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Edwards career ended by the professionalism she fought for

Some are lucky enough to choose the timing of their own retirement; others are pushed before they feel their time has come. Charlotte Edwards made it crystal clear that she can be classed in the latter category

Raf Nicholson
Raf Nicholson
The very fact that Charlotte Edwards' announcement of her retirement from international cricket was made at Lord's, in front of a roomful of journalists, was testament to the transformation of women's cricket in the decade since she was appointed to lead her team.
No previous captain of England Women had ever given a press conference to announce their decision to step away from the game. Even when Edwards' predecessor Clare Connor retired due to injury after the 2005 Ashes series, there was no big fuss, no back page splash. Frankly, 10 years ago the press simply would not have been interested in who the captain of England Women was.
That they are now - that this was a big enough story to be broken on Twitter the night before - is largely thanks to the efforts of Edwards. The awarding of professional contracts to England Women in May 2014 came in the wake of two back-to-back Ashes series' victories, with her at the helm.
Yet ironically, ultimately, it was the media scrutiny which would inevitably accompany the new professional era which was to be Edwards' downfall.
Her dethroning really began over a month ago in Delhi, after a shocking defeat to Australia in the World Twenty20 semi-final which her team had looked on course to win. Afterwards, she sat alongside new coach Mark Robinson, stony-faced, as he warned that his players needed to "get fitter".
It did not take a genius to work out where his comments were targeted. Only a few weeks later, the frosty atmosphere between the two was apparent for all to see when Robinson turned up to watch the Sussex-Kent Women's County Championship fixture and, huddled into the small pavilion at Eastbourne during a three-hour rain delay, captain and coach conspicuously failed to acknowledge each other.
Edwards has long said that she wanted to carry on playing until after the 2017 World Cup, to be hosted in England. Offered the chance to consider her position as captain after defeat in the women's Ashes last summer, she declined to go. But that was before the appointment of a new coach who, it now seems clear, wants to stamp his own mark on the team, without the forceful influence of Edwards at his side.
No one has done more for women's cricket in the whole of its history than Charlotte Edwards. She has fought to trample down barriers and break new ground for her whole career; almost her whole life
Some are lucky enough to choose the timing of their own retirement; others are pushed before they feel their time has come. Edwards made it crystal clear in her press conference that she can be classed in the latter category. "I was more than happy to step down as captain, but there was a real hunger to continue playing," she said. "I'm really happy with where my game is at." The choice, she stressed, was made by Robinson. "[He] spoke to me honestly that he saw the next series as an important series for him to develop players and take the team in a new direction…there isn't a place for me in the team."
It is a sad end to what has been a largely triumphant career, in which Edwards has overseen the biggest transformation in the sport's history. In 1996, the year of her England Test debut, she paid not just for her England blazer, but a hefty bill for accommodation during the three-Test series. Two years later, working as an assistant for the local bat company who were also her main sponsor, she began the grueling schedule which would see her finish work at 5pm, go to meet her coach David Capel (later assistant coach to the England squad), train and net for several hours and be back home at 10pm. It was a work ethic driven by love of the game. "I just wanted to play cricket," she said later.
Nearly 20 years after she played her first match for England, these kind of scenarios have not just disappeared but seem totally alien to the current crop of England players. Slowly, the professionalisation of the game has seeped in: Chance to Shine Coaching Ambassador contracts were introduced by the ECB in 2008; tour fees and match fees followed in 2011. And then came the crown jewel - the awarding of professional contracts for Edwards and her squad in May 2014. Winning two World Cups and the Ashes in the space of eight months in 2009 did nothing to harm their cause. Along the way Edwards has always led from the front, remaining England's premier batsman for almost the whole of her career.
Success, though, has been the ficklest of mistresses in the two years since professional contracts were introduced. First came the loss to India in the one-off Test at Wormsley, England defeated comprehensively by a side who had not even played the format for six years. A tour of New Zealand in early 2015, in which England lost two of the three Championship ODIs and just scraped a series victory, followed. Edwards' side then endured an embarrassing Ashes series, awash with batting collapses, in which her captaincy came under fire, contrasted unfavourably with the fresh, innovative approach of her opposite number Meg Lanning. Defeat in the WWT20 semi-final was only the most recent example of failure.
That Edwards was England's leading run-scorer in that tournament, during which Robinson apparently decided he no longer required her services, seems rather odd. But maybe this is missing the point. In the new professional era, perhaps it is as simple as this: it is the captain who is ultimately responsible for her team's performance out in the middle.
And while professionalism has brought with it the press coverage which women's cricket has for so long craved, it has also - quite rightly - brought unprecedented scrutiny. Why has increased investment from the ECB not borne fruit on the pitch? Why do England seem to be stagnating when other teams are moving forward? Why are new players not pushing their way through into the side?
For the first time in her captaincy, Edwards has had to look out onto a sea of hostile faces at press conferences and explain why her team has so vastly underperformed. It has not been easy. When I interviewed her for a piece on leadership six weeks after the women's Ashes defeat last summer, she admitted as much. "We've gone under the radar for eight years of my captaincy. You can have a blip and no one even talks about it, no one mentions it. And you could sort the problems out without having that media spotlight on you, but now you can't. The players are under the microscope now."
No one has done more for women's cricket in the whole of its history than Charlotte Edwards. She has fought to trample down barriers and break new ground for her whole career; almost her whole life. From the age of 12, when she became the captain of Huntingdonshire Boys', and silenced the jeering from the sidelines with her unrivalled batting talent. To age 16 when she became the then youngest player to represent England. To the countless hours that she has spent in schools, coaching and talking to young girls who now - thanks to her - see cricket as something which they can do just as well as their brothers. They will never face the same taunts she did.
When asked about her proudest moment, it is no surprise that, tears in her eyes, she said: "Just being a role model for young girls. I didn't have a female role model growing up, a cricketer, so to think I've done that is really special to me."
Similarly, no one was happier or prouder when professionalism announced itself in the women's game than Edwards. Why? Because, as Connor put it today: "Professionalisation helps to normalise cricket for girls. It gives aspiration, and it gives players like Edwards a platform to inspire." The ushering in of the professional era has been the culmination of everything Edwards has spent her career working towards.
Even so, professionalism has proved for her personally to be a mixed blessing. The premature end to her incredible career is simply the final manifestation of the fact that Edwards is being judged by different standards now - the ones that she has striven all her career to be judged by. Whoever succeeds her - a decision Robinson has yet to make - would do well to remember that.

Raf Nicholson is an England supporter, a feminist, and has recently completed a doctoral thesis on the history of women's cricket. @RafNicholson