Aylish Cranstone shows value of professionalism as South East Stars push for glory

Chance to defend title comes after wrist surgery that showed level of support in women's game

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Aylish Cranstone swings to leg, South East Stars vs Central Sparks, Guildford, Charlotte Edwards Cup, May 18, 2022

Aylish Cranstone has been the form player in South East Stars' campaign  •  Getty Images for Surrey CCC

Beyond the upbeat headlines and some well-deserved job security for the game's elite players, the practical implications of professionalism within English women's cricket haven't yet been fully realised. But for Aylish Cranstone, the driving force behind South East Stars' run to the Charlotte Edwards Cup Finals Day, there are all manner of reasons to be grateful for the regional contract that she received back in December 2020.
Cranstone goes into Stars' semi-final against Central Sparks on Saturday with 235 runs in six group-stage games, including three half-centuries and a towering average of 78.33 that is close to double that of any other batter with 100 runs in the tournament. But she might not have gone into the season at all had it not been for a bout of wrist surgery during the winter - a process that was made possible by her new standing within the game, and seems at this early stage of the summer to have helped her realise her potential.
"I was having a lot of trouble with my wrist last year, and in November it was decided that surgery was the best option," Cranstone told ESPNcricinfo. "It was a pretty difficult winter and, if I look back a couple of months, I wasn't sure if I was going to be starting the season.
"But the level of support I've had, from the surgeons and doctors, to having physio pretty much every single day, to the strength-and-conditioning coaches... it's all been the next step above, and the support to get you back on the field is tremendous.
"And it's really nice for the team that has worked really hard, to see that I've come through the other side. And, fingers crossed, if I can keep going with this form, I can put my team in a position where we've got a really good chance of retaining our title."
If Cranstone can make a start on Finals Day, this season's precedents suggest that Stars will be well placed in their quest. She's yet to be dismissed in any of her three half-centuries in the tournament, and each has been in a winning cause, including a score of 59 not out from 53 balls to see off Sparks in their last encounter at Edgbaston two weeks ago.
"I grew up very much as a 50-over player," she says. "Opening the batting, leaving the ball, defending the ball, and then working your way into an innings. It's only in the last couple of years that I've been moved forward into this opening role for the Stars, so I've really had to learn how to adapt and change my style.
"It has been a little bit alien at times, but it's also nice to play with that freedom," she adds. "Our head coach Johann Myburgh is always promoting that positive play and to play with freedom. And that's been really nice. I just want to keep going, and thriving, and see how far I can go with it."
At the age of 27, Cranstone is very much a senior pro within the women's game - a player who clearly retains international aspirations but whose truest value right now is as one of the building blocks of the nascent domestic game. Earlier this year she took over from Hannah Jones as the new captain at Surrey, and as a former head of women's cricket at Epsom College, she is already well used to being a role model for the coming generation of players.
"When I'm working with the county age-group girls, it's really great for them to see that pathway and to be able to have attainable goals," she says. "There's only so many people that are going to go and play for England, and it's fantastic to have that goal, but 10 years ago, that was the only option and it was really difficult.
"So the fact that that now there is this pathway, there is a structure in place, I think it keeps girls hungry. It keeps girls in the game. They want to work hard and train hard because they can see that there's a career to be had out of cricket. So it's nice for them to see me as an example of their way forward. It can only be a positive thing."
There certainly wasn't that same structure in place when Cranstone graduated from Exeter University, and started out on her journey within cricket. "When I came out of uni, I did a lot of accountancy jobs, and I was temping in lots of different places. I guess I enjoyed it, but I wanted to do something a bit closer to my ideal goal.
"So I had two years at Epsom College which I really enjoyed. It really helped enhance my coaching and I still look to put something back into the game with the age-group girls, the emerging player programme, and the South East Stars Academy. Being professional does take up a lot of your time physically, but also mentally, so it's nice to have something that you can focus on for a day, and give your brain that bit of a rest."
Cranstone travels to Northampton with fond memories of last year's Charlotte Edwards Cup triumph, in which she helped to cap Stars' dominant campaign with 35 from 27 in the final. Chasing 139, she and Bryony Smith added 71 for the first wicket to break Northern Diamonds's resistance as the title was sealed with 12 balls to spare. This time, however, it's clear that Southern Vipers - whom the Stars haven't met in the group stages - will start as favourites after receiving a bye into the final with six wins out of six.
"Obviously we're really excited to get to Finals Day, but the two teams that we're up against, they are so strong," Cranstone says. "We're not naive to the fact that we're going to need to put our best performances forward. Vipers in particular have had some really good, really strong performances."
Win or lose, however, it's just the start of a thrilling season for the women's game. The second season of the Hundred is looming in August, and this time it will be less of a journey into the unknown given the proven success of the women's competition in 2021. Cranstone, who was part of the London Spirit set-up last year, has now moved south to join the defending champions Oval Invincibles, and says she can already feel the uplift that the whole game got from its exposure last year.
"You can see from the levels over social media, and on the streams, the amount of views we're getting that the whole sport is growing at the moment," she says. "Obviously we were fortunate to play on Sky Sports the other day, when we were playing against Western Storm down in Bristol. So yeah, I think it's really good to see that increase of support across the women's game."
As for her wider ambitions, Cranstone is conscious that her performances this season are beginning to attract wider attention, and with the England women's team at a crossroads following the recent World Cup, it's not out of the question that she could yet propel herself into the international frame.
"It's not something I've massively thought about, to be honest," she says. "I'm concentrating on putting performances in for the Stars and being really happy playing my cricket here. And if those performances keep coming in, then those things will naturally happen.
"I don't want to get too caught up on looking too far ahead, and maybe putting some extra pressure on myself in that respect. I just want to keep enjoying my cricket here, and fingers crossed, keep playing well. But we'll see what happens. If I can do well for the Stars and do well for the Oval Invincibles, then you never know what's going to happen."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket