Significant Threat.

I was there when England scuffed and skipped, fainted and feinted their way past South Africa in the World Cup semi, in Bristol. It was, as they say, dramatic – dramatically bad for one’s equilibrium – whoever you happened to be supporting.

I do realise that that was a different time, place and format but sometimes it feels like there are *themes*, eh?

In the 50 over comp Heather Knight’s posse somehow came out on top but not before most of us England fans had bawled or tutted or cut out the middle person and shat ourselves. On the one hand, the subsequent, glorious victory at Lords squishes all arguments regarding England’s durability but on the other it feels true to also characterize the side with the rider ‘likes a wobble’.

They do – and we’ve already seen that in this WT20, during the win against Sri Lanka. In this game the first ball dismissal of Wyatt precipitated some pret-ty major, visibly contagious and relatively prolonged angst. So we approach the crucial game tonight, versus *arch-enemies South Africa with hope, yes but also with fear.

(*Arch-enemies? Can we still say that?!? There is a smidge of something approaching enmity, I suspect, between these two camps).

Strangely or boldly, England retain their 3 leftie spinners: can they/ will they do that against Aus? South Africa win the toss and opt to bat.

Lee, Wolvaardt, Kapp and van Niekerk are all players; by that I mean legitimate international players, with talent and experience. The concern around them is two-fold. Where is their confidence? Can they go at this?

The answer to question two is a resounding and disappointing ‘no’. Whisper it – for fear of encouraging more, bellicose negativity from male ‘traditionalists’ – but 21 of the first 24 balls… are dot balls.

The extraordinary aggression-void has engulfed South Africa in the same way it has smothered the ambitions of other teams in the competition. To the extent that this is in danger of not feeling like a competition – more a procession, led by Australia, where nominal rivals act out the role of opponents, rather meekly.

We can hope that India, the Windies and England may yet make a nonsense of this argument: Australia may not prove to be dominant. However the gulf in terms of intent between the Southern Stars and most others is striking… and a tad dispiriting.

But back to tonight’s opener – where sadly it is again as though the powerplay doesn’t exist (for South Africa) – or at least that part of the powerplay that opens up possibilities for the batters to clatter boundaries; that actively encourages it.

I have no doubt that this side of the game will develop in good time: more importantly a notably animated Charlotte Edwards bemoaning the generally disappointing lack of ambition (in commentary on TMS) goes on to repeatedly insist that a gear-change is completely essential. That gap must close.

Meanwhile wickets fall, the runrate continues to stall. 43 for 4 after 13 – but still somehow drama-less.

Knight claims a catch. Rather cheekily, according to the replay (according to Edwards); but the current England skipper is rather fascinatingly certain, even through the re-played denial. Kidding herself, being shamelessly competitive/cynical? Who knows?

Chloe Tryon belatedly launches; smites two sixes in quick succession. Can’t sustain it – caught off Sciver, to snuff out any real hopes of approaching 100. Tunnicliffe follows Tryon to the dressing-room. I can only imagine the trauma for Proteas supporters; the unambition, the disappointment seems endless.

Last over. Shrubsole skittles Ismail, has Klaas caught next ball off a leading edge then achieves the unthinkable-but-somehow inevitable by cleaning out Fourie. Hat-trick! Sciver’s wunnerful-ludicrous figures of 4 overs, 3 for 4 will rightly draw the eye of the cognoscenti but Shrubsole, again, will make the headlines.

Innings done at 85 all out. Okaay, South Africa’s strong suit is their bowling but at this stage it feels like they are about to be crushed. Except that England do like a wobble.

The spikes in quality continue. Klaas gifts England a four with a piece of fielding that is frankly humiliating: painful to watch. Wyatt blasts away with intent and some style. A different level of commitment to run-scoring – or just running.

With an angry Ismail putting it all in there, Beaumont drives her beautifully through firstly midwicket, then extra cover. Both times for four. Proper Top Level Cricket. Important for a tournament still disentangling itself from perceived mediocrity.

General note on this: I think all of us who genuinely enjoy supporting women’s cricket struggle around how to pitch any criticism. Better for female voices to do it. It’s not easy. But clearly learning can come from criticism as well as praise.

Very much on the plus side, Dani Wyatt is energetic, watchable and – tonight – has gotten swiftly into her flow. She belts through a series of borderline singles, diving to gain her ground at some cost to her physical safety. In simple terms, there is no comparison between the approach of the English openers and the preceding South Africans.

Come the end of the powerplay, England are 41 for 0. (South Africa were 24 for 1).

The Wyatt and Beaumont partnership are past cruising, at 55 for 0. Into, or possibly disappearing towards that dreamland where Statements Are Really Made. Could they do this in 12 overs, for none down?

No. Van Niekerk’s loopy leggies get Wyatt, clunkily, behind her legs,  premeditating a sweep but ultimately looking rather daft.

Sciver does something similar, to Daniels, walking to off and being bowled leg stick. After 10, England are 59 for 2. Then Beaumont gifts van Niekerk a further wicket, booming directly to long on.

With Amy Jones now joining captain Heather Knight it does feel like England have sufficient quality remaining to find the required runs. This they do. 87 for 3, ultimately. They’ve eased there, in truth.

Maybe it’s as well that Jones and Knight – both 14 not out at the close – have had some more time in the middle. Maybe. Certainly Jones will have enjoyed clubbing Ismail so emphatically through the covers and blasting the winning runs. Likewise Knight will have loved the two beautiful straight drives she stroked – and I do mean stroked – downtown.

But there may also be that minor frustration around the possibility for a 10 wicket job. Wyatt and Beaumont were simply playing at a higher level than the South African batters. Both got themselves out in their 20s, when plainly bigger scores – and additional psychological advantages – were there for the taking.

Maybe scratch that? Maybe we should be simply enjoying a thoroughly convincing win against traditionally competitive rivals? Maybe save Ultimate Ruthlessness Mode for the teams – Windies, India, Australia – who pose the most significant threat. Maybe don’t even note in passing, that there was no discernible wobble here.

Played, England. Good to see you so focused, so positive. Good to see you enjoy the win. Move on; you’re in this, now.

And now they’re gonna believe me.

World Cup Winners. Not a phrase us sporty-peeps are all that used to. Mainly because our media and our heads are dominated by footie – by the epic failure of England. England Men. In football. In World Cups or Europeans.

But who cares about them?  Certainly I care waaaay less than I once did.  Let me dispatch that whole industry of trauma with a flourish, with some disdain, with a few bullet-points.

I care less because;

  • of politico-philosophical stuff about disassociating myself from the Posh South of England
  • because of the rank dishonesty and/or meanness of spirit/anti-sportness football wallows in
  • (but much more importantly) because other sports and other kinds of people seem better. More entertaining; more fun; more worthy(?) of our support.

Post the 2012 Olympics magnificent, generous, friendly, articulate athletes – proper humans who could talk engagingly even though they were world stars – lit up the footie-player-heavy universe.  They were lovely as well as gobsmackingly talented.  They were real and rounded.

Fast forward or maybe re-wind just a few days.  Focus (finally, yes?) on a particular sex. Throw your arms around or share the joy around Anya S, Sarah T, Heather Knight and that daft bugger Dani Wyatt with her twitter and her Proper Sense of Humour!

Read the backstories about shared houses and shared disappointments or challenges. Get the whole idea that there’s been a tough revolution going on – one where these tremendous women have been through major, testing stuff.  And now look at them.  Listen.  Get to know them.  This is England Cricket.  These are our World Cup Winners.  How great is that?

I need to acknowledge coupla things.  Firstly, I’m a dumb bloke.  Secondly, there are people who think this dumb bloke is as bad as the rest of them: somewhere on that patronising/sexist/misogynist spectrum.  Meaning I should be keeping my mouth shut.

I’m not going to because I know (actually) that I try pret-ty hard to be careful and reasonable with what I say… and I know however flawed I may be I am genuinely committed to some vague-ish but powerfully-felt ideas about equality.  I’ll get stuff wrong but as a geezer and a coach I do not entirely lack political sensitivity and do try to make things better.

By that I mean specifically supporting women and girls into cricket – or in cricket.  Apologies for the digression.

England’s World Cup win is a gift as well as a wonderful moment, a triumph.  The manner of victory was intoxicating and gut-churning and all those things that characterise truly fabulous sport.  It was unbelievable, dream-like, horrendous, glorious, daft, moving, nerve-shredding.  The actual match was extraordinary and captivating.

So the drama – the sport – was as magical as sport can be be but the levels of interest and coverage also went off the scale in a way that must surely mark a new phase; ‘just the start of the story’ as described by the outstanding Ebony Rainford-Brent.  Cricket needed that, the universe needed that and we Community Cricket Coaches needed that to really move things forward.

This is what’s exciting.  I hope it doesn’t sound too worryingly cynical if it feels like we all – not just those of us work in cricket – have to use this.  It’s BIG.  BIGGER THAN CRICKET. I’ll not wade into the wider debates just now but I do hope there will be an unstoppable energy around this event, feeding into rilly profound developments ‘elsewhere’.

I personally have been enthusing folks for bats and balls and stuff for about ten years. For the last four, for a living.  I am absolutely clear that us Cricket Wales coaches (who spend much of our times in Primary Schools and clubs) have actively set out to make girls feel like this is their game.  The argument can certainly be made that we could have done more but one of the central messages we’ve been trying to put out there is exactly that: girls, you can do this – it’s yours!

We in the Community Team run what we call cricket assemblies, generally alongside or in the middle of a series of school cricket sessions.  The centrepiece of these assemblies tends to be a shortish video, supplied to us by Chance to Shine, the treble-fabulous cricket charity, one of our sponsors.

I very often bring out a film that was made a few years back, showing India winning a World Cup, amongst other buzztastically uplifting cricket-scenes.  The presentation (bit concerned about that word, in fact) features a Jesse J soundtrack and the challenge is laid to the teacher and/or learning assistant to name the singer and the song – Domino.

I encourage the kids to sing along and if the hwyl with the staff is good to ‘dance around a bit’.  If the teachers get the points for identifying the singer/song then the kids get unholy amounts of points for knowing the words.

We have a bit of fun and maybe a quiz or a relatively ‘educational’ discussion around what we’ve seen.  Which countries were playing?  Recognise anybody – any flags?  I big up the notion that cricket can feel like this then I always ask a few of the girls present

was it all blokes?’  (The film has clips of England Women in action).

When the girls say ‘NO!’  I ask the class

who’s the best team we’ve got?

A question that throws them, admittedly but soon enough the lads start saying Chelsea, Manchester Utd, Swansea, or Scarlets or Ospreys.  I let them shout them out and we have a giggle or two around that – especially, obvs, at the Chelsea fan’s expense.

I then tell everybody that there’s a very strong argument that the best and most successful team we have (acknowledging the brilliance of our cyclists and rowers, maybe) might really be England (and Wales!) Women’s Cricket side.  Because a) they are right up there on the world stage b) because they do win things.

I’ve been saying this fairly convincingly for four years. Now, these classes – these girls – are gonna believe me.

I will again look them in the eye and say

girls. This is your game. Cricket is a fan-tastic game… and it’s yours every bit as much as it’s mine… or his… or his.