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Feature

Sophie Ecclestone is world No. 1, but she's looking to fill an important gap in her CV

The world's leading limited-overs bowler talks about wanting to win a World Cup, her approach to left-arm spin, and her ambition of batting at No. 7 for England

Annesha Ghosh
Annesha Ghosh
24-Jun-2022
Sophie Ecclestone took 21 wickets in the 2022 ODI World Cup, including a career-best 6 for 36 in the semi-final against South Africa  •  Sanka Vidanagama/AFP/Getty Images

Sophie Ecclestone took 21 wickets in the 2022 ODI World Cup, including a career-best 6 for 36 in the semi-final against South Africa  •  Sanka Vidanagama/AFP/Getty Images

"It funny to think I started as a seamer," says Sophie Ecclestone, the No. 1-ranked bowler in women's ODIs and T20Is.
"Funnier even to see how much has changed since I was 16-17 when I made my senior debut [for Lancashire] and for England. I'm really happy [the way] I'm going. It has, honestly, been a great career for me so far and, hopefully, I can continue that with so much cricket to look forward to now."
Top-ranking, a century of international caps, and a rapid climb to sixth spot on England's all-time wicket-takers' chart, Chester-born Ecclestone has ticked boxes by age 23 that many cricketers only dream of checking by the end of their careers. But after having twice finished on runners-up sides in two World Cups, Ecclestone says she is mindful of the distinction that eludes her.
"A massive one for me is that, as a team with me in it, I have not really won a major trophy yet."
Ecclestone was part of the England sides that were losing finalists to Australia in the 2018 T20 World Cup in West Indies and the 2022 ODI World Cup in New Zealand. Prior to those, in 2017, Ecclestone had come very close to featuring in a World Cup-winning England team, but in the end she watched the team's title-clinching victory from the stands at Lord's.
"I had to get my A-levels [exams] out of the way, so I couldn't be available for the World Cup squad selection, which was a hard thing to digest initially," remembers Ecclestone, who even bowled to the team in the nets ahead of the final against India.
When the next ODI World Cup came around, Ecclestone's imprint on England's campaign was unmissable. Spinning her way to the top the wickets chart, she finished the tournament just two shy of equalling Lyn Fullston's all-time record of 23 wickets from the 1982 edition.
"I was in the crowd watching last time in 2017, so to be playing in the 2022 World Cup final was quite a big thing for me," Ecclestone says.
"It was disappointing to not be able to retain the title, but that World Cup was still an amazing experience for me: to get all those wickets and reach the final and for the team to get there because we had lost three games at the start."
Ecclestone had a solid hand in England's spectacular turnaround from a winless start to a five-match unbeaten streak leading into the final. During that undefeated patch in the league stage, she took three back-to-back three-wicket hauls, and followed them up with a career-best 6 for 36 in the semi-final.
"I didn't think of it much as a semi-final," she says of that fixture against South Africa, in which her figures eclipsed team-mate Anya Shrubsole's 6 for 46 from the 2017 World Cup final as the best in a women's World Cup knockout. "I told myself I should just keep it simple and enjoy it.
"I play my best cricket, I am at my best when I enjoy it, so when I came out with 6 for 36 - that doesn't come around very often in a World Cup semi-final, never mind playing for England - I was so happy with that, and reaching the final was very pleasing."
Being mindful of not "overcomplicating" her bowling has been a key ingredient in her success, she explains: "Keeping it simple is a massive thing for me because whenever I overcomplicate, I don't bowl my best. So, thinking straight and bowling my best balls is what I stick to."
In pursuit of clarity of thought, she says she often makes it a point to switch off from cricket during the off season and between series: "I think a lot of people stay in the game and keep training, but I'm one that likes to get away from the game and do something different - spend time with family, go take my dog for a weekend away, or go watch Everton play football on Saturday. It's just quite a nice change. It's just getting a bit of head space mentally and have energy for the season."
Then there are the more visible strengths that underpin her bowling. Her high release point is one of them. "I am quite a tall spinner, so my height has a key impact for me, getting the bounce that I get on when it's a good wicket."
One of the most accurate spinners going around when it comes to varying lengths especially, her bag of tricks includes a deceptive arm ball.
"I usually to try to get it at yorker length and hit the toes and try to get it in late. I use it as my out ball. People say it's quite quick, so it works to my advantage."
Besides her precision, Ecclestone offers reliability in her dual role as strike bowler and container. Her 76 wickets in 47 ODI innings have come at an economy of 3.71 runs per over, and her 68 wickets in 49 T20I innings have come at an economy of 5.94.
Her T20I average, 15.94, is among the best by a spinner in the women's game since her debut in the format in July 2016. Among other things, it speaks of her ease of operating in all phases of a T20 innings.
"In T20s, my favourite format, it's always evolving, so it's all just being [mentally] ready," Ecclestone says. "Heather [Knight, the England captain] always brings me on when we need a wicket or some things happen, so it's massive for me to do the basics right, like, staying alert, keeping that concentration throughout and just performing well when I'm asked to."
A highly sought-after name in domestic leagues, Ecclestone attributes much of her evolution into a premier bowler in world cricket to her cricket-playing elder brother, James, and personal coach, Gareth Breese.
"My brother taught me to play cricket and football when I was growing up. It's all down to him why I am so successful to do this today and, hopefully, it continues," she says. "And there's Gareth, my spin coach in England, whom I started working with when I was 19 or so. It's down to him, really, that I am the bowler that I am.
"What his focus with my bowling is mostly, like, on the day, the pitch might be different and a slower ball might be turning more or might be doing a bit more, and on another day, when it's a good wicket, bowling a bit quicker. It's just adapting to the conditions on the day and bowling as well as I can do and talking it through with Gareth."
Her graph as a bowler has been on an upward trajectory across formats, including Tests, where she has 15 wickets from four matches, for a while now. But recently in white-ball cricket, including domestic leagues like the FairBreak Invitational T20 and the Women's T20 Challenge, she showed consistent glimpses of a newly cultivated power-hitting element in her batting.
"A few years ago, you could be good at one aspect, you could just be a very good bowler, but now you've got to be good at two out of three or, ideally, three out of three [disciplines], so my batting's been a massive thing for me to improve.
"I'm hoping when Katherine Brunt retires, I can take the No. 7 spot [in the England line-up]. That's the ultimate aim, so I've just been working really hard at it. I think people used to joke that I can whack a ball, but I really want people to take me seriously now and I do really want to go bat up the order for England."
Ecclestone will have plenty of opportunities to grow into a well-rounded cricketer in the upcoming big-ticket home summer. A multi-format series against South Africa begins later this month before women's and T20 cricket make their debut in the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in July-August. That will be followed by the Hundred, and then limited-overs series against India.
"South Africa and India are both very good teams. Our bilateral series against them will be good contests," Ecclestone says. "And obviously, the Commonwealth Games are going to be huge. To be competing for gold medals is going to be quite a big thing and for it to be in England is quite big too. I am really excited for the occasion and, hopefully, to get a gold medal."
The 2023 T20 World Cup in South Africa is the second major event on the women's international calendar in the next eight months. For Ecclestone, it will be yet another chance at ticking boxes on her to-do list.
"Winning a major trophy - be it a T20 World Cup win or even the Commonwealth Games - will be absolutely huge for me," she says. "That's a short-term goal I want to achieve soon. Obviously, [I want to] win an Ashes as well - we have a few draws and a few losses in that. Winning a major trophy is a major goal ahead of me now."

Annesha Ghosh is a freelance sports journalist. @ghosh_annesha