Interviews

Lauren Winfield-Hill: 'The journey has changed for women's cricketers'

Opener finds new lease of life on domestic circuit, as wife takes centre stage for England

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
04-Nov-2022
Lauren Winfield-Hill has bounced back from a tough 2021 to return to the top of her game  •  Royal London

Lauren Winfield-Hill has bounced back from a tough 2021 to return to the top of her game  •  Royal London

Winfield-Hill was player of the match on Tuesday night. Nothing new there, you might think, in a redemptive year for the England international, one in which she has redefined her love of the game to cement her status as one of the very best in her chosen sport.
The Winfield-Hill in question on this occasion, however, was not Lauren Winfield-Hill - Cricket World Cup winner in 2017 and twin-trophy winner in a stellar summer just gone - but her Australia-born wife Courtney, whose power-packed hat-trick lit up Headingley in England's 72-4 victory over Brazil, in the opening match of the women's Rugby League World Cup.
It's early days in a tournament that culminates in a double-header with the men at Old Trafford on November 19. But, if the home-soil success of England's cricketers in 2017, as well as this summer's women's Euros winners is anything to go by, the coming month could yet be one in which Courtney Winfield-Hill's own world-class credentials are sent mainstream, after five years of under-acknowledged trailblazing with Leeds Rhinos in the Women's Super League.
And if that does come to pass, then it will complete for the Winfield-Hills one of the most serendipitous sporting stories imaginable - a joint venture that began in adverse circumstances with the Covid outbreak in March 2020, and has traversed some dark days of soul-searching in the interim. But either way, a remarkable sporting power couple appear now to be proving that all the sacrifice is worthwhile.
"I can't grumble," Lauren Winfield-Hill tells ESPNcricinfo, and with good reason after her own litany of recent successes. A starring role in her first season for Oval Invincibles helped the Hundred's inaugural champions to defend their title in 2022, before she topped the averages in the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy, including a player-of-the-match performance in the final in September, to become the first women's cricketer to lift three trophies in consecutive final appearances at Lord's.
Now, while her wife is blazing a trail back in her adopted home in Blighty, Lauren's form has sent her in the other direction for another crack at the Big Bash - this time for Melbourne Stars, where she is currently their leading run-scorer with 150 from 132 balls all told. That tally includes 47 from 49 in her most recent outing against Adelaide Strikers, where her steadying presence allowed the young guns Alice Capsey and Tess Flintoff to cut loose in startling fashion at the other end.
"I feel like I've just built myself back up," Lauren says. "I wasn't in a good place mentally after Covid, even just as a human being… I could barely even live in the house with my wife, because I was just freaking out at random stuff. But every competition I've played this year has just been another layer, going up all the time, and now I'm out here in Australia with a new team, different pressures, different expectations. It's been really nice to be able to have nothing to change any more, and just to keep going like I did at the start of the summer."
In a different era, this week could have been one of crushing disappointment. On Wednesday, the ECB announced their new tranche of women's central contracts, and Lauren was a notable absentee, though not an unexpected one after a frustrating run of insubstantial scores in her final months in the ODI side.
After 11 double-figure innings in 13 starts, but no half-centuries, she was axed in March, midway through England's gruelling World Cup campaign in New Zealand, and has since seen the coming generation - Capsey and Sophia Dunkley to the fore - seize their opportunities.
And yet, as her performances outside of the England set-up have demonstrated, there's a whole different avenue opening up for the women's game - serving up opportunities that could not be further removed from her own early years as a player.
"The main thing I feel right now is comfort," she says. "There was probably always a sense that if you didn't play for England, you weren't a cricketer. You'd go from hero to zero, almost overnight, if you lost a contract or were deselected.
"It used to be the case that, if you weren't playing international cricket, the standard that you dropped to was, well, I'm not really going to bother getting out of bed for that. But now you know that you can play some really good cricket in some really cool competitions, even if you're not in favour with England, and that gives you a lot of fulfilment and a lot to still be excited about, beyond just international cricket.
"The journey has changed, hasn't it?" she adds. "I never intended to come out to the Big Bash, it only came about off the back of me doing well in the Hundred, and I was like, oh, this is a nice surprise. And now there's me and Capsey, playing on the same team, though she's at the start, and I'm closer to the end. But how cool is it that we've both had this opportunity at the same time, and doesn't matter that she's 18 and I'm 32? We're both in the same place right now."
Perhaps the only note of disappointment for Lauren now is that she cannot be around for her wife's big moment. England play Canada in the Rugby League World Cup on Saturday with Papua New Guinea to come the following week, before a probable semi-final against either Australia or New Zealand in Lauren's home city of York on November 14. After that, who knows what's in store?
"[Being away during the tournament] did feel like a really big decision for me and for us," Lauren says. "We're both in the sporting field, and when this opportunity came about with the Big Bash, we both knew that such things won't present themselves forever. A lot of her family are over to support her and that'll be really cool, because they haven't seen her play a lot. Obviously, my family and myself have been there a lot, so I think it'd be nice to share that with them."
In spite of this absence at the sharp end, however, Lauren's role in Courtney's journey could not be more integral. Seven years ago, when their paths first crossed, it was as team-mates at Brisbane Heat in Lauren's first crack at the Big Bash. Back then, she was the 25-year-old overseas star, an England player awaiting her breakthrough moment, and as their relationship developed during the course of the 2015-16 season, it was clear that hers was the career that demanded the investment.
So Courtney - a talented seam bowler in her own right - was the one to up sticks from her native Queensland and build a new life in Yorkshire. She called time on her own playing days and moved into the coaching set-up at Northern Diamonds, but it soon became clear that the other Headingley Stadium, backing onto the cricket ground, was her truest calling.
In 2018, she pulled on her rugby boots for the first time in two decades, and by the time she'd been named the Super League's Woman of Steel in 2019, it was clear she was quickly making up for lost time. Her England chance, however, is directly attributable to Covid - specifically the postponement of the World Cup in 2021, which allowed her to complete her five-year residency qualification in time for this year's delayed event, and to make it worthwhile for the England selectors to fast-track her in their plans.
"The stars have just aligned, haven't they?" Lauren adds. "How is she in England, married to an English girl, playing for England in rugby league? You wouldn't have written that narrative five or six years ago, but it's amazing. I don't think it was something that she ever thought was going to be possible, but opportunities present themselves in different spaces.
"I'm quite biased, but I've always said Courtney's far too good an athlete to not ever reach the top," she adds. "I'd never say this to her face, obviously, her head will grow. But she's fearless. She's a great athlete, and the narrative of her story is just awesome. She's 35, and she's debuting in a World Cup, in a sport that she hadn't played since she was 12. It's pretty cool."
Not everything about the Covid experience was quite so cool though, and Lauren freely admits the constraints of the pandemic tested their relationship to the max - almost from the moment of their marriage in Queensland in March 2020. Within 24 hours of the start of their honeymoon on the idyllic Hamilton Island, the entire country went into lockdown, and the Winfield-Hills were faced with a marital acid test.
In a coaching space, being challenged by your wife is a whole different feeling. She's supposed to think my cover drive is the best in the world!
Lauren Winfield-Hill
"It was strange at first because Courtney and I are so different," Lauren says. "We have very similar values that we care about, but we are so different. She's that free spirit, high energy, no structure, just go with it and it's all a bit carnage. She's very left-field thinking and very creative, and I'm quite militant at times. So it's great because she's my blind spot, I can lean into that space a little bit and it usually serves me really well."
A further complication came when their work-life balances overlapped - Courtney as a coach in the nets at Northern Diamonds, and Lauren as an out-of-form batter struggling with the pandemic's boxed-in circumstances.
"At first it was all a bit, whoa, this is alternative to my thinking," Lauren says. "In a coaching space, being challenged by your wife is a whole different feeling. She's supposed to think my cover drive is the best in the world! 'What do you mean, I'm gripping too tight with my bottom hand!'
"It was probably a bit of ego on my part, because I didn't want to take feedback from someone so close to me. But I guess it's just about switching hats, isn't it? Because we can both talk until the cows come home about cricket, high performance and the rest of it. But when you're at home and you're out of that space, she's my wife, and we have a cut-off where we've spoken work, and now that's it, done."
But if that was feasible in the domestic sphere, it proved nigh on impossible during England's gruelling campaign in the 2021-22 winter, encompassing a dispiriting one-sided Ashes tour followed by the World Cup. Looking back, Lauren believes that some of her on-field struggles could well have been connected to her diagnosis, in October 2019, of Crohn's disease - the same intestinal issue that Jack Leach has been required to manage during his England career.
"I'm lucky with the support I've had from the ECB," she says. "It's only thanks to the England doctor that I was diagnosed in the first place. But the bubbles involved a lot of UberEATS and takeaways, which did make me quite sick. It's a lot easier to manage now that I can cook and go out for good meals, and look after myself physically.
"Also, when you're not in bubbles, you sleep better. Fatigue is a big part of it and obviously, if you're not resting and recovering from the training and playing loads, then you're just constantly taking fuel out the tanks.
"Everybody had different experiences, but I'm quite a deep thinker and I need distractions. The bubbles don't give you that, they just give you mental combustion and lots of analysis, lots of overthinking. And lots of disconnect. I needed my people to ground me and reassure me that I'm not just a cricketer, we love you regardless. When the only thing that you're getting any sort of feedback on is cricket, and that's not going well, you don't really know who you are and what you stand for.
"It always sounds really corny, doesn't it? But you've got to bounce your bum on the bottom to come back up. And right now, I'm playing the best cricket in my life."
Though she hit the ground running in the 2022 season with a remarkable 96 from 51 balls for Northern Diamonds in the Charlotte Edwards Cup, it was Lauren's move from Northern Superchargers to Oval Invincibles for the Hundred that provided the stand-out evidence of her new resolve. Her first match for the Invincibles came against her old team-mates - Alyssa Healy included, whose pre-eminence as a wicketkeeper-opener had been a factor in Lauren moving south to give herself an extra role behind the stumps. By the time she'd cracked 74 not out from 42 balls in a nine-wicket win, she had amply justified the switch.
"It was a massive decision at the time because I'm Northern through and through, and obviously I had been captain at the Superchargers," she says. "But sometimes you make decisions for other people instead of decisions for yourself. I don't think I've ever been more nervous for a game than I was for that first game, so it was nice to perform, and they were really happy for me, which meant a lot.
"I've just changed the way I operate," she adds. "I've become less OCD with my training routine and allowed myself to go with the flow. The bottom line is that I couldn't adapt to anything that wasn't how it was supposed to be. But that's the game of cricket. God knows what's going to happen, who knows how many you are going to be chasing, or what sort of surface you're going to get on, or who they're going to bowl.
"So I've worked really hard on being more fluid in life, and fluid in the game. I'm not trying so hard to get that score that proves I'm worthy of being an England cricketer, and so I'm able to adapt and play the game in front of me. Sometimes that might just need me to be gritty, whereas previously I'd have tried to be expansive and sexy, and fail to get the job done."
Greater self-assurance comes with a greater desire to be seen as a role-model too, on the field and off. In terms of her relationship with Courtney, Lauren acknowledges that it wasn't always easy to be upfront about her sexuality, and that the act of getting married - and taking on a double-barrelled surname - was a big factor in becoming truly comfortable about who she is.
"I just think it's important to use your platform, use your story for good, and just create awareness," she says. "Our job is to play cricket but there's a bit more to it than that. It's important to show you are not afraid to be authentic, and to drive the change."
More generally, however, as a female sportsperson, Lauren can feel that change happening on her watch, and is eager to do her bit to keep the momentum going, at every level of the game.
"I think people understand the challenges that female athletes have gone through, and have a respect for that, but you've also got to have one eye on the future of change," she says. "For instance, it's great to see Amy Jones up on a billboard for a big advertising campaign, but who's looking out for the girl who's gone to a cricket club and has nowhere to get changed, or no sanitary bin? She isn't going to go back if you don't keep an eye on the shop floor stuff too.
"We're not just the tag-ons anymore. In the past we might have been the curtain-raisers, but now it feels like we are up there on a pedestal as well.
"One of the best things about the Hundred has been seeing all the kids after the game, and there'll be a ten-year-old boy shouting your name and asking for your autograph. That has such an impact, because if a girl then goes into the playground and plays cricket, they don't all go 'urgh, it's a girl!' They'll be thinking, 'I went to watch the Hundred, and the girls are really good. Come on, let's play!'"
Lauren Winfield-Hill recently featured in the Royal London series 'The Changing Room', a three-part video series, in partnership with the ECB, where players and officials discuss a range of topics that impact the game of cricket including, racism, faith discrimination, and gender equality. The entire series is available to stream at www.royallondon.com/cricket

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket