After an extraordinary year for women’s cricket, Nick Friend speaks to England spinner Alex Hartley as the World Cup winners prepare for their tour of Australia.
For many, victory in a World Cup final on home soil would be the culmination of a grand plan, the triumphant peak of a side years in the making. The foot would leave the pedal and the key would be relaxed from the ignition, desperate to bask in the glory of national heroism.
For Alex Hartley, however, she has other ideas; the ride is just beginning. Alongside her victorious England colleagues, she is preparing for a gruelling month down under as England’s women seek to regain the Ashes they had wrestled from them back in 2015.
“We want to carry on in the way that we did in the World Cup”, Hartley tells me. “If we can get a bit of momentum going and win a few games then hopefully we can regain the Ashes.
“We’re at the start of a very important journey as a team and we want to regain our title as the number one team in the world.”
That the left-arm spinner sees this Ashes tour – two months after the nation was captivated by World Cup fever – as the beginning of a journey for Heather Knight’s team, is testament to the wholesale changes that English women’s cricket has seen since Mark Robinson left Sussex to reinvigorate the national setup in November 2015.
Charlotte Edwards, an icon throughout the women’s game, was cast aside and replaced as captain by Knight, while stalwart Lydia Greenway retired midway through 2016. The feeling among many observers was that the side’s young players had become overly reliant on Edwards’ enduring ability.
Amid the changes, Hartley was brought in for her debut and credits Robinson with looking past her self-admitted shortcomings.
“All you need is a fresh pair of eyes and a fresh approach and luckily Mark came in and liked the way I bowled. The next thing I knew I was playing.
“He’s a fresh face and he’s changed the team. He’s brought about a new era for women’s cricket. We’re playing aggressive cricket at the minute and he’s fantastic. I think he came about at the right time.”
That new-found aggression was evident throughout the tournament, with five English centurions steamrolling their way through the competition. Nat Sciver scored her 369 runs at more than a run-a-ball, emphasising the Robinson way.
Despite the fearlessness with which England swaggered past their competition, Hartley is candid as she discusses the fear she felt as she strolled onto the Lord’s outfield to take in the unprecedented atmosphere of the final.
“It’s hard to describe. I was a nervous wreck. I went out there in the morning when the seats were empty and I was like: ‘I can do this. It’s empty, I’m fine.’ And then after we’d batted I went out there into the middle and – oh my – it was just so full.
“My tactic is normally to look at empty seats so I can tell myself that there’s nobody in the crowd but there were just no empty seats! So yeah, I was a nervous wreck but honestly, the atmosphere was just amazing, it was fantastic.”
The attendance at the sport’s spiritual home set a record for a Women’s World Cup match, with India’s participation only adding to a fervent crowd.
“At one stage, it did feel like we were in India because the fans were going mad for them but it was fantastic and if I could do it all again, I’d snap at the opportunity.”
Indeed, it was Hartley’s wicket of Harmanpreet Kaur that began an almighty collapse as England fought back. Kaur, whose match-winning hundred had taken India past Australia – the world’s top-ranked nation, had been showing a similar dominance as she looked to be leading her country home.
“It was a bit of a relief because she’d hit me for a few sixes and I was just thinking to myself: ‘this girl can bat.’ She’s a fantastic player and somebody I admire so to get her out was massive in the game and it was nice to finally get the reward.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Anya Shrubsole, described by Hartley as “a hero of all the girls”, ran through India’s lower order in an astonishing display that looked set to finish the job. There was, of course, still a final heart-in-mouth moment in this game of twists and turns. Nine wickets down and with the ball looping gently into Jenny Gunn’s gleeful hands, Hartley readily admits that she began to celebrate, only for the ball to escape the Gunn’s desperate grasp.
“I turned around and celebrated with the crowd because I thought that was it. That was the most embarrassing moment of it all, having to turn back around in front of the Indian fans and they were screaming in my face.
“But luckily Anya got the wicket the next ball and I turned around and did it all again.”
The improbable drop only added to the sense of occasion, with more than a million people tuning in to take in the incredible tension. It feels as though the sheer drama that surrounded the triumph – as much as the victory itself – has helped to alter the attitudes of the women’s game. From Sarah Taylor’s world-class glovework to Shrubsole’s stirring spell, cricket fans nationwide became gripped.
“It’s quite nice,” Hartley admits. “We were just walking down the street earlier and some people came up to us and congratulated us on the World Cup. You just forget that so many people were watching and we did a lot for women’s cricket but hopefully we can do a lot more.”
Indeed, the tournament’s global viewership saw an eighty per cent increase on the 2013 competition in India. The effect, Hartley hopes, is that a new generation of girls can be inspired to take up the game.
“I love the fact that we can now be role models for young girls. I think that we have to just carry on playing the cricket that we’re playing. The more people that we can inspire and the more girls that we can get playing the sport, then we’ve done our jobs.
“I think that if girls are happier playing cricket and more comfortable playing the sport, we’ll have done what we set out to do.”
Those thoughts, however, have been put to one side for now. For all the prestige and jubilation of a momentous summer that also saw the second edition of the Women’s Super League, the focus is now on the Ashes and regaining the urn.
Hartley had not even made her international debut when Meg Lanning’s Australia clinched the 2015 series at Hove. This time around, it will be Lanning who misses out; the Australian linchpin has a long-term shoulder injury. Hartley, on the other hand, can scarcely hide her excitement.
“I remember spending the last three years sitting at home and watching England play in the Ashes on the tele. Now I’m playing. As I said, it’s a dream come true.”
She is joined in the squad by fellow Lancashire left-arm spinner Sophie Ecclestone; her teenage clubmate is also preparing to make her Ashes bow. Rather than fearing for her place, however, Hartley is looking forward to the challenge.
“Sophie Ecclestone hasn’t played much international cricket before so she is the surprise element of our team.
“It’s quite nice to have another spinner in the team and another left-arm spinner and it’s quite nice to have the added competition.
“We might play together, we might not. It’s nice to have a bit of healthy competition though because, at the end of the day, we both want to play for England for as long as we can.”
Although uncertain of the makeup of the side come the first ODI on 22 October, even as an Ashes novice, Hartley is well aware of the importance of the series.
“When you first start playing, you dream of playing for England and you dream of being called up to an Ashes squad,” she explains. The three-pronged series features the rarity of a Test match, with England only having played 93 since their first in 1934.
“All the girls love playing Test cricket, even though we only play it every so often. It still has that special feeling,” Hartley, who is yet to play Test cricket, tells me.
“It’s going to be a game-changer and it’s going to be big for both teams. It’s something we’re all really looking forward to. Hopefully we can get decent crowds in and promote the game as we try and do.”
The 2015 Test was criticised, with England batting for 143 overs in the match for their 269 runs. Australia’s win was their first Test victory over England since 2001. Hartley insists, however, that this new England team will not make the same mistakes.
“We’re trying to play aggressive cricket and we’ll bring that into the Test series. If we get bowled out for 100 then we’ll have to bowl better than they did. If you win, you win. You’d take a win over anything.
“I understand that a couple of Test matches have been boring in the past but as I say, we’re a new team with a new way of going about things – and hopefully it won’t be boring!”
Her bold words are those of a young player comfortable in her role in an ever-improving team, whose standing within British sport has burgeoned thrillingly in the last three months.
For Hartley, this is just the start. Her dream, she tells me, “is to be the world’s number one spin bowler.”
“If we don’t win the Ashes,” she says, “That’s fine. We’ll move onto the next series and we rebuild as a team.”
Hartley speaks with a maturity beyond her international cricketing years, her focus on the ‘journey’ highlighting her long-term aspirations for herself and her team. They face a tough task as they look to regain the Ashes but, after the year they’ve had, you would be brave to bet against them.
Featured photograph: Alex Hartley