Under The Lid: Charlotte Edwards

Under The Lid: Charlotte Edwards

The 2017 Kia Super League is likely to be Charlotte Edwards’ last appearance as a player before making the switch to coaching. Phil Walker spoke to her earlier in the summer about her landmark England career and the bruising way in which it was terminated.

More than 12 months have now passed, and time is doing its thing. The jarring “suddenness of it all” has eased, though the memory for Charlotte Edwards lingers on. “I said at the time it was like a death,” she recalls, of the hours and days after she was wrenched away from her life’s work. “It’s just something I’d done for so long.”

Despite it being a year since her final international match, Edwards has still spent more of her life playing for England than not playing for England. A famed child prodigy, captain of her county boys’ team, she made her Test debut at 16, and a year later hit 12 hundreds in a season. Thereafter, for two full decades (give or take a few months), she gave more to the furtherment of English cricket than any other man or woman. She was captain for the final 10 of those 20 years, and the team’s most important batsman for all of them.

Ten whole years as captain. It’s a serious stretch for a village threes skipper, let alone a national figurehead in the eye of dizzying change. Few captains in any form of cricket get past a few years. Alastair Cook, pulling up a throne next to Edwards at the top table, managed just over four, and at the end of it he was spent. Captaincy takes its toll. (Some people, incidentally, may be inclined to argue that the women’s captaincy job isn’t as all-consuming as its male equivalent, because they don’t play quite as many games, or in front of as many people, or earn as much money. Ignore them. If you’re not careful, by the end of the night they’ll be telling you how teachers have it easy because of all those long holidays they get.)

Edwards has, as former teammate Isa Guha puts it, straddled “every era of women’s cricket from amateur, to semi-professional to professional”, and along the way, seen and weathered the ramping-up of scrutiny that comes with each leap forward. Thus, as the women’s game became more popular, more watched and eventually more sponsorable, Edwards’ profile travelled north with it. And yet, Edwards was ramped-up right from the start. She has spent a lifetime setting her own pressures and expectations, doggedly heaping scrutiny onto herself long before it became fashionable.

To a degree that few if any can possibly understand, cricket has been her life.

***

When we meet, in the slightly odd surroundings of a north London school playground, the conversation moves inexorably to the abrupt nature of her removal from the role of leader, run machine and garlanded overlady of English women’s cricket. Or, for short: The Sacking.

Her team had just been beaten narrowly in the semi-final of the World Twenty20 by a strong and agile Australia side. In the press conference, coach Mark Robinson, in the job for four months, blamed the defeat on poor levels of fitness. “It’s something we’ve got to get better at. They out-ran us,” he said, before calling on more “warriors” to emerge from the set-up, in the vein of the shattered woman sitting next to him.

Six weeks later, Robinson’s ‘warrior’ was sat in another press conference, this time at Lord’s. Not only had she been informed that the captaincy was changing hands, but also, crushingly, that her time was up as a player.

She made it quite clear that this was not a mutual meeting of minds. “There was hunger to carry on, but it was not to be,” she said.

I’m still upset about how they went about things, but that was their decision… I’m not going to fall out with anyone about it

Charlotte Edwards is far from alone in not being afforded the chance to choose her own abdication date. But the scale of her loss, combined with the manner of her dismissal, nearly dragged her down.

Professionalism was the backdrop. The game was being pored over and picked apart in a way never known before. In July 2015, for instance, the first ever televised Test match – against Australia at Canterbury – had taken place. The match was drab and defensive, its players evidently rutted between gnarled stickabilty (on an unhelpfully sluggish surface) and the imperative to showcase something zestful and bright. In the end, it did neither. There was a sense of embarrassment around the match. On cue, the pundits got busy.

“That last Ashes series I played in was just tough on so many levels,” she admits now. “Because it was just… suddenly you were in the media spotlight. None of us really had been used to that kind of scrutiny… which is fine, and that’s what comes with being a professional, but some of it was just unfair at times.”

It was the last Test match she ever played. It’s a jarring irony that the hard-edged professionalism she’d done so much to bring about ended up contributing to her downfall.

***

I’ve never known anyone love cricket as much as Charlotte Edwards,” says Katherine Brunt. Still, we can all love something too much.

“The problem with me,” Edwards says, looking back on those final, painful matches, “is that I was the recognisable name in the team, so I was to blame all the time. But on the other side, I would be the one to take a lot of the plaudits [when it went well]. So it was just difficult. No one had really cared [in the past] about the blips; if we lost in the past, they didn’t care about it. But now they do care, and they want to write about it, and there’s so many more opinions about it. And there was still the feeling that I took the front of everything.

For Adelaide Strikers in the Big Bash, where she will coach this winter
For Adelaide Strikers in the Big Bash, where she will coach this winter

“Still, I’m glad I’ve been through it, as it was good to go through it and understand the media and understand how to deal with it, not just for me but for moving forward with whatever I do next. Because you can help players, and hopefully protect them. I think as a coach you’re going to have to protect players, and that’s what hopefully I can do.

“It was horrible to go through, but a good learning curve for me, I try and take a positive out of most things. I’m still upset a little bit about how they went about things, but that was their decision… I’m not going to fall out with anyone about it, it’s just not worth it.”

It’s natural that Edwards will miss the competitive element. But overall, life is good again; she says her friends keep telling her how much more relaxed she is. She describes being out of “the bubble”, as a “massive weight off the shoulders”. She could only fully realise the extent of the pressure she was under after it dissipated.

***

It’s unimaginable that she will not still be involved in cricket. Watching her for a few minutes in her coaching role with Chance to Shine, with whom she’s worked for years now – indeed, it was an ECB-Chance to Shine partnership that enabled women at the top level to start earning regular money from cricket – is to see a natural coach: attentive, unshowy, and obviously deeply knowledgeable. In a sense, she’s been bringing kids through – inspiring, cajoling, directing – ever since purporting to be one herself.

Last winter she headed south to Adelaide, to gather her thoughts and to play for and help coach the Strikers in the Women’s Big Bash League. She has yet to announce it officially, but it appears she won’t be doing much more on the playing side this winter. One last summer with the bat – and a final tilt at defending the Kia Super League title she won in cathartic, howling-to-the-heavens fashion last summer with Southern Vipers – and then, it would seem, Charlotte Edwards the player will be done. But the coaching side of things may well be just beginning. “I think there will come a time when I want to get into the coaching side,” she says, “and that will obviously start triggering all those emotions again… I think I went to Adelaide to see if I enjoyed it, and I think there was a real passion there to help and improve others. I want to be part of cricket.”

Edwards still uses her profile to inspire young girls in the game
Edwards still uses her profile to inspire young girls in the game

One thing she does not envisage is working as a coach in men’s cricket. “People have asked me whether I want to go to men’s cricket but it’s not something I’m interested in. My passion and expertise is the women’s game.”

Edwards sees the two versions as distinct from one another. “As a spectator, that’s how you’ve got to see them,” she insists. “As two separate sports. Because they’re so different.” She talks of the “power aspect” on the male side against the “more skilful” side of the women’s game, and adds, in relation to coaching, she that she has grown up playing women’s cricket. “I know it inside out,” she says.

Will we ever see the day when there’s a female head coach of a men’s team? “I don’t think so.”

***

In the meantime, she’s gone back behind the microphone. Last summer, she made the brave call to commentate on the England-Pakistan ODI series. She was punchy, and at times pointed: comments about shortened boundaries and all-run-threes were duly picked up on. I tell her I’d expected her to be a bit straighter. “What, straight-laced? That’s not me!”

And then, of course, she was part of the ICC’s Women’s World Cup commentary panel – and part of the team that called England’s historic victory at a packed-out Lord’s to win a nation’s hearts as well as record prize money. As the plaudits and champagne rained down, there was one woman up in that Media Centre owed more than a drink or two.

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