Before England’s men’s cricketing side won the 2019 World Cup “by the barest of margins”, the women’s side had already completed the feat two years prior.
In front of a sold-out Lord’s in 2017, Alex Hartley took two wickets in the victory over India in the final, including the big wicket of Harmanpreet Kaur which helped swing the game back into England’s favour again.
When Hartley struck again in the 45th over, and with Anya Shrubsole running rampant at the other end, it was a moment to savour for Hartley. Having only made her international debut 12 months prior, she was now an integral figure in one of the greatest moments in English sporting history.
“It was a real watershed moment for English cricket,” Hartley said when speaking exclusively with The Inner Sanctum.
“To sell-out Lord’s, when we heard rumours that Lord’s was sold out, I didn’t believe people.
“I was like, They’re never going to have 26,000 people watch women’s cricket. We turned up on the day and it was absolutely packed out, and obviously, we won, it was genuinely the best moment of my life.
“It was amazing, everything we had ever worked for, all those four years beforehand, we were just working so hard towards that World Cup as a squad together.
“I was pretty new to the team at that time, and I was pretty naive and unaware of how big the situation was until the final, it was the final where I realised that this is huge, we’re playing in a World Cup, at home, at Lord’s, it’s sold out, it’s incredible.”
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Born in Blackburn, Hartley rose through the ranks with her home county, making her debut for Lancashire at 14. Taking 1/26 against Somerset from ten overs, Hartley announced herself as a rising star of English cricket.
“I remember being nervous, I was down at fine leg and my mum walked around the boundary with some water for me and she was saying, ‘Just relax, do your best and that’s all we can ask for.'” she said.
“I bowled six balls and went back to fine leg and said, ‘Mum, was that okay?’.
“I was just a kid, it was a surreal moment and obviously, it was amazing to make my debut, I felt so out of my depth but I think I bowled pretty well and from there on out, I thought that I could be a bit more confident the next week.”
With Lancashire remaining in Division Two in 2013, Hartley journeyed across the country to join Middlesex, a county that was in the top division of women’s county cricket at the time.
“It was a really tough decision. It was either I go to college and get an education and a job, or I give cricket one more shot. I remember saying to my parents, ‘What do you think?’ she said.
“They said, ‘If you want to give cricket one more shot, we’ll allow that, we’ll let you give it one more shot.’ I was lucky that I was in a situation where my parents could fund me, they supported me when I made that decision.
“Leaving Lancashire was the hardest thing. I wanted to tell the girls, I wanted to tell everyone that I was moving, but one of the other players told everyone instead, to which I was really upset at them for, and annoyed at them for doing that because I travelled to one of their games and said, ‘Look, I’m not playing,’ and they knew.
Her good form at county level in the south of the country led to her England debut in 2016, going wicketless in a One-Day International at Taunton against Pakistan.
“When I got the call, I didn’t believe the coach. He just pulled me to the side in the car park and said that’ll he see me on Monday for the Pakistan series,” she said, recounting the disbelief of being selected for England.
“I remember ringing my boyfriend at the time crying, my parents crying.
“Funnily enough, I hated my debut, I hated every single second of it, I didn’t play well, I was so nervous. I wasn’t concentrating on myself, I was more worried about whether my family was alright, whether my partner’s family were alright, and I forgot that it was about me.
“I was so upset, I thought I had blown my England career, and my mum said to me at the end of the day and she said, ‘You have your cap now, no one can ever take that away from you.”
Following the World Cup success at Lord’s, and strong performances in the Women’s Ashes later that year, Hartley was named in the ICC Women’s ODI Team of the Year.
Following that accolade, however, she fell out of favour, left out against South Africa in 2018, before losing her place in the squad in October 2019.
“I think I watch that team now, and for a while, I hated that I wasn’t there and I believed that I was good enough. I wanted the team to lose because I wanted to get back in, but now I watch that team and I’m not good enough to play in that team anymore,” she said.
“Sometimes you just have to accept that you’ve had your career, you’ve had the career that you wanted, you’ve done everything that you wanted and everything you ever dreamed of playing cricket for England.
While explicitly never ruling out the chance to represent her country at the highest level again, she conceded it was rather unlikely given the rise of fellow Lancashire spinner Sophie Ecclestone.
“The only thing I regret is not playing Test cricket, but I watch Sophie Ecclestone bowl and I don’t ever think there is an opportunity for me to be better than her.
“It’s a case of never say never and what will be will be, but I truly believe that I have been there and done that and I won’t be picked again.”
In 2020, the spinner joined the BBC Test Match Special broadcast team, which led to her covering both the Men’s and Women’s Ashes in the Australian summer.
“It’s been amazing,” Hartley said.
“Obviously to come out to Australia and make my Men’s Ashes debut was incredible. I absolutely loved it, and then obviously the Women’s Ashes, and now I’m in New Zealand ready for the Women’s World Cup to start, so my media career over the past year has boomed I guess. It’s something that I never expected and that I didn’t really know that I wanted to do but now I can’t see myself doing anything different.
“[It’s] much more nerve-racking commentating it than playing. I can’t do anything to influence the game. When you’re a player and you’re there you feel calm, because you know that when it’s your turn you can influence what is going on.”
The biggest challenge for Hartley now as she says, is managing the balancing act of being a supporter but being an analyst and commentator at the same time.
“Now, as an England cricket fan again and I suppose wanting them to win, there were moments when I was commentating the [women’s] Test match especially and I was looking the wrong way, saying, ‘You’re going to have to tell me what’s going on, I can’t watch, I’m so nervous,’ especially when Australia needed one wicket to win and [Kate Cross] had to face two overs.
“It was the most horrific thing to watch, but I guess me being open and honest about my emotions is relatable to people back home listening as well.
“I guess I just say everything that I’m feeling, my job on the radio is to describe what’s happening, describe what’s going on, the shots, the balls, the emotion of the game. Everything I feel I just try and express in the words that I say on the radio to try and give the listeners and the fans something to relate to. I don’t know if I do a good job or not, but I’ve still got a job so hopefully, it’s good!”
Now an England fan once more, Hartley is hopeful that England can claim back-to-back World Cups and hoist the trophy aloft again, but is wary of opposition challengers.
“I think Australia are favourites going in, especially after the Ashes Series that we’ve just had, England not winning a game and Australia taking the Ashes 12-4, which they did in 2019 as well. Australia is ranked #1 in the world, they are an incredible side, but they have shown cracks throughout the Ashes Series.
“Whether or not England will win the trophy, I’m not 100% sure, but do believe they’ll get to the final, it’s just who can hold their nerve on the day.”
The Women’s World Cup will be streamed live and free on Kayo Freebies and will commence on March 4 when hosts New Zealand hosts the West Indies in Mount Maunganui.
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