Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98
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It was difficult to know what to expect from the Bryce sisters heading into last summer's Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy, the 50-over competition salvaged from the Covid-wrecked first season of England's revamped domestic set-up.
Seam-bowling allrounder Kathryn (then 22) and wicketkeeper-batter Sarah (then 20) had long been marked out as players with significant potential, but their experience at the top level of the domestic game was limited: Kathryn had played in a single season of the Kia Super League, while Sarah had been too young to make it that far.
Their performances for the Lightning exceeded expectations: Sarah was the second-highest run scorer in the competition, with four fifties and an unbeaten hundred from her six innings, while Kathryn was second on the wickets chart with 14 at 15.42. It was enough to ensure they were offered full-time contracts in early December, which means both are able to call themselves professionals while still studying at Loughborough University - Kathryn finishes her sports-science degree next month; Sarah's maths degree runs until next summer.
"You have to pinch yourself a bit," Kathryn says. "Mum is still asking when I'm going to get myself a job and I'm like, 'I have one!' We're lucky that we're at the back end of uni and haven't had to find a career and decide whether to come out of it to pursue cricket. [Professionalism] has come at the perfect time. When I came to uni, the only real opportunity to make a living from playing cricket was playing for England or Australia. I thought I'd have to have something alongside it."
"When you look ahead to leaving uni, you're usually looking for a graduate job and I have no idea what I'd want to do with my life," Sarah says. "The fact I'm able to go down the cricket route for a wee while and see where that goes is an incredible opportunity."
Rob Taylor - who worked with the Bryces for a number of years through the MCCU system - the UK's university cricket centres - at Loughborough University, first as assistant coach and then head coach, was appointed as the Lightning's coach ahead of last summer. He was soon in awe of the sisters' ability to step up.
"I don't mean to put women's county cricket down at all, but Sarah had never been tested against the best players in every game within the regional set-up," he says. "She'd played a lot of international cricket for Scotland at the Associate level, and a bit in ICC development teams, but that was her first competition at that standard. She looked so comfortable at that level, and was able to perform on a consistent basis.
"For Kathryn, the standout was the Diamonds game at Durham. She took a five-for and was 71 not out but ended up on the losing side - there aren't many games where you do that and don't come out on top. They had a really strong side with [Katherine] Brunt, [Nat] Sciver, Lauren Winfield-Hill and several others with international experience. For her to stand up like she did showed how good a player she is."
That game epitomised Kathryn as a player: an anchoring No. 3 at domestic level who can manipulate the field and score heavily down the ground after getting set, and a new-ball bowler with the ability to swing the ball prodigiously into the right-handers. She is a swing bowler rather than an out-and-out quick - to the extent that Sarah stands up to the stumps while keeping to her, but manages to get the ball tailing late.
Sarah, meanwhile, is slightly taller and particularly strong playing cut shots, though she uses her feet to hit spinners through mid-on and mid-off too. While Taylor jokes that she would be well served by "having another word or two with the batters from behind the stumps", her ability with the gloves was demonstrated by four stumpings in Scotland's T20I against Ireland this week - the second consecutive T20I in which she had achieved the feat.
The sisters' cricket journey has all the typical elements: a cricket-mad family, an enthusiasm for all sports from a young age, improvements from playing with and against one another in the garden, and falling into a structured set-up at George Watson's College (a private school in Edinburgh) and Watsonian CC. All are familiar markers for future success. Regular unstructured play is known to provide benefits, and the kind of engagement the Bryces had with multiple sports can lay the foundation for the development of skills that are transferable across disciplines.
"We played pretty much every sport growing up, throwing every sort of ball around in the garden," Kathryn explains. "Our parents encouraged us just to do everything: a lot of hockey and tennis, and then we had a girls' cricket team at school. We went to a club and I was playing for the girls' 1st XI, basically as a fielder but having a great time. Sarah was there watching and stood on the side and then joined in."
"I always went along, whether that was with Dad to pick her up or just joining in on the sidelines, and then started joining actual sessions," Sarah says. "We were still playing hockey until very recently as well - it wasn't ever a focus on cricket as such, just loving sport. Cricket happened to be one that we really enjoyed. Heading to uni, I didn't think professional cricket was really an option, but I wanted to take it as far as I could, and I knew that Loughborough was the place to be.
Kathryn started playing women's county cricket in 2011; Sarah four years later. In 2018 both played in the ICC's women's global development squad, alongside the top players in Associate cricket. That year, they travelled to the Women's Big Bash for placements with the Hobart Hurricanes (Sarah) and the Melbourne Stars (Kathryn) while performing consistently at international level. Kathryn's record earned her the ICC's women's Associate player of the decade award at the end of 2020.
Their Scottish accents serve as a reminder that three years ago they would not have had this opportunity. Kirstie Gordon, their compatriot and university peer, was forced to make a choice in 2018 between continuing her international career with Scotland and fulfilling the domestic contract she had been offered to play for the Lightning in the Kia Super League by declaring her intention to play for England.
She chose the latter, and while it led to a call-up for the 2018 World T20, it is nearly two years since her last appearance and she is in danger of losing her England central contract. After Gordon's experience, the ECB changed the regulations ahead of the 2019 KSL to allow Scotland players to appear without having to register as overseas players. As a result, the Bryces can juggle their commitments with Scotland, where they are captain and vice-captain, with Lightning duty.
"We're really fortunate that she went through it first, to be honest," Kathryn says. "She had a really difficult time figuring it out and it was a difficult situation for both the ECB and Cricket Scotland. It's obviously unfortunate for her that she went through it, but it meant those opportunities opened up [after the rule change] and they were happy to have us."
Professional domestic contracts also mean that the need for changing allegiance and declaring for England is less urgent. In previous years, Gordon, Leigh Kasparek (also Scotland) and Kim Garth (Ireland) understandably chose contract security with England, New Zealand and Australia respectively rather than playing for their respective Associate sides, but now the option to keep playing for Scotland is attractive.
That said, the Bryces were part of an England academy side that played two pre-season T20s last month. They make it clear that it would be an agonising decision if they were asked to be part of the national set-up. Both pause in the hope that the other will answer first when I wonder how they would reply to a phone call from Lisa Keightley, the England coach.
"There would be a lot of conversations to be had with a lot of people - and a lot of stress, not knowing what to do," Sarah says. "Like with Kirstie, it's such a tough decision," Kathryn says. "As long as you stand by the decision you make, hopefully people will support it." In the immediate term they are targeting qualification for either a 20-over or 50-over World Cup for Scotland, as well as next summer's Commonwealth Games.
"Cricket Scotland have made a real commitment to women's cricket with Mark Coles coming in as their first full-time head coach," Taylor, who played for Scotland's men in the 2015 World Cup, says. "I would love them to get Scotland to a World Cup: that'd be a massive achievement, and a massive thing for the game in Scotland, and I know how much is riding on a World Cup-qualifying year like this one.
"If the ECB came knocking, it would be such a tough decision but we'd support them either way. It'd be their personal choice, but I'd have no worries about them stepping up and being able to perform at that level and in that side."
Expectations are high this summer too. "We've talked about having personal-best seasons, and last year was a really good benchmark," Taylor says. "Sarah has a tough challenge to beat the volume of runs she scored last year but I think she has every chance. With the level of player that they are, you're not expecting huge gains because they're so good already. If we can have a bit more support from the players around them, it makes us a really strong team."
There will also be the rarity of a fixture where they play on opposing teams, after spending so much of their careers on the same side. Kathryn was signed by the Trent Rockets for the Hundred, while Lydia Greenway recruited Sarah when she was due to coach the Oval Invincibles: August 8 has been in the family planner since the moment the fixtures were released.
"We've played each other a couple of times in county stuff, but only once or twice," Kathryn laughs. "It's very strange, and I'm not sure what Mum will be like. The Hundred is a great opportunity for us to learn from the overseas players, which should rub off and make us better players too."
Even with Tammy Beaumont available for much more of the season, the Bryces will be key to the Lightning's hopes. "Kathryn got some starts last year batting at No. 3. It's a case of converting those into big scores, and Sarah would have liked to have turned a couple more of her fifties into hundreds," Taylor says.
"They show their leadership through their actions and quiet conversations, rather than gee-ing people up with big, loud voices. They're very much their own people but naturally have each other's back: they'll never be too far from each other, but they're two different individuals."