The treadmill is a fraction slow for what Heather Knight needs. The machine in her Adelaide hotel room can handle up to 16km/h – not for the faint of heart, but also not sufficient to simulate sprinting on a field.
Training in a cricketer’s natural habitat is not an option in quarantine. But the bigger model did not fit through the door, so the England captain is taking what she can get. At least she’s got one – and a window with a view. “Some of the other girls,” she says, “are just staring at a wall.”
Knight and national teammate Tammy Beaumont have almost served their fortnight in compulsory isolation. On Sunday the new Sydney Thunder signings will be free. On Monday they fly to a Sydney hub in time to open their Women’s Big Bash League season against Sydney Sixers on 25 October.
Aside from New Zealand’s recent tour, the WBBL will host the first internationals since 8 March, when more than 86,000 filled the MCG for the Women’s Twenty20 World Cup final a week before Covid-19 shut the sport down globally. The next – given the postponement of the men’s Afghanistan Test – will be Virat Kohli’s India, at this stage tentatively scheduled to arrive next month.
The women’s international game is rife with cancellations and postponements including the 2021 ODI World Cup. Knight has played a truncated UK summer in front of empty stands, and now has the feeling of participating in “a weird social experiment”.
If she adds an incline on the treadmill provided by Cricket Australia and cranks it right up she can attain a decent speed. The Thunder have also furnished her modestly sized space with a range of other equipment: an agility ladder, skipping rope, TRX and dumbbells. A machine for maintenance of her troublesome hamstring was delivered ready for self-construction. Like many a home IKEA enthusiast, Knight rued the need for a pair of pliers to fix the mess she made.
There is also a soft red ball equal in weight to a cricket ball and requiring some obvious improvisation. “I have been throwing into a cushion, which has been interesting,” she says. “I did try bowling into it but found that it wasn’t quite the same. I haven’t taken the bat out of the bag yet. I haven’t gone that crazy that I’ve started shadow batting. We get a knock at the door three times a day with our meals. It is a little bit like a prison, I won’t lie. But we can get Uber Eats. Lots of boredom snacking as well.”
The upside is she and Beaumont flew in off the back of a 5-0 T20 series whitewash against West Indies. England had been due a visit by higher-class opposition in India and South Africa – two countries hit hard by the pandemic – until both tours were cancelled. Nevertheless, their replacement yielded a chance to blow out the proverbial cobwebs and, just as beneficially, long-missed “facial interaction” with teammates.
“Bubble life was quite tough, a lot of us found it quite hard,” she says. “We’re really conscious as a management and leadership group to try and look after people while we were in that unique environment, to check in a lot more and also give people space when they needed it … historically, cricketers have been quite good at speaking out. The culture of the sport has shifted quite a lot. People are more comfortable saying when they’re struggling now, which makes it [easier] for other people to say so as well.”
Perspective has become paramount in a Covid-19 age riddled with mental health issues universally, and perhaps exacerbated in a team sport paradoxically predisposed to loneliness.
“Sometimes it can be,” says Knight, who is away from her partner and family as her father recovers from a suspected case of Covid-19. “It’s a sport where you’re away for long periods of time, and one centred around failure. When you bat, if you don’t score 50 or 100, you sometimes think you’ve failed. It can be tough at times, but it can also be amazing. It’s a team sport so you’ve got people around you to speak to and who can support you.”
The England and Wales Cricket Board has been one source of such support, a welcome indicator of the women’s game’s improved standing. There is, she says, still some way to go.
“At the start of the pandemic it felt like women’s sport was the first thing to be cancelled and the last thing to come back,” she says. “Cricket is in a better position than it was a few years ago. The support we had from the ECB I don’t think would have happened three or four years ago … we were treated exactly the same as the guys. The costs that come with putting that biosecure bubble on and chartering teams over was exactly the same for us, which was brilliant and a real action in terms of them saying they’re going to treat the women’s game how they should.
“Moving forward, it’s for other boards to do the same. I know Australia will definitely do that, and has shown it with the Big Bash and putting cricket on against New Zealand. The world game is the only concern. Boards that are a bit poorer and don’t support women’s cricket as well, they need that support from above … because there’s a situation potentially where some teams might not play for a long time. That is not great for the world game and is only going to widen the gap between the top teams and lower teams.”
Knight’s social and political awareness does not stop at gender issues; England and West Indies players took a knee in solidarity with the #blacklivesmatter movement before every match of their series, and it is a conversation she wants to continue in the WBBL environment. “I won’t pretend to know the social landscape here in Australia too much,” she says. “I know there are some plans to do something for the Aboriginal community. I don’t know exactly what those are yet. As long as the conversation keeps going around these issues.”