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England captain Knight tells tale of women's cricket 'neglect'

Sportsbeat
·4-min read
Can Heather Knight steer England to the limited-overs double? Pic: ICC
Pic: ICC

Heather Knight was grateful for any opportunity to lace up her spikes during lockdown, but she couldn’t stop thinking about the ‘neglected’ female cricketers who weren’t so fortunate, writes Rachel Steinberg.

For the England captain, COVID-19 perfectly framed the existing inequalities in her sport. As competition ground to a halt, everyone finally started to see the full, alarming picture.

“I think one thing the pandemic has really highlighted are the discrepancies in how different boards all over the world treat and value women’s cricket,” she said.

“I think some have really stepped up and supported the women’s side of the game, the ECB included, but I think some boards have neglected it and really prioritised men’s cricket.

“I think people are a lot more willing to talk about [the discrepancies] and highlight them now, and hopefully address them.

“And that makes me [feel] really positive moving forward and hopefully something we can do in terms of women’s sport, to decrease that inequality and level the playing field a little bit more.”

Knight was addressing the Women in Sport Digital Conference from her hotel room in New Zealand, in quarantine ahead of England’s limited-overs tour.

The 30-year-old acknowledged the financial pressure on boards, but still felt the lack of playing opportunities for women was “a real shame”, especially for the likes of India.

Unlike England, who faced the West Indies in September, WV Raman’s squad haven’t seen an international opponent since losing to Australia in the T20 World Cup final last March.

England were potentially poised to compete for the title themselves, but a downpour washed out their semi-final—along with any hopes of hoisting the trophy.

It was a deeply disappointing day for Knight’s team, who were then removed from the rapidly changing situation back home in the UK. Boris Johnson announced drastic restrictions on public life, ‘lockdown one’, just 18 days later.

“Initially it gave me a lot of perspective,” Knight recalled.

“It made me forget about that semifinal exit very quickly. Obviously when you realise all the important things that are going on in the world…much more important things [than] that were going on.”

It took just two weeks of relaxation and reflection before Knight was itching to get back on the pitch with her teammates, but restrictions wouldn’t allow it. It was agonising.

She recalled: “I think just not knowing what was happening, when we’d next be able to play cricket, and I think that motivation to train when you’re not knowing what’s coming up is really hard to master sometimes.

“I definitely felt disconnected from the team, and the reason you play and train is to have those connections with people around you.

“And also during that time I was leading the discussions around pay cuts that we were potentially going to take, and we did take…that was something I never thought I’d have to do as captain.”

In the summer, the ECB moved Knight’s squad into a ‘bubble’ in Derby ahead of five T20 matches against the West Indies. The Plymouth native was soon struggling to cope with a very relatable pandemic predicament: working from home.

Of course, ‘home’ for the elite athlete was a hotel room attached to the Incora County Ground. Six months earlier, Knight didn’t know when she’d get back to cricket; now she couldn’t escape it.

She said: “I’m someone that, on a tour, loves to get out and about and do things a bit differently to try to take my mind off of cricket sometimes.

“But at Derby you’d wake up in your Travelodge room, open the curtains, and all you could see was the ground. If you wanted to go for a walk, all you can do is literally walk in circles around the cricket pitch that you’re going to play in later that evening.”

Ultimately, another feeling trumped the inertia: gratitude.

Knight explained: “Probably one positive of that period for me was also realising, even more so, how fragile being a professional sportsperson is and how it can be taken away from you quite easily.

“That was a general trend among the other girls on the team as well, they looked a bit outside of cricket because you realise how quickly it can be taken away, and that’s the fickle world of professional sport that we sign up to.”

Even confined to a hotel room once again, Knight was keenly aware—so many women would still love to be in her shoes.