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HomeSportsCricketHeather Knight: ‘Are England too nice? We have missed a killer instinct’

Heather Knight: ‘Are England too nice? We have missed a killer instinct’

Just over 24 hours before England Women begin their defence of the 50-over World Cup, Heather Knight is sat in her hotel room in Hamilton, New Zealand, mulling over a question that has no right or wrong answer.

Over the last few days, as the squad tuned up ahead of their opener against Australia on Saturday, Knight has used her media appearances to call for her players to adopt a more ruthless streak. And so, it seemed right to ask: are England too nice?

“It’s not a bad criticism, ‘being too nice’, is it?” she laughs, swatting that half-volley away with the ease you’d expect from one with an ODI average of 40.79 since the start of 2018. But after a pause, she admits there might be something in it.

“I think occasionally we can be,” she says, before casting her mind back a month to a 12-4 multi-format humbling at the hands of Saturday’s opponents. “In the Ashes, we weren’t able to finish off games. We had opportunities to win matches and I think we did miss that killer instinct and go for that win as clinically as we should have.

“Whether we are too nice – I don’t know. You see Katherine Brunt running into bowl and you wouldn’t describe her as ‘nice’, would you?” You’re always trying to develop that [ruthlessness] in players, even if their personalities aren’t conducive to that. But it’s about doing it in their own way.”

A lot has changed since 2017’s victory and those jubilant scenes at Lord’s. The women’s game in England has thrived domestically, and in turn, the squad in New Zealand has a markedly different feel. Only seven of the 15 were involved in the World Cup success, and many of them, such as Knight, Brunt, Anya Shrubsole and Nat Sciver, remain the standout operators. Lisa Keightley, now into her third year as head coach, has an exciting blend of experience, youth and unknowns to call upon. Beyond finding the right combinations for the XI has been a motivation to unlock something deeper: that killer instinct that England have lacked in the big-ticket events recently.

There have been three Ashes and two T20 tournaments in between ODI World Cups – all ending in Australian celebrations. And it is Meg Lanning’s side, perennial favourites through an insatiable appetite for success, that England will probably find themselves up against once more if they are to make it through to the final in Christchurch on 3 April. They have the talent to get there, but acquiring and sustaining the necessary level to overcome not Australia, but the White Ferns, South Africa and India will require channelling disappointment into something more positive and productive.

Knight puts it bluntly: “Sometimes a s*** experience for someone is a bit of a wake-up call. That they actually need to do something a bit different and have that desire and hunger to improve.”

You could file the start to 2022 under that kind of experience. The Ashes build-up was one of the strangest Knight had to deal with, complicated by being a close contact to a member of England’s backroom staff who tested positive for Covid-19. The most brutal blow for the tourists came in the one-off Test match between the Twenty20s and ODIs, in which England fell 12 runs short of a stunning victory. “Although it didn’t feel like that at the time, I think it took a lot of mental energy from us, not being able to finish that thrilling game off after four days. The last three games (ODIs) finished pretty badly. We just mentally didn’t have a huge amount left.”

Replenishing those stocks has not been easy. Two days after their final match, they were flying out to New Zealand and straight into a week-long quarantine, rather than the clean break usually prescribed for a gruelling tour. “You just want to mong out really, so it was quite strange being stuck in a room and being super tired.”

England celebrate winning the World Cup in 2017

(Getty Images)

There was some relief with a week away in Queenstown which the ECB were able to negotiate with the ICC before returning to stricter World Cup protocols. The break to the shores of New Zealand’s South Island was filled with golf, beaches and the odd mountain scaled to clear the mind and find joy and peace for those searching for either or both. Given the restrictions on indoor spaces, the plethora of outdoor made Queenstown as close to the perfect for such a retreat.

To a point, anyway. “You never really switch off, though,” says Knight. “It’s hard to when you know there is a World Cup around the corner and you’re desperate to get going and get your game in good order. You end up thinking, ‘am I not doing enough?’ when you’re trying to get way from the game and get a clear bit of headspace.”

Knight does not hesitate when describing 2017’s home tournament as the best six weeks of her life. To think back to that time, especially for those of us not on the field, is to recall being there for what felt an explosion of women’s cricket. The bang before the bigger bang of a packed Melbourne Cricket Ground for 2020’s T20 World Cup final. Captain then and captain now, you do wonder – has Knight been chasing that feeling ever since?

“Well actually, this came up in a chat we had in Queenstown. I said to the girls that they look back on 2017 and think it was perfect. Because we won it, you wear rose-tinted spectacles and think everything was great. But reflecting on it in quarantine, you remember how many highs and lows there were. It wasn’t perfect. Anya (Shrubsole) was not bowling well at the start of the competition, plus we were dropping catches off her, and then how it finished for her was amazing. Lauren (Winfield) had a broken wrist and was getting injections every game and struggling through that. I was in shit form going into the competition.

“It was a nice little reminder that preparation going into that wasn’t perfect and yet we still won it. You’re trying to take confidence from that because getting pumped in the Ashes is not ideal preparation going into a World Cup.”

Knight, at 31, is entering what sounds like an introspective time in her career. Her first hope for the next month is to enjoy it. “I don’t know whether it will be my last 50-over World Cup, but it could well be. I want to make the most of being here.” A close second is using a more rounded game – “the most comfortable I’ve been in terms of run-getting” – to rectify what she perceives as poor returns in knock-out matches. “In big games recently, I’ve focussed on not neglecting myself as a player. If we do make it to the final, I want it to be because of what I’ve done with the bat.”

As for Knight the captain, her evolution is such that time for herself has not impinged on how much she has for others. Under Keightley, she has assumed more responsibility on match days. And over the last two years, she has developed greater empathy. She has learned that vulnerability is no weakness and that sharing struggle is no bad thing, particularly given the emotional tax of bubble life.

Once the tactics are all sorted and the starting XI is named, she says her final message to the team before they take the field at this World Cup will be that they have nothing to lose. That expectations over the next month should coexist with enjoying of the here and now. Thoughts she has squared with her own mind.

“Getting a bit older, you try to savour things a bit more. You realise your career is not going to be finite, which can create positive and negative feelings. That sense of time running out but also wanting to make a bigger impact. It’s a great opportunity and we have nothing to lose.”

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