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ESPNcricinfo Awards

ESPNcricinfo Awards 2017 Captain of the year: Heather Knight, leading lady

A year into her captaincy, Heather Knight already has a World Cup title on her CV

Alan Gardner
Alan Gardner
When Knight took over from Charlotte Edwards, the team was struggling to stamp their authority on the game  •  ICC

When Knight took over from Charlotte Edwards, the team was struggling to stamp their authority on the game  •  ICC

The past few years have seen numerous milestones for women's cricket: the introduction of full-time professional contracts; the rise of T20 leagues such as the WBBL and KSL; and, in 2017, the most high-profile women's World Cup ever. An estimated TV audience in excess of 150 million watched the final between England and India, which the hosts narrowly won. Heather Knight was presented with the trophy in front of a Lord's full house.
It seems fitting, then, that Knight should be the first female recipient of ESPNcricinfo's Captain of the Year award. After just a year in the job, having replaced an icon of the game, Charlotte Edwards, Knight had achieved something even the team's coach, Mark Robinson, thought was ahead of schedule.
England's quiet revolution - Knight is not one to shout about her achievements - began the preceding summer. A timid defeat in the 2016 World T20 semi-final was the catalyst and, when Edwards moved on after 11 years in charge, Robinson and Knight focused on strengthening the team ethic, fostering greater self-belief and playing with freedom. By the time the World Cup came around, there was a renewed vigour about them - something that not even defeat to India in their opening game of the tournament could dampen.
Knight led the way in England's next match, scoring her maiden ODI hundred in victory over Pakistan, and the team rapidly blossomed around her. Nat Sciver, Tammy Beaumont and the returning Sarah Taylor - welcomed back after successful dealing with anxiety issues - produced match-winning performances on the way to the final, where Anya Shrubsole topped everyone with her late heroics. Through it all, Knight was the guiding hand - although her cool temperament was tested by a dropped catch with one wicket needed to secure victory over India.
Knight's other major challenge was an Ashes series in Australia, from which England emerged with a creditable points draw. That wasn't quite enough to reclaim the women's Ashes, but it suggested the team were continuing to make progress after a seminal summer.

Key moment

With eight overs to go in the Women's World Cup final, India needed 47 runs with seven wickets in hand. Knight had shuffled her bowlers liberally, even delivering an over herself, but now she threw the ball to Shrubsole, with four overs left in the can. The rest is history (or should that be herstory?): Shrubsole ripped through India with five wickets in 18 deliveries, giving her match-winning figures of 6 for 46 and stealing victory for England by a margin of nine runs. Captaincy's that bit easier when your strike bowler is on a ripper.

The numbers

49.93 Knight's batting average across all formats in 2017, with a hundred and six fifties
8 Number of ODIs England won in a row on their way to lifting the Women's World Cup.

What they said

"The captain is a great leader. She leads by example as a person, as a player, as a trainer and in every capacity."
- England Women's coach Mark Robinson
"Heather is a very calm character - there was no pressure on us with our cricket, she just let us play our game, and in the field, you wouldn't know what the score was. She has been incredible."
- England Women's wicketkeeper Sarah Taylor

The closest contenders

Steven Smith
"The best since Bradman" pretty much summed up Smith's year. His Test average rose past all other contenders as his Australia side threatened an upset in India before reclaiming the Ashes 4-0.
Sarfraz Ahmed
In defiance of Murphy's Law, Pakistan landed buttered side up at the Champions Trophy, Sarfraz leading them to an improbable triumph. Also in charge for the World XI series in Lahore.

Alan Gardner is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick