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Heather Knight: 'Making cricket more inclusive would be a small positive from the pandemic'

England captain on the need to support the women's game and promoting equality of opportunity

More than six months after they were last in action at the Women's T20 World Cup, Heather Knight and her England team-mates are about to return to playing with a five-match T20I series against West Indies. It will be the first Full Member international women's cricket since that tournament, with the Covid-19 pandemic having led to the cancellation of several tours and the postponement of the 2021 World Cup. Ahead of Monday's first T20I, Knight talks about efforts to sustain growth of the game, increasing opportunities for participation, and her own plans for the future.
First of all, how has your summer been - dealing with life under a pandemic, and uncertainty around the women's game?
I think like everyone else in the world, it's been very surreal, very strange. We've been a bit unlucky in terms of who we were originally due to play, with South Africa and India being two of the worst-affected countries in the world with Covid. But we've got some cricket to look forward to. It's been very topsy-turvy, a lot of uncertainty but it's great that the West Indies have come over. We're very grateful to them, their board and the ECB for making it happen.
Did life under lockdown make you focus on things outside of cricket?
The first month back was really nice, because we'd been away for seven weeks at the T20 World Cup, it was lovely to chill out, do the weekly shop and spend some time with loved ones. After that I started to get itchy feet. It definitely made me think about what I might do when cricket's not there, because it is such a massive part of your life and you're on the international treadmill so much of the year or you're playing in another tournament, and you never really have the chance to stop and think. So I signed up for a Masters during lockdown, which starts in January - it's in Leadership in Sport, at the University of Buckingham, the course that Ed Smith is involved in running, Hopefully I can find the time to fit that in. It would have been ideal to do during lockdown, but it's actually been delayed until January, because of Covid. It's something I've always wanted to do, a bit more study, and just haven't really made the time or made the effort, and lockdown has given me a little push to think about what I want to do afterwards, and expand myself as a person a little bit as well.
Even more importantly, when you came on the Switch Hit podcast in April, you revealed that you were in the process of watching the Star Wars films for the first time. Have you seen them all now?
Yes, I have, fully up to date, got through them all in lockdown. I know this won't be very popular but I enjoyed the new ones - I'm obviously not a true Star Wars fan. The newest newest ones. I wasn't down with Jar-Jar Binks.
As for the cricket, planned tours by India and South Africa had to be shelved. Were you beginning to think you wouldn't play this season?
I think when South Africa pulled out, there was a little bit of a worry that we weren't going to be playing at all. It was a bad few days to be honest, we were in Derby in a bubble, the World Cup got cancelled and then South Africa pulled out and it was kind of 'Why are we living bubble life when we haven't got anything to prepare for?' But we turned it around quite quickly, the ECB were amazing in getting the West Indies sorted, [it only took] 10 days to get them over. Until South Africa got cancelled I had it in my head that we were definitely playing, so that was a bit of a shock, but these things happen in these times and great that the West Indies could fill the void and save our summer.
England were knocked out of the T20 World Cup at the start of the year by rain, then came the pandemic, another event out of your control. Apart from wanting to move on from 2020 as quickly as possible, did you fear that the women's game would be set back significantly?
Going back to the World Cup semi-final that we lost through rain - when we got back to England, the pandemic gave us a lot of perspective on that. There was no time to mull on it because there was a lot bigger things going on in the world at the time that obviously had far greater consequences. In terms of whether we would play, it was quite worrying, but we always believed that the ECB would do everything in their power to try and get us some cricket, which has obviously happened. They've committed to the England women's game, to the women's game as a whole, and backed that up with actions this summer, which I think has been brilliant to see. I honestly don't think it would have happened three-four years ago, there wouldn't have been that commitment to take the effort and the money needed to get cricket on.
The World Cup has moved, so 2022 is looking like a very hectic year but hopefully it all happens then. It's not ideal, you prepare yourself as a player to try to win world events, you prepare as a team in that four-year cycle to peak at that time, and there's a lot of shifting parts at the moment we don't know exactly what our winter looks like. We know it's very likely we'll be playing cricket somewhere, we don't know exactly what that is at the moment. For us as players now it's important we enjoy the cricket we have got here, enjoy being back out in the Three Lions and not thinking too far ahead.
You would have been preparing for England's World Cup defence over the winter, and tweeted your disappointment when the tournament was postponed. Do you still fear Covid will be used as an excuse to put women's cricket "on the back burner" for the next 12 months?
It still is a fear. I think the boards that have committed more to women's cricket, and have more funds available, I think they'll be fine, they'll play a lot of cricket. It's the boards that potentially aren't as rich, and haven't supported the women's game as much previously, that need real help from the ICC to get cricket on. Because at the moment it costs a lot, it's a lot of effort.
I think women's cricket really needs to get back, it needs everyone playing to have that healthy competition that's made it so successful. The T20 World Cup was even bigger and better than the last one, it keeps building year on year, the interest keeps growing. Even the domestic games that have started in this country, the viewers on the live stream, the figures have been unreal. It shows there's a real appetite for people to watch women's cricket. It needs that support to keep going on an upwards trajectory, and like I said the ECB have backed up their words in support of the women's game with actions this summer, which is what you want to see around the world.
Do you think that it's time the ICC set up a fund specifically to support the women's game - like it has done previously with men's Test cricket?
That would be great, that would make a big statement. I know they cancelled the World Cup because they felt teams wouldn't have the required preparation to be ready, but if teams don't play for another 12 months, say, that's going to be exactly the same when the World Cup comes around in 2022. A year not playing international cricket for a player will stunt their growth. So a fund would be amazing, I know it's tough at the moment, there's only so much money and everyone is struggling and wants support. But yeah, I think that would be a really strong move by the ICC that they do back the women's game and want to see it grow. Obviously it's starting to become a real commercial product, as well, so the more support it gets the more it's going to grow.
Is it frustrating when you see the World Cup moved by a year, only for the IPL to be starting this month - or for South Africa's women to be denied the chance to tour, when individual men's players can head to the IPL?
Yeah, I think so, I guess that was my point when I tweeted. The worry is that the reason for the World Cup getting cancelled in terms of preparation… if it's not going to happen in New Zealand, in the safest country in the world, then it's not going to happen until there's a vaccine. It's tricky, I know a lot of events have been cancelled, but it was still quite a while away and what with it being in NZ you felt there was a chance for it to go on. I know it would take a lot of effort. It is a bit frustrating but I guess now the disappoint has worn off and I'm trying to shift my mindset into looking forward at the opportunities we've got, We've got another year to build into that World Cup and really be in a good place for it. Decisions above us affect everything we do as women cricketers, but they're out of our control.
As females I think [Black Lives Matter] touches a nerve, in terms of growing up a lot of us faced barriers to entry into cricket and we want the sport to be gender neutral, race neutral
This has been marked down as a significant year for women's cricket in England and Wales, with a new domestic structure and extra funding for player contracts. Despite the impact of Covid-19, the ECB has maintained its commitment - which must be encouraging?
I think there is massive optimism. The Rachael Heyhoe Flint trophy has been launched, it was brilliant to be part of that. Although we should have been playing international cricket, it was great to be part of history and the start of that competition. They've put so many resources into getting us cricket this summer, it's been unbelievable the detail that's had to go into it. Our medical staff are unreal and all the team behind getting the bubble set up, chartering the West Indies over, it's amazing really. We're so grateful as players to be able to play some cricket. The support from the ECB has been unreal, the PCA have been brilliant as well, so we're really hopeful that the growth in this country will continue and women's cricket is in a really good place. I think a potential positive of Covid is it gives people a chance to reassess where the game is at, how it can improve, and how things can be done differently to make it truly a gender neutral sport. It's given people the chance to have those thoughts and think how we can do things better as a whole. Part of that is making the sport more inclusive, for gender, race, etc, so hopefully those changes will be one very small positive from the pandemic.
Does the move to regional centres, rather than women's teams being attached to counties, help with that?
Yeah, it's created a real structure that's going to be great for a young player in this country. They've got a chance to come out of school and be a professional cricketer. We had Issy Wong who had her A-level results during that first bubble at Derby and she's going straight into her first contract - that made me feel very old. She's on one of the domestic contracts, so it gives her the chance to improve and get some good cricket behind her before, hopefully, she comes through in an England shirt, which wasn't the case when my generation was coming through the system. It's going to give a lot more competitive cricket to the girls in the system, which is only going to be a good thing to keep churning out England cricketers. And if someone is unfortunate enough to drop out of the system and lose their England contract, they've got a safety net. They're not just going into the abyss, they've got the regional system to fall back on.
Presumably that will help to create more of a production line for new players?
Yeah, and I think we're starting to see that. It was brilliant to have 24 players in those first bubbles at Derby and Loughborough, because it gave the coaches a bit longer to work with those players on the fringes and you really saw them improve as cricketers. Having that system now, helping those girls to develop, is only going to be a good thing. It will take a bit of time, in terms of the domestic structure Australia has, that started a long time before. It will take time to get that strong domestic competition [here] and that real depth, but we definitely are starting to see that already.
What about the prospect of more multi-day cricket being played in future?
I'd always want to play more, I really enjoy it. But that's something that hasn't grown the game. The administrators have seen T20 as a way to grow the women's game and it's been very successful. There's two sides to it, I'd love to play more as a player, but I understand why we don't.
The ECB has marketed September as Women's Big Cricket Month, which will include the RHF Trophy final being shown on Sky and the return of England Women to BBC TV.
It's exciting, a real chance to showcase what we can do. Hopefully there'll be a bigger viewership with the amount of sport that people have been able to see over lockdown. All five T20Is are on Sky, who have supported the women's game brilliantly, but I guess the BBC gives us that slightly different platform to reach people who might not have watched women's cricket before - Saturday, prime time afternoon slot, so hopefully people will tune in and enjoy.
What about equal pay, something that has happened recently in football - could the ECB break another barrier there?
I don't think we're there yet. Obviously the men's game at the moment brings in a lot more commercially. Until we starts filing stadiums consistently I don't think we're in a place where we can do that. I think the most important thing is we're making really good progress and it's not just at the top of the game, it's filtering through, with the domestic set-up being the best it's ever been. Making sure that money is spread throughout the game is really important. If we were getting exactly the same pay as the men, it would not be feasible as a business model. I think we're completely realistic with where we're at and just happy to keep seeing progress. I still have to pinch myself in terms of how much the game has developed, you forget how you started and what it was like ten years ago. I'm just excited to see where it could be in another ten years' time.
Another theme of the summer has been the Black Lives Matter movement and the subject of diversity in cricket. You've already said the team is planning a gesture of support, has the topic been much discussed?
Yeah, we had a chat about it this afternoon, and we're keen to show our support as a team, show that for us it's a really important thing. As females I think it touches a nerve as well, in terms of growing up a lot of us faced barriers to entry into cricket and we want the sport to be gender neutral, race neutral and people to have as much opportunity to be involved in the game as anyone else. We decided as a squad we want to do something, I know West Indies are keen to do something as well. What exactly that looks like we'll sort that out, but we're keen to show our support and keep conversations happening, and hopefully that leads to actions.
Michael Holding was recently critical of England and Australia not taking a knee in their series. Would you have planned to do something, regardless of the opponents being West Indies?
I think so. Having followed a lot of it closely during lockdown, I definitely wanted the team to do something no matter who we were playing against. It's turned out that it's West Indies but I think it's important that we do that, it's the first cricket we've played and we want to show our support.
There is only one BAME player in the current England Women's squad - allrounder Sophia Dunkley - and only a handful have been capped in the modern era. Is there specific work that can be done in that area?
There's probably multiple reasons why that's the case. Opportunity is a big one, I guess a lot of us as players got into the game through our families and that was one of the only ways you did it because cricket wasn't played by females in schools very often, and generally cricket has not been particularly diverse. That needs to change, there needs to be more opportunities for all people to get involved, and actioning the conversations that have gone on is really key. Cricket historically has had a class issue and that's meant that a large proportion of people haven't been able to get involved in the sport. So there's things going on, I've spoke to the ECB and the PCA and they're doing lots of things to try and change that. I think it will take a bit of time, but yeah - as gender neutral, as race neutral we can get the sport, the more everyone is going to benefit.
Has all this time spent in bubbles allowed you and head coach Lisa Keightley, who took over last year, to work on your blueprint for the team?
Yeah, we've had a lot of planning time, a lot of Zoom calls. It's given us a real chance to sit down and work out where we want the team to go. Lisa was very new in the role leading into the T20 World Cup, so hadn't had a chance to implement and talk about the things she wanted to do. She's been really clear, we've had some good chats about how we want to push forward and I think we're starting to see that already. I really hope it transfers into the games that we're playing, we've got a bit of a long-term plan leading into 2022, particularly in T20 cricket as that's the focus this summer. We've had good conversations about how far we can go because we've got such amazing talent in this team but haven't won a T20 trophy for a long time, so that's a big goal for us, to set the standard and push the game forward. Australia have done that over the last period so we want to shift that a little bit and be the ones that are setting how good we can be in T20.
Are there particular areas you're looking to strengthen?
I think what's cost us a lot in the last 12 months in T20 is that we've been chasing the game. We haven't got off to the starts we've wanted with the bat and had to do a bit of damage control and then go again. Our middle order has stuck out during that period, Nat [Sciver] has been outstanding but we want to start from ball one, get ahead of the game and keep going all the way through. That doesn't always happen in T20 cricket but we want to throw the first punch if we can, rather than play catch-up.
With the bowlers as well, they've not really had a full-time coach for a period of time, so we're really starting to see the benefit of having Tim Macdonald in that role consistently. Seeing the clarity the bowlers have now in their death plans, and how they improved in that World Cup I think was really down to Tim. Probably taking wickets in the Powerplay, as well, hasn't been our strength. But we're starting to put together a squad that are really pushing the boundaries, and there's real competition for those spots. You saw it in the warm-up games at Loughborough and Derby, players are starting to put in really strong performances and make it tricky to pick that final XI.
Who are the players that have stood out for you in the RHF Trophy?
The new competition puts players on the stage to push their case for selection, and that wasn't really the case with county cricket. Sophie Luff's someone I know really well, having played with her for a long time, I know the value she adds and she's just been a run machine down at Bristol, putting in the performances. So her doing that consistently, you start to think 'Could she be in and around the squad?' We've got some real talent - Sophia Dunkley and Katie George have been added to that World Cup squad and they're two very exciting players. Georgia Adams is doing very well, someone that's been consistent in county cricket for a long time. Being able to watch all those games [online], you get a feel for how they play, which is so useful when you do bring players in. You know a lot more about their games, where previously you wouldn't have a clue, you'd just see a scorecard.
You've mentioned before how on-field stuff is only a small proportion of captaincy. Presumably this period has been all about the off-field support you can provide players?
I've got a really good group of senior players around me. The hardest thing about being in the bubble, it's hard to get away from cricket. When it's not going well for a player it can be hard, because when you're on tour you might go see a friend or family, get away for dinner, you wouldn't think about cricket. But here you open your curtains and see the ground and it can get a bit claustrophobic, particularly if things aren't going great. So just trying to get the girls to relax, there's lots of social events going on, lots of card games. There's a good games room and quite a few coffee machines going around. So it's being there to support the girls and knowing where they are at. Some players might need a bit of space, don't want you knocking on the door asking if you're okay all the time. Because we know each other as a squad so well you start to learn what people need at certain times.
We've discussed the uncertainty over England's schedule this winter, but what's next personally?
It's about 90% confirmed that I'll be going to the Big Bash. There'll be a group of us going, we don't know exactly what the quarantine period looks like yet, we've got a few briefings to come. We're going to have to quarantine for 14 days in some capacity, there's chance it could be in a hotel room which isn't ideal, or it might look a little bit different. But it's the new life of a cricketer, going from bubble to bubble at the moment, which is tough but the way it is. We're just grateful that were getting cricket on, even if it involves a bit of sacrifice. I always wanted to go out and play if I could, even if it meant potentially going insane for 14 days. But I'm sure I'll be able to get through it.

Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick