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Heather Knight hopes hip surgery will 'extend career' as she targets winter return

Captain itching to resume leadership of team in transition after Commonwealth Games setback

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
30-Aug-2022
Heather Knight attends a Football Foundation event on crutches after recent hip surgery, August 24, 2022

Heather Knight attends a Football Foundation event on crutches after recent hip surgery  •  Getty Images

Heather Knight says she is confident of a successful return to action for England Women's tour of the Caribbean in December, and hopes that the hip surgery that forced her to miss a groundbreaking Commonwealth Games campaign in Birmingham will have the spin-off benefit of extending her career by at least a couple of years.
Knight, 31, was a frustrated bystander in Birmingham earlier this month, as a team whose transition she had been overseeing slipped out of contention for a medal - first with defeat by India in the semi-final, and then in a dispirited display in the bronze-medal play-off against New Zealand.
Despite the huge promise shown by a raft of new faces in the team, not least among them Issy Wong and Alice Capsey, the evidence of the tournament was that Knight's World-Cup-winning savvy was sorely missed in the field. And, with the head coach Lisa Keightley set to leave at the end of the summer, after a two-and-a-half-year tenure, her successful return to the fray seems all the more crucial for the sake of continuity.
"I've had a labral tear in my hip for a couple of years, which is pretty common in athletes at 30, but it worsened quite suddenly and needed a bit of fixing and a clean-out," Knight told ESPNcricinfo. "I had surgery and from what I'm told it was a success. I'm starting to shuffle a little bit faster and more easily every day.
"That's the nature of professional sports. Sometimes it's bad timing, but you have to knuckle down and make the most of it. This is probably the boring bit where I can't do too much. But over the next couple of weeks or months, I'll get up and running again and I'm looking to be back fit for that first winter tour in December. Hopefully this operation is going to extend my career for another couple of years."
There's never a good time for a sportsperson to get injured. But for Knight, at this juncture of both her team's redevelopment, and of the explosion of interest and opportunity for women's cricket and sport in general, it has been a particularly galling period to be on the sidelines. From the Commonwealth Games, into the second season of the Hundred, and against the backdrop of football's transformative Women's Euros campaign, she can sense perceptions changing in real time, and is itching to get to where she belongs.
"A win like that will do so much for women's sport in this country," she says of the Euros success. "And the main thing will be about changing perceptions. When chatting to kids in schools, I'm already getting really insightful questions from 12-year-old boys about 'how do you deal with sexism? Are you happy with where the women's game at? How do you progress it?' That's a real clear indicator that perceptions are starting to change about women's sport, not just in football but in cricket as well."
Even from sitting on the sidelines at the Commonwealth Games, Knight could sense the profile of women's cricket getting an extra hike this month - no mean feat given the strides it has already taken in this country since the 2017 World Cup.
"The vibe was massively different," she says of cricket's return to the Games, 24 years after the one-off staging of the men's competition in Kuala Lumpur. "Just being part of Team England and being around other athletes from different sports, being in the village … everything that comes with a massive multi-sport event like the Commonwealth Games.
"The opening ceremony was just mad, a stadium full of people just going absolutely mental, and the crowds at Edgbaston were unbelievable - to see 20,000 people watching was pretty cool. It was really noticeable how they clapped anything that went well, but as soon as the ball was bowled, they'd go deadly silent. There wasn't the usual hum that you get at other cricket games.
"Obviously the campaign didn't go as we planned, we didn't come away with a medal and obviously for me it was a disappointing time personally not to be able to take part, but the future is looking really bright and it feels like we've got a nice mix of senior players and youngsters that are going to take the side forward."
Following the delayed staging of this year's ODI World Cup, the changing of the guard within the England set-up has been subtle but significant. Anya Shrubsole's retirement in the spring was followed by Katherine Brunt's stepping-down from Test cricket, and with Tammy Beaumont a notable omission from that Commonwealth Games squad, the message has been plain to the coming generation.
"We've got some really exciting players coming along and it's about helping them grow and fit into the side," Knight said. "Youngsters like Freya Kemp and Alice Capsey have looked at home in international cricket, and others like Emma Lamb have come in and gone really well too.
"We have a much bigger pool of players coming through, off the back of a couple of years of the Hundred, and the competition for places has given us loads of energy. It surprises me every year how much things have changed since the start of my career, but for the girls starting out now, it's so different.
"The likes of Capsey and Issy Wong were being talked about before being picked for England, which you wouldn't have had even just a couple of years ago, and so when they come to the England squad they are used to having a little bit of pressure on them. They are used to being on telly, they're used to playing in front of good crowds, so they're more prepared to be able to perform.
"But I guess I also want to protect those young players as well, because they're having different pressures that I never had, and if you can help them in any way, you want to do that."
To that end, Knight says she will take extra inspiration from her opposite number in the men's game, Ben Stokes, whose matchwinning display in the second Test at Old Trafford came in the same week as the launch of his documentary, Phoenix from the Ashes, in which he addresses in stark terms the mental-health issues that caused him to take a break from the sport last summer.
"It's remarkably brave by Ben to go out and lay himself bare like he has," Knight said. "It's really strong and powerful. As a leader as well, I find it really hard to be vulnerable. So the fact that he's been able to do that is remarkable. You're expected to be unflappable, to be strong and not to experience issues.
"So the fact that he's been really real about his struggles, and said 'I got help and that's fine', is amazing. It will be great for so many people to see the human side of cricketers, because we've certainly had players who struggled through Covid, and we've tried to give as much support as we can in the dressing-room."
For that reason, Knight is phlegmatic about her enforced downtime from the game. England's women endured a gruelling itinerary with last winter's Ashes leading directly into the Covid-delayed World Cup, and she recognises this break is a chance to renew her own enthusiasm ahead of another busy itinerary, with the T20 World Cup in South Africa looming in February and March next year.
"I've been on the cricket treadmill, if you want to call it that, for a while now," he said. "I've been going to different tournaments and spending a lot of time away, and one of the positives of the injury is a chance to take stock, and get to spend a little bit more time at home. I'm obviously missing playing but it's a chance to look back and reflect, and plan moving forward."
Part of that planning will involve gelling with a new head coach, as Keightley's era comes to an end following India's visit for three T20Is and three ODIs next month. Hers was a tenure that never really got going, with England's rain-affected elimination from her first tournament in charge, the T20 World Cup in Australia, coming just days before the Covid outbreak transformed the game's priorities.
"I really enjoyed working with Lisa. I had a really good relationship with her, but it was the toughest time to coach. I've certainly found it harder to captain during this period," Knight said. "There were so many more hoops that we had to jump through, and Lisa did a remarkable job, especially given that she was not able to go back to Australia to see her family and partner, or for them to come here. It's something that took its toll a little bit on her, and now it's time for her to go home and be with her family."
There is one outstanding name in the frame as Keightley's replacement: Charlotte Edwards, Knight's predecessor as England captain, whose credentials have gone into overdrive with her development of Southern Vipers - and latterly Southern Brave in the Hundred - as the pre-eminent force in the domestic game.
Knight, however, voiced her doubts as to whether the time would be quite right for her old team-mate. "I'm not sure she'll go for it, to be honest. She's done brilliant things down at Vipers, where she's really awesome at getting good young players through, and you can see her passion for the game, and how that would rub off on them.
"But I guess the thing for her to decide is whether it's too soon to coach some of the senior players in the side that she played with. I'm pretty confident she'll coach England at some point, but whether now's the right time, is up to her. But hopefully lots of good people put their name in the hat, and I'm sure we'll get a good candidate to lead us forward."
In the meantime, the challenge for England's women is to bounce back from their disappointment in Birmingham, and resume the up-tempo, optimistic brand of cricket that secured them a clean sweep in the white-ball leg of their recent home series against South Africa.
"My job, and the senior players' job, is to try and find that sweet spot for everyone," Knight said. "It's about trying to get into the best headspace to perform. It's pretty clear that aggression with the bat is the way we've wanted to go in T20 and one-day cricket, with the selections that we made this summer
"We're trying to push the boundaries of where we want to go as a side, and have the batting order in place to try and maximise that approach, and if it goes wrong, to have the people in the right spots to build things back up.
"The new girls that have come in have been really clear on how we want them to play and they've gone out and delivered it brilliantly," she added. "Obviously their inexperience showed a bit at the Commonwealth Games, but what a great experience it was to face the pressure of knockout cricket in front of a huge crowd, which is very different to bilateral cricket. It will be a really good experience for them going forward."
Heather Knight was speaking at an event in West London to mark the Football Foundation's £92 million investment into community multi-sport facilities, including cricket facilities

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket