England’s women begin their international summer on Thursday in the shadow of a men’s World Cup, in which the hosts are seeking to emulate what their female counterparts did two summers ago.
The reigning world champions understand the burdens of tournament cricket well. Not so familiar, and something England’s resurgent seam bowler Kate Cross has had to learn swiftly, is the pressure on women striving to succeed in a hitherto male world.
“I think that that was genuinely one of the main reasons that I struggled for so much during that middle part of my career,” reflects Cross, after a winter in which she returned to represent England in both white ball formats after almost three years out of the side. “Because I was constantly striving for perfection. Then when you’re not getting many opportunities to play international cricket, when you do get an opportunity it has to be spot on.
“Since turning professional [in 2014], there is that mentality of that perfectionism that we strive for because we try and prove ourselves in what was deemed a man’s world, and that can sometimes be quite unhealthy. The quicker that we are able to shrug that off, the better we play.”
In a world where most of us only see the polished end product performing on a public stage, Cross speaks openly about the challenges facing professional athletes. “It’s such a unique sport,” says Cross. “You’re in a team but it’s so individually weighted and there are so many times where you could score a hundred and your team loses or vice versa you get a first-ball duck but your team wins. I feel like in that sense it is uniquely mentally challenging.”
Two years ago, as England lifted the World Cup, Cross was not on the pitch, or even in the squad. In fact, this was a two-to-three year period during her career in which Cross had felt “a little bit lost”, unsure of whether she “was going to carry on” in professional cricket.
“That challenge is especially there in international cricket,” continues Cross. “You are fighting for your spot all the time. So for me, seeing Anya [Shrubsole] and Katherine [Brunt] do well is great and I want them to do well and I want the team to do well but equally how am I getting in the team if they keep bowling well?”
Professional male athletes, with a historically higher profile and sometimes bitter media encounters behind them, are often wary about disclosing the true dynamic of a competitive team environment. Cross has no such qualms.
“I do think that we’ve got so much better as a sport,” says Cross, of cricket. “And I do think that we’ve kind of pioneered a little bit on mental health.
“We [in the squad] are all getting better at being vulnerable with each other. Which I think is a really important team dynamic, because if you can see if your captain finds something difficult or whoever it might be, or a senior player is being vulnerable, then that can open the doors for the younger girls to think well okay, it’s okay to be a little bit vulnerable here to fail and to learn.”
The professionalism of women’s cricket is new, fresh and exciting, but this also has its disadvantages. The experience of making mistakes, whether through an out-of-context soundbite or a publicly-scrutinised performance, is what Cross, and England, are having to learn – and quickly.
“It is exposure. And it’s failing as well,” asserts Cross. “Because that was something that while I was in that two, three years of not really knowing what I was doing, I was so scared of failure that I then didn’t put myself in an opportunity to fail. So I just wasn’t learning anything. You’ve got to make mistakes in order to know how to prevent them from happening in the future.
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And in the women’s game, where there is so much lost time to make up, “the learning has got to be fast.”
Something England’s women have also had to learn quickly is the humility to admit what they don’t know. Emerging from a culture in which girls have been less immersed in the game than boys growing up, and without the luxury of professionalism to learn some of cricket’s finer details, it’s inevitable, but also awkward.
“We were playing in a warm-up game,” recalls Cross of Mark Robinson’s first tour as head coach in 2016. “And he walked with me out to the pitch and said: ‘Okay Crossy, tell me about the pitch.’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know what to tell you Robbo – it’s green.’ And he turned around and said, ‘What do you mean, you don’t know how to read a pitch?’
“And I said, ‘Well, no.’ And he said, ‘Well why not, you play international cricket? Why not?’ And I said, ‘Well no one has taught me. I can’t tell you anything I don’t know about!'”
“And he was honestly absolutely mind-blown that we did not know the things that the men probably take for granted,” laughs Cross. “The things that are probably their bread and butter, we just had no clue about. That’s the deeper knowledge that [Robinson] has given us – just those little one per cent-ers that can enhance the women’s game.”
This summer will mark five years since England’s women turned professional and growing expectations, scrutiny and less leeway will follow. For Cross, talking openly and honestly, as professionals or otherwise, is imperative. She has learned this not only from her own experiences, but those of her father. “He had a successful career,” says Cross, of David, a former professional footballer. “But if he had had more support in terms of the mental side of the game, how good a player could he have been?”
• A version of this article was originally printed in The Telegraph on 6 June 2019.