Sophia Dunkley: ‘I want to play fearlessly at the World Cup’ | England women’s cricket team

Sophia Dunkley remembers the 50-over 2017 Women’s World Cup final at Lord’s as if it were yesterday. Part of the sellout crowd that witnessed England’s nine-run win against India, she describes the day as “magical”. “I remember turning up to the ground and seeing these massive queues outside Lord’s, which was surreal because I’d never seen that for a women’s game before,” she says. “And then going in and seeing the whole thing filled up and the noise – every time England got a wicket the crowd just erupted, which was amazing.”

From a personal perspective, though, the most significant aspect was not England’s win but rather an announcement that came after play had finished. “I remember watching the girls do a lap of honour at the end and clapping them round,” she says.

“Then there was a moment where they announced that the next World Cup was going to be in New Zealand, and in my head I was like: ‘Right, I want to be there.’”

Four and a half years later, with England days away from commencing their title defence, she is close to achieving that ambition.

Sophia Dunkley with Tammy Beaumont and Sophie Ecclestone after England’s defeat in the World T20 final against Australia in Antigua in 2018
Sophia Dunkley with Tammy Beaumont (left) and Sophie Ecclestone after England’s defeat in the World T20 final against Australia in Antigua in 2018. Photograph: Harry Trump/IDI/Getty Images

It may sound like the stuff of dreams, but it has not come without a fight. Dunkley’s England debut came in the 2018 T20 World Cup in the Caribbean; on her first outing with the bat, against West Indies, Dunkley looked a natural, top-scoring with a 30-ball 35. But there was a problem. “I was predominantly classed as more of an aggressive T20 batter,” she says. “I had to change that stigma around me.”

After England returned home from the West Indies as runners-up to Australia, she spent 18 months on the sidelines, with a point to prove. “I had to work hard to get back in the team – work my way up.” She scored a sea of runs in domestic cricket – including an unbeaten century last year for the Stars against the Sunrisers in the opening round of the 50-over Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy – and her confidence slowly improved.

A change in mindset was also key. “I needed to not think about selection, the next game, the next competition and get lost in that. I needed to think of it as one game at a time, and also one ball at a time, to build my innings longer.”

Map of New Zealand with the venues for the 2022 Women’s Cricket World Cup

Her persistence paid off, and she earned a recall last summer – against India at Bristol, becoming the first Black woman to represent England in Test cricket.

Days later, after what felt to her like the longest of waits, she was handed her 50-over cap; but it was her performance in the second ODI of the series that finally silenced the doubters. Coming in at 125 for four, with more established batters having stuttered and England needing to reach 222, she closed out the game with an assured run‑a-ball 73. She is now firmly ensconced in the No 6 position. “I feel pretty clear about where I sit in the team,” she says. “It probably means more because I’ve had to work hard for it.”

Times have been tougher of late. A month ago, England fell just short of pulling off a spectacular win in the final session of the Ashes Test: Dunkley looked to be steering them home before holing out to long-on with 24 runs needed. England were left holding out for a draw.

“I’ve just about recovered,” Dunkley says with a laugh. “What a last day. What it stood for and what it’s done in getting people talking about women’s Test cricket is a win in itself.”

That may be true but what followed did not bode well for England’s World Cup chances. They flopped in all three Ashes ODIs, bowled out in every match, and surrendered the series trophy 12-4 on points; Dunkley did not make it into double figures. “There were a couple of tired performances.”

She says that after a seven-day mandatory quarantine on entry to New Zealand – Dunkley spent it learning how to do a mini Rubik’s cube and watching all eight Harry Potter films for the first time – plus a few days relaxing in Queenstown, England have been able to refocus their attention on the forthcoming tournament.

“The Ashes has happened now, we’re parking it and going again. The more we dwell on it the more we bring it into the World Cup. It’s a fresh start, and we’ve got Australia as our first game, so there’s a chance for a bit of redemption.”

What will Dunkley be bringing to that game? “I’m just trying to do everything as clinically as I can in the nets. Trying to bat for a long time and get my head down. I want to play bravely and fearlessly. I want to put the pressure back on the bowling team. I want to bring that to the World Cup.”

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Should Heather Knight’s side pull off a win in the tournament, which begins on 4 March, they will become the first England team to retain the World Cup. “It’s a chance to make history,” Dunkley says. “To be back‑to-back champions would be an amazing historic moment.”

This time around, instead of watching on from the stands, she may even get the chance to play a part in making that history.

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