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Cricket news - Knight at the forefront of England's reinvention
West Indies are 131-8 and, with Stafanie Taylor absent hurt, just one wicket away from succumbing to 3-0 series defeat.
The game has petered out and just nine balls remain in the tourists' botched DLS chase of 267. Regular number 11 Shamilia Connell, ODI batting average in the sixes, is on strike and, while pressing forward, is bowled. The match ends with a bit of a shrug and while there are a few cheers, the loudest has come from a self-titled "reluctant offie" who has both arms in the air after somehow passing the right-hander's outside edge and knocking back middle stump.
That, ladies and gentlemen, was the first broadcasted sighting of Heather Knight's carrom ball.
Where to begin? Well Sri Lanka to be exact, though Knight can't quite put her finger on the "when". During a net session "four or five years ago", perhaps during the 2012 T20 WC, she found herself batting in the nets at one of Colombo's many cricket clubs, against a local bowler.
"When you're in Sri Lanka, you get a hell of a lot of net bowlers and they can do all sorts of things with the ball" Knight tells Cricbuzz. "As a batter, you're always being tested against spinners, so when you're in a net you're always trying to read what they do and how they bowl certain balls."
It was while going through these motions Knight noticed one spinner in particular seemingly getting a conventional off-break to go the other way. She knew it wasn't a doosra, but she could tell it was different with no real change in his action.
Knight went up to the bowler who, as it happened, was actually a seamer for his club team. "I felt I had to ask him what he was doing because I hadn't seen it before. He showed me: he'd have his middle finger behind the ball and would just flick it out."
The encounter piqued Knight's interest and so a pet project among her more frontline responsibilities of run-making was born.
Over the last four years, she has been playing around with it. Figuring out how to make it work for her. She consulted with Carl Crowe, who was the England Women's spin bowling coach, spending time bowling it on the full to him or into a net on her own.
Experimentation taught her a few things: that her middle finger needed to be right behind the ball and grip out the front of the hand similar to her normal delivery, else she'd lose the point of it - deception. That ensuring her action was tall at the crease gave it the right trajectory. That the flicking of the ball, actually, came easy to her. But an ever-growing role with the ball taught her something else, too - her stock ball was too inconsistent.
In the first five years of Knight's ODI career, she bowled just five times in 44 matches. Since the start of 2015, she has bowled 40 times in 51. Though her record in the format is not bad at all - 46 wickets at 24.67 and an economy rate of just 4.30 - she has sent down enough deliveries to accept some harsh truths.
"My off spinner isn't the most consistent stock ball. I know I've bowled a lot through the years and I do work on it. But I find it hard to get the consistency when trying to spin it big. I have to come up with tricks."
Some of those tricks are just subtle changes of pace, or shifting where she delivers on the crease. But now, through being "a bit of a perfectionist", she has been able to make the carrom ball her own, though cedes it is still rough around the edges.
"I think I've got the length about right, but it does tend to be wayward. I've used it a few times in games that haven't been on telly. Generally, so I can give it a go in matches, I tend to use when the game situation is in a good place. When we're winning, like we were the other day [131-8 against West indies]."
The delivery in question turned - or rather, "straightened" - to beat Connell's bat after drifting into about middle and leg, but the drop in pace (it registered at just 48 mph), dip and even a hint of away movement through the air can be enough on its own. "That's the thing. Some might turn. Some might not. But it'll do enough differently to deceive a batter."
This example is one of many that show whatever expertise or facilities may be lacking in the women's game relative to the men's can be made up through exposure. The carrom ball thrives in Sri Lankan cricket, particularly in the streets. Ajantha Mendis, the mystery spinner who represented the country 145 times across all three formats was a big proponent of it and, in turn, inspired Indian off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin to take it up. Knight was in the right place but it could have been any time.
Indeed, you do not need to go too far back to a time when the most valuable bits of advice women's cricketers would pick up came through these chance meetings and coincidental nuggets. Four or five years, in this case. And an English system with conservatism at its core can be a hindrance to these learnings.
However, on the cusp of the Ashes, which England have been without since 2015, there is a sense of reinvention with the hosts. A sense players are wary of being too comfortable and thus, through Knight's example and the encouragement of the coaching staff, led by Mark Robinson, are challenging themselves to be more.
Katherine Brunt's slower balls are as polished as they come and her stock as an allrounder has risen even at the age of 33. Sophie Ecclestone has a few extra tricks up her left sleeve and in her batting. Kate Cross, at odds with herself and the game four years ago, is as confident as ever and no longer to be pigeon-holed peculiarly as a "red ball bowler", which given the regularity of the format made her a once-every-two-year player. Fran Wilson, a fielding meme a week ago, has tried to be more outgoing with the bat and has struck 91 against Australia already for the England Academy side. Amy Jones now has the belief to match the talent and, who knows, may end the summer talked of as one of the best batters on the planet.
Even players on the periphery of this Ashes, like Sophia Dunkley, Linsey Smith, Kirstie Gordon (all three thrown into the T20 WC squad at the end of 2018) and fringe player Bryony Smith and Freya Davies are urged to express themselves.
"It's about being more open-minded," proclaims Knight. "Whether it be changing your batting technique or developing a sustainable skill with the ball, something like that. More of a mentality."
Australia, on paper, have fresher faces by virtue of a greater professional pool and certainly, the form book is in their favour. But what England may lack in relative numbers and on the head-to-head is not being considered. With three ODIs and three T20Is sandwiching the one-off Test in the multi-format series, strong minds and fearless cricket are what is required from the hosts, especially after a timid showing four years ago.
"Us as a group have really improved on that in the last couple of years. We have been really open to trying to get better and not being afraid of failing. Sometimes it's not really pretty when you are trying to change stuff. But you're doing it to make yourself a better player. As a team, I've not known us to work harder than we have to "
"It's not about finding magic balls. It's about finding ways to win games for your team. Everyone has to find their own way of doing that. And that will be key this summer."
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