Issy Wong grew up watching Mumbai Indians. Now she's one of them
The fast bowler missed out on England's T20 World Cup squad but she's got plenty of cricket to look forward to
"It just went off in there," says Issy Wong, remembering a visit to Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium in 2019.
"I was there on an England academy tour and we went to a game against Kings XI Punjab. KL Rahul got a hundred and [Mumbai] looked absolutely nowhere. Then [Kieron] Pollard got 80-odd off nothing. They needed two to win off the last ball - it must have been about midnight at this point - and there was a misfield to win it. The atmosphere was just unreal."
Four years later Wong has little need for the Mumbai Indians replica shirt she bought during that tour. She is part of their squad for the first-ever Women's Premier League fixture on Saturday against Gujarat Giants, pinching herself at the opportunity to play in the women's equivalent of the competition she watched throughout her childhood.
"I used to run home from school to watch it," Wong recalls. "I'd sit down with a snack and watch whichever game was on. Danny Morrison was my favourite commentator. He epitomised what it was about: getting people excited about cricket." She breaks into an impersonation: "Brendon McCullum has got his dancing shoes on!"
Wong was one of seven England players sold at February's auction, and the only one not involved in their T20 World Cup squad. While her team-mates tried - with mixed success - to block it out during their win over Ireland, Wong was training at Edgbaston. Her girlfriend - and new Central Sparks team-mate - Katie George shouted, "You're on!" across the indoor school.
"By the time I got over there, I'd been picked up," she says with a grin. Mumbai signed her at her base price of Rs 30 lakh (US$36,600 approximately) as one of their six overseas players. For Wong, it means a reunion with Charlotte Edwards, Mumbai's coach, who gave her a first professional contract with Southern Vipers in the Kia Super League four years ago.
"It felt a bit like déjà vu," Wong says. "I've worked with her on a few England A tours but I'm looking forward to getting out there and working a bit more closely with her." She is also relishing the prospect of playing under Jhulan Goswami, Mumbai's mentor and bowling coach.
"She's a genuine legend of the game. She's the best Indian seam bowler ever. To be able to pick her brains about bowling pace in India is second to none, isn't it? That's right from the horse's mouth. I can't wait."
We are speaking at Major League Baseball's London headquarters, just off Oxford Street, two days before her flight to India; Wong has recently signed up as a Europe ambassador for the baseball league. She is 20 years old and has played for England 13 times but has attracted significant commercial interest as a charismatic young fast bowler who personifies the rapid growth of women's cricket.
A decade ago there were no full-time professional women's cricketers in England and Wales; in the past six months, Wong has moved from a regional contract with Southern Vipers to an England central contract, signed a WPL deal, and been retained by Birmingham Phoenix in the Hundred ahead of this month's draft. The game is changing fast.
"It feels like absolute carnage to be honest," Wong says, laughing. "Every week, there's something else happening. Then the next week, it's like, 'Okay, this is what we're focusing on. This is happening now.'"
Jon Lewis, who replaced Lisa Keightley as England coach last year, has told his players to "live in your shoes", a modification of Brendon McCullum's mantra to "be where your feet are". The message has resonated with Wong.
"That's all you can control," she says. "If I sat here thinking, 'I've not packed, I need to have a haircut, I need to start swinging the ball again, I need to get that running session in, and how much am I going to squat tomorrow?' then I would just explode. I'm just trying to be as flexible, as adaptable as possible."
Those are traits that Wong hopes will help her win back her place in the England team after a winter where she has "not had the best run of it". She made her debuts in all three formats last summer and was an ever-present in the side that finished fourth at the Commonwealth Games, but a quadriceps niggle denied her the opportunity to impress Lewis in the Caribbean.
She anticipated her exclusion from the T20 World Cup squad, and the call arrived as expected on January 2. "Katie said it would be positive either way," Wong recalls. "Either you represent your country at a World Cup, or they've given you feedback and space to make some progress. Once I framed it like that in my head, it felt better.
"Look at the Future Tours Programme: there's so many more World Cups in the next three years alone. I'm only 20. It doesn't mean it's the end of the road. It gave me an opportunity to stay at home, train, and get better." Having struggled to swing the new ball last year, she has worked hard in a bid to start moving her stock ball away from right-handers again. She has been in the gym regularly, "trying to get myself a little bit fitter" through "a lot of strength and endurance work".
"It's hard, once you get into that cycle. You're always preparing for the next game, as opposed to having a chance to step back and say 'I'm going to work on myself.' It's always, 'How am I going to get Smriti Mandhana out?' Or, 'How am I going to bowl to Alyssa Healy?' Whereas actually, these last two months, it's been, 'How can I make Issy Wong a better cricketer and a better athlete?' It's been nice to step back and make the most of that time away."
After the WPL, Wong will hardly have a chance to catch her breath: she will return to Central Sparks' pre-season training barely a week after the season ends, then play two months of regional cricket before the Ashes, the Hundred, and a series against Sri Lanka. "Then all of a sudden, it's October," she says. Such is life for the modern women's cricketer.
But for the next four weeks, the focus is on India. "It'll be such a good experience," Wong predicts. "Look at the overseas players we've got: Nat Sciver, one of the best allrounders in the world. Amelia Kerr, one of the best legspinners. Chloe Tryon and Hayley Matthews, two of the most powerful batters. Then Harmanpreet Kaur, India's captain; Pooja Vastrakar, one of their frontline bowlers."
Even if Wong does not expect to play every game - teams can only field four overseas players in their XI - the tournament will give her the chance to learn from the best. "These guys have played much more franchise and international cricket than me. It'll be really good to soak in as much as I can off them. They've done more good things than me; they've made more mistakes than me and they've learned from them."
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Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98