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Interviews

Anya Shrubsole 'just knew' time was right to step away

After trail-blazing career, England World Cup hero says, "no part of me wishes I was still playing"

Valkerie Baynes
Valkerie Baynes
11-Jul-2022
Anya Shrubsole's six-for secured England's World Cup on home soil in 2017  •  Getty Images

Anya Shrubsole's six-for secured England's World Cup on home soil in 2017  •  Getty Images

Anya Shrubsole just knew. From the high of bowling her side to victory in the 2017 World Cup it became clear that the low of being the last wicket to fall as England relinquished that title to Australia was a distinct possibility.
But she knew well before that. Even though she didn't announce her retirement from international cricket until after the final of the 2022 edition in April, she had decided six months earlier that the time was right.
And so, even as England Women embark on their first ODI series since that night in Christchurch, she knows she called time at the right time. Affirmation, if she needed any, came looking on from the stands, and at times the commentary box, as a new England without her or Katherine Brunt drew with South Africa in a rare Test encounter between the two nations at her home ground in Taunton.
"To be really honest with you, there's not really any part of me that that wishes I was out there playing, which I think is probably a pretty good indication that retiring was the right decision for me," Shrubsole told ESPNcricinfo. "I'm really content with the decision that I've made and I think I've made the right decision at the right time."
Shrubsole now combines playing and coaching the bowlers at Southern Vipers and will again play for Southern Brave in this year's second edition of the Hundred. During the Test, she also tried her hand at radio commentary for the first time with BBC Test Match Special.
Both gigs allow her to share the remarkable cricket nous England captain Heather Knight admitted she had missed calling upon during the match with South Africa: "I miss them for different reasons; Anya for her logical, clear-headed thinking about the game, big cricket brain, trying to bounce ideas off her, and I miss Katherine's passion and determination and funny comments when you're in the field for a long time."
Shrubsole recognises that having been a top-level cricketer for nearly half her life has put her in the "fortunate" position of being able to explore her options. But it was the other side of professional sport that made her realise that she couldn't keep going.
The physical toll was becoming too much after undergoing foot surgery followed by a freak training accident in which she broke her knee, forcing her to miss England's tour of New Zealand in early 2021. Then she lost her place in the T20I side.
Faced with another gruelling preparation for the Ashes-World Cup double-header, which meant nearly three months on the road at the start of the year, often amid restrictive Covid-prevention protocols, Shrubsole knew.
"It's been a challenging couple of years for lots of reasons and I've probably thought about it a lot," she said. "I got dropped from the T20 side and I guess it just made me question whether I thought I was good enough anymore and all of those kinds of things.
"We came back into camp after last summer in the build-up to going away for the Ashes and the World Cup and I just thought I'm not sure how many of these training blocks I can do. So I thought, well, I'll give this a real go, get myself ready to play in the Ashes and the World Cup knowing that that probably will be it.
"So I probably started to really think about it in October, November and I was pretty certain heading out to Australia and New Zealand that that was going to be that and as the tour progressed, yeah, I just knew."
One last effort at the elite level was all she had left.
"Training blocks are tough, they're designed to be tough, we were getting ready for an Ashes and a World Cup and there's a lot that goes with that," she added. "I've been playing since I was 16 and there's only so many times you want to really do that... and I found that I was starting to find that harder to want to do.
"I thought, well, we've got an Ashes, we've got a World Cup, we can't pull up the tree just before that. So I thought, if it's a six-, seven-week block, I'll give everything I've got knowing that it will probably be the last training block that I've got to get through."
"I obviously knew there was a strong chance that my last act in international cricket, batting at 11, was potentially going to be to be the last wicket in the [World Cup] final."
All the preparation in the world at that point may not have been enough against the juggernaut of the Australian team. Throw in the peak of Covid's Omicron variant which affected players' Christmas plans as they were forced into "safe-living" strategies to limit the risk of falling ill before boarding the plane; rain-hit warm-ups and washed-out games, and the Ashes tour was pretty miserable. England went winless throughout the multi-format series, the drawn Test the highlight.
Then they had to pick themselves up for the World Cup and, after beginning their campaign with three defeats, it looked like their tournament was over.
During that time, Shrubsole walked away from the entire Ashes series with just 3 for 160 and it wasn't until England's third World Cup match, when they were defeated by South Africa and staring down a group-stage exit, that she was back in the wickets. In taking 2 for 20 from six overs as England defeated India in their next match, she helped turn things around as they embarked on an unbeaten run to the final.
"That is a long way to come back from, so we just had to find a way to win," she said. "We've got a good record against India. I think they're a good team for us to play. We match up well against them and once we'd played them and beaten them and then got on the right side of a close one against New Zealand it felt like we could progress."
Then came Australia again - in the final - and Shrubsole was the pick of the England bowlers taking 3 for 46. But against Alyssa Healy's incredible 170 off just 138 balls, a mammoth target of 357 proved insurmountable, despite the best efforts of Nat Sciver with an unbeaten 148. That's where Shrubsole found herself, at the crease, opposite Sciver, with 79 still needed and one wicket in hand.
"I obviously knew there was a strong chance that my last act in international cricket, batting at 11, was potentially going to be to be the last wicket in the final," Shrubsole says. "Not the best feeling in the world but it's really where I found the lead-up to the game difficult, knowing that it was going to be the last game that I was going to play.
"I'd actually found the lead-up to the semi-final harder because you're in that awkward situation where it could be your last game or you could have another one, whereas obviously in the final I knew that was going to be that.
"Once you get into the game and get bowling, those thoughts disappeared and then when I knew it was all over it was obviously difficult again and, you know, we just we got beaten by a better team.
"That's the bottom line, and an unbelievable innings from Alyssa Healy, for her to play that innings on that sort of stage was incredible and sometimes you've just got to hold your hands up and say that someone was better than you, the other team was better than you."
That being a low point, another match against Australia stands out to Shrubsole as a career highlight - the Ashes Test in Perth in 2014, which England won by 61 runs, Shrubsole taking seven wickets for the match in searing heat with huge cracks opening up on the WACA pitch. It was, in her words, "just a ridiculous game to be a part of and people still talk about it a lot now".
Just as people talk about that, and 2017, Shrubsole hopes the new wave of England seamers which, on the strength of their Test debuts against South Africa looks set to include Lauren Bell, her Vipers and Brave team-mate, and Issy Wong, will draw inspiration from having a home Commonwealth Games starting at the end of this month in Birmingham.
"The main thing I'm looking forward to at the moment is just seeing these youngsters who have performed so well in domestic cricket really come through and show what they can do on the international stage," Shrubsole said. "I know how inspiring it was to have a home World Cup in 2017… it would be pretty cool if they could be the inaugural champions of women's cricket in the Commonwealth Games."
In terms of setting a permanent retirement date, that hasn't happened yet.
"The two big questions for me are, am I still enjoying it and am I of value, do I have enough worth to the team as a cricketer?" Shrubsole said. "Probably one of my biggest fears is still playing but not really adding value as a cricketer. And if I still think, and the people in charge of the team still think I'm doing that, and I'm still enjoying it then I don't see any reason why I should stop playing.
"Having said all of that, I don't think it will be years and years. I played cricket for a long time and had various issues with my body and things like that, and so that there'll be a few things in play, but I'll just take it season by season and see where things are at."
For now, there is little doubt the next generation and, in turn, England, will be happy to have her around at domestic level for a while yet.

Valkerie Baynes is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo