australian model of a fully professional set-up. The Thunder squad that Hartley is part of demonstrates that, with a group of players ranging from experienced internationals to young rookies hoping for a breakthrough.
"We feel really confident," she says. "We've got a lot of young girls coming through who are showing a lot of good signs, and we've now got the three England girls coming back this weekend which is a massive boost: Kate Cross, with so much experience; the world's best T20 bowler at the minute in Sophie Ecclestone; and then Emma Lamb, with everything she brings.
"A couple of girls have been playing club cricket but I've just played the two games in the North-West Cup. It's bizarre: I feel ready, but when I say I've only played twice after just shy of a year out of the game, it sounds like I've done nothing at all.
"But it's coming out really nicely - when you've been out of the game for so long, you do wonder, but I've been turning the ball which is always a bonus. We've got a young legspinner called Olivia Thomas, who has really impressed me - she was diving around everywhere in training and she's got the nickname 'Jonty' now, which I think might stick."
And while things were never likely to go perfectly given the unique circumstances of the summer, the opportunity to play at least six professional fixtures is a "stepping stone" towards longer-term ambitions.
"It's not gone quite as planned this year for obvious reasons, but it's a start," Hartley says. "Everyone is being paid to play, and we're going to have over 45 professional cricketers come October. That's a good stepping stone, but next year is when it really matters."

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @mroller98