Every time Sophia Dunkley has had her first hit in an England shirt in any given format, she has dug her side out of a hole. On Test debut, an unbeaten 74 put England in a commanding position; in her first T20I innings she top-scored in a narrow defeat against the West Indies. And on Wednesday evening in Taunton, as England stumbled at 92 for four chasing 221, Dunkley’s debut form continued. The Lambeth-born batter struck an unbeaten 73 from 81 deliveries to steer England to a 6-2 series lead against India.
In this series, Dunkley has made both her Test and ODI debuts at the same time that India’s teenage prodigy, Shafali Verma, has made hers. A misfortune perhaps, if Dunkley had been seeking headlines, but a useful diversion of the spotlight too.
The biggest test of Dunkley’s skill, and maturity, came about half way through England’s run chase. Poonam Yadav had already removed the experience of England’s captain, Heather Knight, sweeping across the line. Poonam’s leg breaks are, to many spectators, almost intolerably slow. But to India, they have proven strikingly effective over the years. They loop, they dip and the examination of the facing batter is whether they can wait, wait, and just when they think they can go, wait some more. Amy Jones, who had had a sublime session behind the stumps earlier, couldn’t quite wait enough; a tempting swipe across the line and she too had top-edged, on 28, and gone.
Enter Katherine Brunt, another with experience behind her but a temperament best suited to a thrilling chase than patient defence. A frustrating spell with the ball (wicketless for 55 runs) may, oddly, have helped. So intent was Brunt on not contributing to an England loss that these two natural ball strikers sought, instead of egging each other on, to console the other, reassure them that their restraint, and resolve, was more daring than any desperate dash.
It worked, their unbeaten 92-run partnership the highest of the match. Brunt was content to let her shadow batting propel her to a century off not many balls, while in real life she kept any frustration in tow. The bowling all-rounder was happy to rotate the strike, allowing Dunkley, 13 years her junior, to play the senior hand. Brunt ended unbeaten on 33 from 46, an innings required for the occasion and the job was done.
Earlier, Kate Cross had continued her liking for bowling against India. If the previous match was about maintaining disciplined lines and supporting those around her, on Wednesday the favour was reciprocated. From domestique to leader of the pack, Cross’ first ODI five-wicket haul in six years was just reward for a period of toil, of consolidation and domestic demonstration.
India raced off the mark with their exciting opening duo of Verma and Smriti Mandhana, and for the first time this series looked like they might post a steepling total to induce a high-scoring chase. Almost. The left-hand, right-hand duo guided India safely past the 10-over mark, offered just one chance, passed the 50 partnership and readied themselves for acceleration. Cue Cross.
Deception may be a word more frequently associated with spinners, but Cross has a good hand in it too. She is a master of bowling a line tighter than you think, and of offering a length that creeps up on you as well. She did for Mandhana, and five of India’s top seven too. Mithali Raj played another anchor-like innings in her 59 from 92, and will no doubt argue that without her, India would have wilted further still. But in delivering a record 19 ODI 50s against England, perhaps the more telling statistic is that less than a third of those half centuries have been in a winning cause.