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Sophia Dunkley seeks the power to break into England's closed-shop top six

Potential to cement a role in T20I series after fleeting return to team last summer

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Sophia Dunkley flays one over the off side  •  PA Images via Getty Images

Sophia Dunkley flays one over the off side  •  PA Images via Getty Images

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a batter to break into England Women's top six. Not since Lauren Winfield-Hill, who turned 30 last year, has a debutant managed to pass 100 career runs in either ODI or T20I cricket for England, with the same core of players forming the backbone of the batting lineup for the best part of a decade.
In that context, the arrival of a new batter who adds power and skill to the lower-middle order is significant, and in Sophia Dunkley, England think they might have found such a player. Dunkley was given a 10-match run in the side during the 2018-19 winter, including all five games in the T20 World Cup, but found herself on the fringes again for the next 18 months.
She struggled for form in the 2019 Kia Super League, but made the most of the limited opportunities that came her way in the abbreviated season last summer. In successive innings in England's 50-over intra-squad warm-up games, she blitzed 42 not out off 16 balls, then steered her side home with 53 not out off 64, demonstrating her versatility; in the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy, she made 97 for South East Stars at Beckenham with England coach Lisa Keightley watching.
The result was a recall for the final two T20Is of the summer against West Indies. Dunkley's returns - a first-ball duck and 3 not out off 4 balls - were a reminder of the volatility of the finisher's role, but her presence in the side was still a significant moment in her career.
"It was nice to go into the summer with an open mind," Dunkley said. "I'd been out of the side for about a year and a half, so I felt as though I had nothing to lose and I could go in with no fear and just see what happened. I played quite well, which I was really happy with, and it gave me a chance to get back into the side which was really special.
"I'd been working really hard for that for the last year and a half so it was definitely a good summer for me. I got out for a duck in the first game and the last one was a five-over game, but to get back in the side and all the little things that you forget about - being on the teamsheet, being back out on the field, and feeling like you're really part of it - was really special. I tried not to take the feeling for granted."
Having been overlooked throughout the 50-over leg of the tour to New Zealand, Dunkley hopes that she will be given another opportunity to prove herself during the T20I series, which starts on Wednesday in Wellington. England are hardly short on batting depth, with Katherine Brunt, Sarah Glenn and Sophie Ecclestone all powerful lower-order hitters, but Dunkley's ability to go hard from early on in her innings could see her backed ahead of Winfield-Hill and Fran Wilson at No. 6.
"It's about trying to keep perspective," Dunkley said. "A lot of the batters in the team are quite a lot older and more experienced than me. It's about trying to be the best I can be, and if I do get an opportunity, then I'll be giving it a good go. Hopefully at some point in the future I'll cement a spot in the team but I'll have to wait and see what happens and keep enjoying it along the way.
"I've been working hard over the winter so hopefully I've got a good chance of keeping that spot. I think it's part and parcel of cricket and being a young player. Just watching a few of the girls in the nets gives you a good idea of where you want to be - seeing people like Nat [Sciver] and Heather [Knight] bat is a good visualisation of what you want to be in the future."
Dunkley's ability with the ball should also count in her favour, though she admits her legspin is still a work in progress. She will have plenty of opportunities to work on it next summer - she signed a regional contract with South East Stars at the end of last year, and was top of Charlotte Edwards' recruitment list at Southern Brave in the Hundred - but hopes that offering a sixth or seventh bowling option will stand her in good stead down the line.
"I need a lot more game-time with the ball, in the domestic system and in the Hundred, but I've been working really hard in training and it's been good bowling against high-class batters on tour," she said. "Hopefully the new set-up bridges the gap and produces a really strong pool of girls to choose from, which will raise everybody's standards and bring in a lot more competition for places."
If Dunkley is handed a chance this week, she will be watched particularly closely by Ebony Rainford-Brent, a long-term mentor in her role as director of women's cricket at Surrey. Dunkley was the first woman of colour since Rainford-Brent in 2008 to make a T20I debut for England, and became an ambassador for Rainford-Brent's African-Caribbean Engagement (ACE) Programme last year.
"Ebony has done an amazing job to promote a lot of positivity and bring people together," Dunkley said. "I've been really lucky with the experiences I've had, and haven't experienced any abuse or anything like that, but to hear other people's stories last year made me want to help in any way I could.
"I think [the English game] is probably not in the place that it wants to be now, but I'm sure that in the next few years it will get better and better, and hopefully we'll see a massive shift. If I can be a role model and spread as much positivity as I can around the subject, then I'd love that to help. I think just playing for England and representing the community will have a big impact - hopefully a really positive one."

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @mroller98