Why Classy Raducanu’s American Dream Transcends Sport

Photo credit: Sky News

Emma Raducanu’s US Open triumph is a story so unfathomable that if it was turned into a film it would be unlikely to make much money due to its ‘terrible screenwriting’ as suggested by comedian Dara O’Briain.

Yet a humble, classy and fiercely determined 18-year-old from a quiet south east London town re-wrote the realms of possibility by creating quite possibly one of the greatest sporting stories of all time.

What Raducanu achieved in front of nearly 24,000 people crammed into the Arthur Ashe Stadium wasn’t just a monumental sporting moment though; it was a symbol of hope, a celebration of diversity and proof that actions really do speak louder than words.

Let’s start by focusing purely on her achievements on the court, this list of which is staggering enough by itself.

Raducanu became the first ever qualifier to win a Grand Slam tournament; the first British woman to win a major since Virginia Wade in 1977; the first player born in 2002 to win one of tennis’ highest calibre events and the first woman to win in only their second major appearance.

In addition, she was also the 12th youngest player to win a Grand Slam tournament and the youngest since a 17-year-old Maria Sharapova took victory at Wimbledon in 2004. 

The list doesn’t stop there either. Sitting at 150 in the world before the start of the competition at Flushing Meadows, Raducanu is one of the lowest ranked players to ever win a major and only the sixth to win at their first appearance at one of tennis’ ‘Big Four’ events.

Finally, she didn’t drop a single set across 10 matches in three weeks, joining an elite club in the process. Helen Willis holds the record for the player who achieved this the most, doing so nine times between 1928-1938. Serena Williams has completed the feat on six occasions, Rafael Nadal four and Roger Federer two. Novak Djokovic has yet to do it.

But what the former Newstead Wood School pupil achieved goes so far beyond just what she did with a tennis racket in her hands.

Everyone has their fairy tale ending 😊

@EmmaRaducanu | #USOpen

Originally tweeted by US Open Tennis (@usopen) on September 11, 2021.

To be the standout moment in what has been a superb summer of sport for British athletes shows just how important Raducanu’s accomplishment was. After a horrendous 18 months for so many, being able to watch this fresh-faced, smiling teenager have the time of her life and pulling off something incredible was blissful. 

It allowed us to forget everything else, to finally enjoy the moment we were living in once again and look ahead to the future with hope and excitement for the first time in what feels like forever.

Of course, the surrounding context does help. Unlike previous sporting events this year, there was little negative background noise surrounding Raducanu’s extraordinary run. The final itself was held in a full stadium, with respectful fans appreciating high quality tennis being contested amongst two players with very different and very unique backgrounds.

Even then though, following Raducanu’s progress back home it felt there was a seismic shift in our approach to reflecting upon sporting success.

At a time where British society has never been more aware of issues surrounding gender, ethnicity and culture – which has led to a lot of divisions (particularly on social media) – it felt as though all of those were almost put aside as we all rejoiced in simply supporting Raducanu, regardless of anything else.

Of course there were plenty of mentions of the fact that she is a female athlete and of her multi-cultural background – she was born in Canada to a Romanian father and a Chinese mother before moving to Great Britain aged two.

But rather than focusing on these elements, it felt as though they were merely just part of her ridiculous story. We were all – men, women and children alike – appreciating sporting greatness being made by a young British athlete regardless of her gender, skin colour, class or anything like that.

This wasn’t just a triumph of sporting excellence; it was a triumph of acceptance too.

We are taking her HOMEEE❤️🇬🇧🏆

Originally tweeted by Emma Raducanu (@EmmaRaducanu) on September 12, 2021.

Despite the fact that Raducanu has already won millions of fans during her so far brief tenure at the top of women’s tennis, not everyone has been quite so positive when discussing the teenager previously.

Following her withdrawal from the fourth round of Wimbledon due to breathing difficulties, some took to social media or tabloids to criticise the teenager for, in their opinion, not being mentally strong enough to have what it takes to win. 

Clearly they were not taking into account that this was a teenager making her first ever major tournament appearance and had already caused three big upsets in the previous rounds.

In an era where so many athletes get drawn into social media spats (often when they shouldn’t), Raducanu remained quiet and diligently got on with the business of proving them completely wrong.

By saying nothing, coming back to win the very next Grand Slam tournament and lifting the trophy with the widest grin in New York, an individual who is only just old enough to vote showed us all that the best way to humiliate your critics is to do exactly what they suggested you never could or would. 

Whatever happens next for Raducanu, the moment that final ace dropped onto the line and evaded the racket of Leylah Fernandez is something that will forever be etched into the minds of everyone who saw it.

Enough is enough; it’s time to provide female athletes with the kit they deserve

It’s incredible to think how much advances in technology have influenced sport in recent years.

Video referees, sport and exercise science, HawkEye, undersoil heating, pay-per-view, electric engines – all of these and more have changed how we view nearly every event. Compare most to where they were just a decade or two ago and it’s astounding to think how primitive things were.

Kit in particular has undergone a technological revolution. Shirts and shorts are no longer one-size-fits-all – they are now designed on an athlete-by-athlete basis at the professional level, specifically tailored to allow maximum performance. Millions of pounds of research is put into developing the ‘perfect’ boot. Safety equipment is sturdier and stronger yet lighter than ever before.

But when it comes to team sports, this is often only the case for men.

Even now, players representing their country in some of the most popular women’s sports are still receiving men’s-sized kit.

It was only before last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup that Nike unveiled their first specific England women’s football strip. Before then, it was reported that the likes of Lionesses superstars Lucy Bronze and Ellen White were having to cut netting out of men’s shorts in order to play.

The same issue is prevalent in rugby too, as England international Zoe Harrison explained during a recent SportSpiel special looking at the issues of body image and inadequate kit in women’s sport.

“Even now, at a lot of the clubs where we play we’re still receiving boys’ kit,” the Saracens fly half said.

“At England, we’re still being given these really long men’s shorts for the gym and they really don’t fit women. I always ask for bigger sizes to actually just give to my brothers because I’m just not going to wear them.

“They don’t fit me, they’re not girls’ shorts, so what’s the point in me even receiving them?

“It’s not until this year actually that we have finally received girls’ gym shorts that fit us. It took years and years of nagging.”

Representing your country is supposed to be the greatest feeling an athlete can experience. Thousands of fans in the stadium, singing the national anthem, millions watching you at home – it’s something the majority of us can only dream of.

But for years this has been degraded for women because they’ve had something else on their minds; they’re wearing kit that is ill-fitting and detracting from their performance, either because it’s too big and baggy or too small and revealing.

Kate Richardson-Walsh, who captained Great Britain’s women to an incredible gold medal at Rio 2016, made exactly that point on the SportSpiel episode.

“I remember thinking before Sydney that this was the best kit we’re ever going to have, it’s going to be amazing – this is the Olympics for goodness sake, it’s got to fit everybody really well,” she explained.

“But all the tracksuits and everything were unisex, which is basically small man’s size. For some women they can maybe get away with it depending on their body shape but for quite a lot of the women’s team they were having to roll everything over, roll it up at the bottom and you just feel like crap.

“You’re supposed to be feeling great; you’re there playing hockey and representing your country and you want to feel your very best because you’re supposed to go and be performing at your very best.

“But all through the years you’re having to deal with sewing velcro onto body suits so the skirts wouldn’t ride up and look ridiculous.”

Worse still, having ill-fitting kit can actually put women in greater danger of suffering from a serious injury.

Reports have suggested that the high number of ACL injuries in women’s football can be attributed to them wearing boots more suited to men, while Phoebe Schecter – a member of GB’s American Football squad – has said that safety equipment in the sport actually puts athletes at more risk of harm.

But why is this the case? Richardson-Walsh summed this up perfectly in one simple sentence.

“There’s just so many things where women’s bodies have not been thought of.”

Despite the big strides taken in terms of the professionalism, promotion and publication of women’s sport, when it comes to kit things are still very much behind the times.

The lack of thought around women’s bodies has recently been highlighted by two huge faux pas from kit manufacturers.

Firstly, Canterbury recently promoted the new Irish women’s rugby kit using female models while the men’s kit was worn by male international players. A few days later, Nike launched a new kit for the Matildas – Australia’s women’s football team – without an option for women to buy the away strip until 2022.

Both rightly sparked huge backlash on social media and did bring about change, with the #IAmEnough movement in particular generating huge traction on social media.

But it shouldn’t be the case that change is made as a rectification. This is an exciting time for women’s sport and companies should be clambering to bring about change, to show that they’re leading the way in finally treating women as equals.

These are some of the most talented athletes in the world and they deserve to feel that way by wearing kit that fits and allows them to perform at their best. It’s really not difficult.

“Whatever your body looks like, be proud because it’s serving you well”

How do you feel about how you look?

According to a survey conducted by the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) and YouGov in 2019, 20% of UK adults said they felt shame because of their body image, while 19% admitted being disgusted. In addition, 37% of teenagers said they felt upset over their body image.

Of course, these statistics also suggest that a fairly large proportion of the British population are happy with how they look. But the fact that such a significant section aren’t is a worrying trend.

The MHF have also found that 46% of young girls worry ‘often’ about their body image. Social media, TV and other forms of media are often suggested to contribute to this because of the constant platforming of women of a certain body type and/or severe editing and airbrushing, pushing a narrative that they have to look a certain way in order to be deemed acceptable.

But with the rise in the coverage of women’s sport, this could actually provide a way of showing young girls that they can be any shape or size and still be adored, celebrated and respected.

This is an argument current England rugby star Zoe Harrison put forward during a special SportSpiel episode on body image with fellow rugby player Justine Lucas and Olympic gold medal winning hockey player Kate Richardson-Walsh.

“I think it’s really good that we’re starting to get onto TV more and younger girls are seeing us, seeing all different shapes and sizes of girls and that, if you push on and do what you need to do for your sport, you can get to where you want to be,” the Saracens player said.

“I think that’s really key for young girls to see, so that they’re not just seeing these models on these websites or TV. They’re seeing all these different girls on TV playing different sports who have all these different body shapes and sizes.”

Harrison herself struggled with her body image when she was in her formative years and, despite the fact she loved playing sport, was reluctant to go into the gym for fear of developing bigger muscles and attracting negative attention as a result.

But one conversation with an S&C coach sparked a change in her mindset and she now tries to share that same message to show girls they shouldn’t worry about what other people think; if their body helps them achieve in a sporting context then they should be proud of it.

“When was younger at school I noticed I was a lot bigger than a lot of the other girls and I was called a few names for it,” the fly half recalled.

“I tried to shy away from lifting weights and remember a year before I was going to Hartpury College I knew I needed to start getting into some S&C and start lifting some weights before going into an elite environment. I remember turning up and saying to the S&C guy ‘don’t make me lift any big weights, I don’t want to be muscly’.

“He turned around and said ‘look at Jess Ennis, she looks amazing and stunning’. It was that one person, that one S&C coach who had to tell me about Jess Ennis and how far she’s got with the body she’s created.

“If you’re going to end up on the Olympic or World Cup stage, you will have forgotten about what that one person has said to you that’s negative because you’ll be at the top of your game and living the dream.

“It’s just focusing on what you need to do and not worry what other people have to think.”

Of course it’s not just in sport where women should be able to feel confident with how they look. It’s all forms of life.

But sport could be a crucial vehicle for bringing about this societal acceptance that it’s ok to look however you want to because of its prominence and the fact people of all shapes and sizes excel.

And alongside showcasing women’s sport on TV and social media, getting these messages across in schools is also crucial.

School is a crucial place of development, not just in terms of learning academically but also developing views on the world that could be held for a lifetime.

This is why Richardson-Walsh believes it is vital that teachers encourage youngsters to become  comfortable with how they look and not put across any prejudices, something she experienced during one visit.

“I remember I cut my hair really short into a pixie crop and someone took a picture of me out in Argentina and I was really fired up, I looked really muscly, veins were popping out,” the Rio 2016 champion said.

“I struggled with that picture for a while but I used it purposefully when I went into schools to do talks because I wanted to show the girls a different image to the ones they were probably seeing day-to-day about female athletes.

“One headmaster said to me after one speech ‘couldn’t you have used a prettier picture?’ and that just said it all to me; think of the influence that he was having on the girls in his school.

“I said in front of all the girls that I was really proud of that photo, that’s me at my very best having worked hard for that body and representing that country. So whatever your body looks like and whatever it does, be proud because it’s serving you well.”

Even in elite sport though, the stigmas that surround how female athletes look – especially when it comes to fat – still exist.

For those at the top end of their sport, weight and body shape is important; you need to be in the perfect condition in order to perform at your very best. As a result, there is a significant amount of importance placed on how much fat an athlete possesses.

This is something all three discussed on the SportSpiel podcast, with Lucas and Richardson-Walsh explaining that while it is important to be in peak physical shape, this has to be taken on an individual basis, something they felt hasn’t necessarily been the case previously.

Former England prop Lucas said: ’There’s quite a big deal made around testing camps. People say ‘I can’t drink, I can’t eat, I’m getting my skinfolds done’ and there is quite a lot of anxiety. What if I’ve gone up 1ml of fat which, in reality, is nothing? There is quite a big focus on it.

“When I first came in, if you had over 100ml of fat you were almost in the ‘Fat Club’. It was quite intimidating. I didn’t even know what it meant when I first came into the system.

“You come in with not really much training training under your belt in an elite environment so of course you’re going to be holding a bit of extra fat and yes, being in a professional elite environment that’s what you’re there for – to be fitter and faster and stronger. But there is a lot of pressure put on and it does cause a lot of anxiety.

“But it’s part of sport, you need to get that balance. It’s how we get make it healthy as sports people, as sports practitioners, to talk about it in a sae environment.”

Richardson-Walsh added: “I was really lucky and had naturally a lean body type, so wasn’t able to hold much fat and put on muscle relatively easily.

“I’d still have to eat the right things and train and work hard but compared to other people in the squad, you’d look at them and think ‘they’re tiny, there’s nothing on them’ and then their body fat measurements were high.

“It wasn’t public, it was all individual but of course we’d talk to each other and we had a group who were doing extra training and going on specific nutrition plans before London 2012 and they called themselves the ‘Fat Club’. It was funny and a bit of a joke but there’s stigma there.

“It’s how we view our bodies and how our bodies are viewed by other people and it is about creating that safe environment to be able to support people because we’re all different. We’re all different body shapes, all different body types. We’re all going to view it in a different way as well. We need to be really careful and sensitive about how we deal with it with each person.”

Slowly but surely, changes are happening and attitudes towards women’s bodies in sport are changing. But there’s still a long way to go and Lucas knows that if women are going to be finally respected as equals with their male counterparts on all fronts, the athletes are going to have to continue leading the charge.

She said: “It’s down to us to push that forward and advocate that as part of being role models our sport. We could easily let that go by and ten years down the line nothing’s changed. We’ve got to keep pushing it forward. You’ve got to see it to be it.”

“The support showed that people are ready for more women’s sport, more women’s rugby”

Women’s sport is unquestionably on the rise, both in terms of its acceptance and popularity.

But with this also comes an increased awareness of how unequally male and female athletes are still often treated.

No better was this shown that just a few weeks ago when kit manufacturer Canterbury launched the new Irish rugby strip. The three individuals wearing the men’s version were current international stars, grins ablaze and all rippling biceps and pecs.

The women’s kit however was depicted by three models who, quite frankly, couldn’t have looked more disinterested in the product they were trying to sell.

While it was a positive step that the new kits were advertised in the same tweet (this doesn’t happen often at all), it was also a real slap in the face for the women’s team. It was like it was being suggested that their current stars were not appealing or attractive enough to promote the kit, that sex appeal is greater than international status.

The company on Twitter were quickly called out by Perception Agency founder and Wasps player Florence Williams, sparking a huge backlash that saw the formation of the #IAmEnough campaign.

Over the next few days social media was awash with players, supporters, parents, photographers, men and women all throwing their support behind women’s rugby; it was incredibly empowering.

This was especially the case for current Scotland international players Rhona Lloyd and Sarah Bonar, who also host the Women Who Sport podcast.

Speaking on the SportSpiel podcast, Lloyd said: “It was absolutely amazing to see the support. For Canterbury to see the mistake they’ve made and own up to it is amazing. It’s opened up some fantastic conversations.

“What I loved about it is that it wasn’t just female rugby players speaking up and saying this isn’t ok. It was parents, photographers, male rugby players and people outside of our community who could recognise that this isn’t ok.

“It was a really cool couple of days and it also shows how quick change can happen. On Saturday the kit was announced and within a week Canterbury had changed their policy and a really positive movement has come off the back of it.”

For Bonar, the Twitter storm stirred up by the #IAmEnough movement also clarified in her mind just how far women’s sport has come in recent times.

The Gloucester Hartpury second row said: “The support that it’s got shows that people are ready for more women’s sport, more women’s rugby. The acknowledgement and the backing is quite a positive thing to take away from it.

“A lot of people are recognising that we are enough, let’s get more backing and see if we can close that equality gap.”

But how exactly do we go about that?

Despite the positives that came out of the situation, it is still frustrating to many that the ridiculous stereotypes surrounding women who play sport – that they are all butch and manly and therefore unattractive – are still being banded about.

While many female athletes now just brush these comments off, it is still a worry to Bonar and Lloyd about the effect it may have on young girls looking to enter the world of sport for the first time.

However rugby does offer one quality that many other sports don’t; anyone can play and excel, no matter what your body type.

That’s something the duo believe the sport should focus on more to promote itself, especially when it comes to encouraging young girls to take up a game that is still perceived to be a male-only environment.

“The overarching thing was that it’s not about looks; it’s about how much effort it takes to wear an international jersey and it’s about showing girls that they can play for their country and in these top teams,” explained Loughborough Lightning winger Lloyd.

“It does not matter how you look; there will be a rugby team you will be an asset too. That’s so unique in our sport and we probably don’t appreciate it enough. In rugby there’s no limitations on what you can look like to do the job on the pitch.”

This was a statement echoed by Bonar, who said: “I’ve turned up to job interviews and things and they’ve said ‘I didn’t expect you to look like that as a rugby player’. Again it doesn’t bother me but it’s enough to make me think ‘what did you expect?’

“It’s the only team sport that I’ve come across where all shapes and sizes are welcome. Actually you need different abilities, different speeds, strengths in a team to make it a good team. We need to draw upon that and make people active that way, especially young girls within school.

“The game’s moved on. I guess back in the day people used to think male rugby players would be huge but the game’s moved on and the women’s game has too.”

How The 2022 Women’s Cricket World Cup Reinvigorated A Nation’s Followers Once More

Photo credit: England Cricket

It’s been a winter of discontent for followers of England’s cricket teams.

A semi-final knockout in the Men’s T20 World Cup, two heavy Ashes defeats, a drawn T20I men’s series against the West Indies and a disastrous loss in the final Test of a three-match series against the same opponents that derailed the men’s ‘red ball reset’ – there really hasn’t been much to shout about.

After England’s first three matches of the 2022 Women’s ODI World Cup, it looked like the suffering was set to continue.

But the thrilling turnaround of Heather Knight’s team, winning five games in a row – matches that, if they lost, would have meant an early exit for the defending champions – to reach the final, provided excitement and genuine, believable hope for the first time this winter; and it was great fun to be a part of.

They didn’t do it the easy way. While coasting to victory against India, they lost two quick wickets near the end of their run chase which added unnecessary tension. They required the nerves of steel of number 11 Anya Shrubsole – hero of the 2017 final – to see them over the line against New Zealand after losing 20 runs for five wickets in another nail biter. They stuttered to just 234 in 50 overs in their final group game against World Cup debutants Bangladesh.

Indeed, it wasn’t until their semi-final against South Africa that you could say they put in the ‘perfect’ performance, with Danni Wyatt’s scintillating 129 setting up a big total of 293-8 before all the bowlers shone in knocking over the Proteas for just 156, Sophie Ecclestone taking 6-36.

But the frantic, chaotic, nerve-shredding nature of that run to the final was part of what made the World Cup so interesting to follow. You never knew which England would turn up. One day they were smashing runs for fun, the next they were collapsing in pursuit of low totals. Some games they’d field like a team of Jonty Rhodes’, in others they’d drop catches you’d expect most amateurs to take.

Other than that semi-final, they were often below their best. But when they needed to win, they always found a way. This was a united team that knew they had the players and the attributes to take them over the line in whatever circumstance. They implicitly trusted each other and we trusted them too, albeit often while hiding behind the sofa or under the duvet.

Ultimately, Australia proved to be just too good in the final. Fielding errors cost England – both the openers were dropped within the space of four Kate Cross deliveries – and Alyssa Healy (who was on 40 when she had her a stroke of luck) took full advantage, blasting a record World Cup final score of 170 as the 2013 champions finished on 356-5. In reply, Nat Sciver compiled an equally stunning 148* but, despite five batters getting into the 20s, she couldn’t find a long-term partner to support her as England finished 71 runs short.

There is no shame in losing to this Australian side though. Since being knocked out in the last World Cup at the semi-final stage, they’ve won 40/42 ODI games. They have restricted England to a solitary win across the last two Ashes and have not lost any of their last 21 series in any format.

This is a squad that doesn’t know how to lose and should be firmly regarded as one of the greatest sporting teams of all time alongside the likes of the All Blacks between 2011-2015, the current crop of Dutch women’s hockey stars, the Mercedes F1 team between 2014-2020 and Barcelona FC’s men from 2008-2012.

At their very best, England could run them close. In reality though, they are still a way off the Aussies both in terms of international standard and also domestic structure. The talent coming through the Australian ranks is frightening, especially in the bowling department – Alana King, Darcie Brown and Annabel Sutherland are serious talents. The country is fully reaping the rewards of the professional system they’ve been running for the last five years.

The signs are promising for England however. Full-time contracts for non-international players have only been around for less than two years but already we’re beginning to see an exciting crop of young players emerging. Sophia Dunkley has been brilliant in the middle order; Charlie Dean was the breakout star of the World Cup, taking wickets and bowling economically in high pressure situations; Emma Lamb and Maia Bouchier have earned call-ups to the senior team after impressing domestically; Issy Wong continues to show just why she is going to be a star of the future; Alice Capsey could become a world beater before too long.

And don’t forget, Ecclestone – currently the number one ranked ODI and T20I bowler with 159 international wickets at an average of 20.55 – is only 22.

It wasn’t just England’s performances that lit up the World Cup for fans either – right throughout the tournament, there were a number of gripping games and big upsets aplenty. Many of these involved South Africa and the West Indies, both of whom pulled off impressive wins over England but were run close by Bangladesh, while the latter were beaten by a Pakistan team who had never won a game at the tournament before.

The standout match however was the very final group game between India and South Africa, with the beaten 2017 finalists side looking certain to have booked their place in the last four by taking the wicket of Mignon du Preez in the final over, only for a no-ball to be called, allowing South Africa to seal a remarkable win and send the Indians home in the process.

Every day it seemed, a ‘speccie’ of a catch was taken; the bowling was of the highest standard from both spinners and seamers alike and there were numerous brilliant batting displays in an array of scenarios. Indeed, arguably the least interesting three games were the semi-finals and finals as they were so one-sided.

With the English season now upon us, the sport needed something to get us excited about the sport once more. The Women’s ODI World Cup – with its thrills, spills and, from an English perspective, frequent squeaky-bum-time moments – provided just that and we as fans are so grateful that it did.

The ‘Social Awakening’ That’s Been #UNLOCKED By Women’s Sport Trust

It’s not often you’ll hear someone utter the phrase ‘one of the best experiences of my life’ when talking about an event from 2020.

But, in amongst all the chaos this difficult year has wrung upon us, Emily Defroand and Tess Howard have indeed been a part of something that has altered their lives for the better.

The Women’s Sport Trust’s #UNLOCKED programme.

Launched in January, the GB Hockey stars joined another 38 elite female athletes to help ‘shape the future of women’s sport’. They were paired with 40 ‘activators’ from a wide variety of industries, including The Telegraph’s Head of Sport Adam Sills, Paralympic legend Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson – now a Crossbench Peer at the House of Lords – and BBC Sport Executive Director Victoria Cotton.

In combination, the aim was to ‘create an unprecedented critical mass of noise and energy to propel women’s sport to the next level’.

“As soon as I saw it, I was like ‘this is a bit of me, I want to get involved’. I just remember thinking I want to be a part of it,” Defroand – who has played 55 internationals for England and GB – recalled in an interview with SportSpiel.

“I can honestly say it has been one of the best experiences of my life. It’s been an absolute honour to be part of the #UNLOCKED programme.

“I’ve learned so much and met so many incredible women, whether that’s athletes or the activators or people from further afield involved in terms of their connection with the Women’s Sport Trust. I can’t speak more highly of the whole programme and those involved with it.”

While the initial five-month plan was scuppered due to the coronavirus pandemic, that didn’t stop the Women’s Sport Trust from pulling out all the stops and still making #UNLOCKED a huge success.

With regular virtual meetings, guest speakers and much more besides, a strong community was quickly established and a collective desire formed; to bring about substantial and lasting change to the way women’s sport is viewed, treated and presented.

Midfielder Howard said: “I think it was probably my social awakening into the community of women’s sport, combining that with gender equality and inclusion and policy change and media training. It was just incredible.

“It’s just so important in today’s society to have this network of people who want to action change. That was the most exciting thing for me.

“They asked us to say three things we wanted to achieve from the programme and I was like ‘how big can I go?’ It’s ignited that spark for doing something to help society.”

As the momentum surrounding women’s sport has grown and its acceptance in general society increased, more and more women have felt comfortable coming out and expressing not only their desire to further this but also calling out those threatening to halt its progress.

One key example of this was the social revolt that led to the #IAmEnough movement when Canterbury used models to promote Ireland’s new female rugby kit, while they used members of the international team to promote the men’s.

But, while there are so many amazing people doing fantastic work to fight the cause for women’s sport, often the approach has felt quite individual.

What the #UNLOCKED campaign has done though is bring together a varied and highly passionate group of women with the power to drive meaningful change as a collective.

As one of the younger members, the opportunity to interact with women who have successfully overcome years of being neglected or ridiculed has given Howard the confidence to speak up and not let the same happen to her or her current counterparts.

“The first thing I learned was that everybody has a voice and it’s your choice how you use it and what you use it for,” the 21-year-old said.

“For me, it meant understanding that other people have used their voices for what they care about and that they’ve put their energy into their passions, not just on the pitch or in their sport but through things off the pitch which matter more.

“The second thing I learned is that there is a network of people waiting to help you. If you are yourself and speak honestly, passionately and articulate yourself well enough they will help make your dreams come true.

“Being connected to this network of people who are actioning things already, that made me see that I had to make what I wanted to achieve or the change I’d like to help doable so you build momentum.”

Not only has #UNLOCKED created a strong group mentality, it’s also provided the individuals involved with the opportunity to reflect on themselves, their actions and what they want to achieve.

“One of the main benefits was finding my purpose,” Defroand explained.

“The very first session at Bisham Abbey, they asked what we wanted to get from the programme. I was sat next to Maddie Hinch and we said ‘that’s the million pound question’. There was just so much we wanted to do.

“But asking that then got me thinking ‘what’s most important to me? What do I want to make a difference in or work towards?’

“There’s numerous things that have happened off the back off my involvement with the #UNLOCKED programme that maybe I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do get involved in or start myself or do previously.

“I found my purpose in terms of what I’m most passionate about and things I really want to implement moving forwards and I think that’s a huge knock-on from my involvement.”

It’s certainly been a fantastic first year but the work is not over yet for this group of athletes or the Women’s Sport Trust. Things are still steadily improving when it comes to women’s sport but there is still a long way to go.

This group of athletes are the first step to creating true gender equality but they need help and support. It’s up to us to join them and do everything we can as we head into 2021.

And with plans mooted for another #UNLOCKED programme to run next year, it seems as though this momentum is only going to keep growing and growing.

Women’s cricket buoyant through coronavirus storm

With England’s women set to take on West Indies in their first matches of the summer starting today, Ollie Godden reflects on how the game has found solace after a difficult few months.

It was supposed to be the start of an era; £20million pledged to the women and girls’ pillar of a new England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) strategy. From that pot, 40 full-time domestic contracts would be created, spread across eight newly created regions. Not only career changing, but life changing for those players who were working full-time jobs while they pursued lucrative central contracts with their national side. A watershed moment for women’s cricket. Then, coronavirus came along. 

The prospect of women’s domestic contracts seemed unlikely following a squeeze on the national governing bodies’ funding (ECB Chief Executive Tom Harrison told Parliament that the pandemic could cost the organisation £380m) and ECB Director of Women’s Cricket Clare Connor revealed we may see a summer with no women’s cricket at all, following the postponement of the inaugural The Hundred competition.

It seemed as though women’s cricket was back to square one. Particularly disheartening considering the swell of interest created by the hugely successful Women’s T20 World Cup in Australia earlier in the year, a tournament which showcased the platform given to women’s sports down under. The move to professionalise the women’s game in England and Wales marked an effort to catch up with the Aussies, who for some time have led the international pack when it came to producing a deep pool of talent and providing the game with exposure. 

Yet, out of the embers of the coronavirus pandemic, there was good news.

On June 25th, the ECB announced that 25 players, who would otherwise have been given a full-time domestic contract, would be given monthly retainers. 

Invariably, it would be some pay cut from what they would have received, but it was a sign of intent from the governing body, that they were not merely paying lip service to the development of the women’s game.

Lancashire spinner Alex Hartley was included in the list of players set to receive a retainer. For Hartley, who won the World Cup with England in 2017 before being told her central contract would not be renewed, the prospect of a domestic contract provided a lifeline, and Connor knew it. 

“As the effects of Covid-19 on the rest of the summer and beyond become more apparent, we will continue to support our players to the best of our ability” Connor said.

“We promise them that our drive for a more gender-balanced sport remains vitally important.”

“We know that in order for the women’s game to continue to grow, we need a strong and thriving domestic set-up and girls need to see visible role models. It is another significant step forward for our sport.”

Though the initial contract plans had been derailed, it was an important signal of intent. 

Then came the news that the eight regional hubs, who had expected not to play any cricket through the summer, would be competing in the one off 50-over Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy, culminating in a final broadcast live on Sky Sports on September 27th. 

Heyhoe Flint captained England to the first ever World Cup title in 1973 and fought tirelessly for equality off the field. The Women’s Cricketer of the Year award was created and named after Heyhoe Flint in 2017 as a tribute to her following her death, aged 77, that year. Appropriately, the tournament has re-energised the growth of the women’s game, a process Hayhoe Flint began more than 35 years ago.

Beyond those who are domestically or centrally contracted, players are paid to play. What’s more, with an increased number of teams compared to the previous domestic competition, the Kia Super League, more opportunities have been created for aspiring female cricketers, and there has been exposure for many who would have missed out had the tournament not taken place.

Uncapped Southern Vipers’ captain Georgia Adams has grabbed the chance with both hands, scoring 379 in the first five group stage matches to send her side through to the Edgbaston final with a game to spare, while 22-year-old Scotland captain Kathryn Bryce has taken 11 wickets at an average shy of 15. 

This had all been music to the ears of those championing and following the women’s game, yet further good news came when West Indies, whose men’s team agreed to travel to England for a bio-secure pilot Test series, announced they would be touring England for a five-match IT20 series later this month. 

Director of West Indies Cricket Jimmy Adams said: “CWI is pleased to be restarting its international women’s program with a tour to England, where the standard of women’s cricket has grown tremendously.

“We thank the ECB for their invitation and the added opportunity to travel with a larger squad affords us the chance to introduce a few younger players to this level of the game and fast track their development.

“With so much uncertainty surrounding cricket scheduling currently, this is a timely opportunity for our women to resume competitive cricket at the highest level.”

The series will be played behind closed doors in a bio-secure environment at the Incora County Ground, Derby and is a major coup for women’s cricket after India and South Africa were unable to fulfil scheduled series due to the virus.

Despite the challenges, Harrison made it clear England women needed a platform this summer given their last appearance came at a rain abandoned World Cup semi-final.

“Protecting the momentum of the women’s game was one of our four stated aims at the beginning of the pandemic and I’m delighted that, despite the enormous difficulties that Covid-19 has created, we’ll see England Women in action this summer”, the CEO said. 

Importantly, the third IT20 will be simulcast on the BBC and Sky Sports, the first time women’s cricket has been shown free-to-air since 1993, providing important exposure particularly ahead of The Hundred next year. 

With a domestic pay-out and tournament, and international cricket back on the scene, women’s cricket has reemerged well placed to avoid a stunting of progress which appeared likely at the outset of the pandemic. The ECB have delivered on their promise to grow the game, and are investing money, energy and time, to make sure it happens.

“I’ve never felt more confident than this summer about the growing importance of the women’s game and its standing to be treated equally,” says Connor. “The standards of delivery, medical protocols, even the fact we’ll be chartering flights for any opposition teams who come over to play – that’s a multimillion-pound investment.”

Poppy Wilson: “I didn’t know there was a pathway to become a professional footballer. I was just doing it because I loved it”

In her first piece for The 52, Cassie Coombes spoke to up-and-coming footballing star Poppy Wilson about overcoming setbacks right at the start of her journey.

At first, football was simply a passion for Poppy Wilson. Years later, and having overcome her fair share of adversity, the 20-year-old is looking ahead to her future ambitions as a professional footballer with London City Lionesses.

In the same week her beloved Liverpool lifted the Premier League title for the first time, Wilson also undertook a significant moment in her own life as she moved to London. Indeed, her new home and move to the London City Lionesses last year have been synonymous with a fresh start – both personally and professionally.

Her decision to move away from Bristol City ahead of the 2019/20 season in search of game time certainly paid off. Joining the newly formed team, the midfielder made 13 appearances in their debut season in FA Women’s Championship.

Had she not made the change, Wilson may have packed in playing the game completely.

“Before I moved to London, I was very close to giving up and stopping football. I was very fortunate to get as many games as I did and I feel I’ve definitely got the love of the game back,” she remarked.

“It’s a great club to be at and, considering they’re only just one-year-old, they have such great aspirations and want to achieve.”

Wilson’s love of the game stems back to when she was just three, with her introduction to football following a similar pattern to many of her female counterparts – the influence of an older sibling.

After joining a girls’ team, she was soon scouted and asked to trial for Somerset Centre of Excellence, a series of events that she recognises as instrumental in initiating her footballing journey.

When asked at what moment she realised football could be a viable profession for her, she quickly confessed that she was not aware of the possibility until later in her career.

“At the time I didn’t really know that there was a pathway to become a professional footballer, I was just doing it because I loved it,” she recalled.

This love of the game in its purest form has undoubtedly helped Wilson during moments of adversity.

Despite being right at the start of her career, the young midfielder talked with remarkable openness about the challenges she has already faced.

Having moved to Bristol in 2014, Wilson combined her passion for football with her studies and graduated from the Bristol City Development Squad to make her senior debut in 2016.

This success was soon followed by a two-year professional contract with Bristol City in 2018.

However her breakthrough into the senior side was not a simple one. Rather, she worked through a period of highs and lows to achieve professional status, the memories of which have noticeably ingrained in the youngster a steely determination to succeed.

“It was the end of 2018 and I was flying high from everything I had done at college and I decided to take a year out to focus on football,” she recalled.

“That year was football, football, football and I was trying to achieve as much as I could. I was probably playing at my best level, playing with so much confidence and I was involved in all the U18 and U19 England camps.

“We were preparing for the Euro 2019 qualifiers in Kazakhstan. A week before I tore my Medial Collateral Ligament against Tottenham and could not play in the tournament.

“I was out for around six months and that knocked my confidence quite a lot. I didn’t really get my confidence back probably until I came to London.”

It was a cruel blow for a player whose career had really started to blossom – Wilson captained Bristol City to victory in the Development FA Cup, beating Arsenal 4-0 in a final she described as a ‘massive highlight’.

When first-team manager Willie Kirk left the club, she came to the eventual realisation that she ‘couldn’t stay there any longer’.

While trying to find a new club can be a challenge, London City Lionesses was the perfect fit for Wilson. After the team then known as Millwall Lionesses somewhat acrimoniously separated from the men’s set-up, this new club was formed determined to prove the doubters wrong and that a women’s club could survive without being affiliated with a men’s side.

After difficult times, both the club and Wilson were determined to forge new identities for themselves.

If playing for a team who are determined to showcase themselves as a pioneering force both on and off the pitch brings pressure, Wilson certainly does not show it.

“At the end of the day, I don’t feel that we have that pressure and we can go into every game almost as the underdogs. It’s exciting to be the only women’s team, alongside Durham Wildcats, in our league without men’s backing,” she said with a grin.


So, what next for Poppy? When questioned about her own ambitions she was reluctant to place too much expectation on herself.

Instead, she talked with refreshing honesty about how she wants to recapture the same freedom she played with at the beginning of her footballing journey.

“To be honest when people ask me, they expect: play for England and in the Women’s Super League, but for me I don’t want to put that pressure on myself,” she said.

“I just want to be the best I can be and play at the highest level I can, and that way I can enjoy it along the way. I have put too much pressure on myself over the years.

“Obviously, I want to play for England and in the Super League but at the moment my goal is to be the best I can be. I’m in a really good place and Lisa the new manager has just come in. It just looks really exciting.”

Cricket’s female commentators shining bright despite gloomy start to British summer

The return of Test match cricket last week brought back a sense of familiarity long sought by so many.

Rain delays, English batting collapses and the result going down to the wire – it was as though nothing had changed, despite the lack of crowd.

As always, the tense and exciting game between England’s men and the West Indies was brought into our homes thanks to the fantastic coverage from Sky Sports and the BBC’s Test Match Special (TMS).

Alongside depicting the on pitch action, their coverage also reminded us that cricket is at the forefront of normalising the presence of female commentators.

The sound of Alison Mitchell, Isa Guha and Ebony Rainford-Brent behind the microphone has become as regular as England’s middle order throwing their wickets away over the last few years.

Many sports have seemingly been reluctant to include women in their broadcast teams until recently. And even when they have, they’re often very quickly criticised – who remembers the furore that followed Alex Scott, Eni Aluko and Vicki Sparks during the 2018 men’s football World Cup?

But when it comes to cricket not only have women become a regular feature; they’re deeply respected members of the cricketing family.

There’s no sense of a box ticking exercise here; all three are highly regarded and it feels as though they are rewarded with so many illustrious gigs purely on merit. And that’s how it should be.

A regular across the BBC since the early 2000s, Mitchell became the first regular female commentator on TMS in 2007 and is recognised as one of the best in the business. This was reflected by her peers when she was voted the SJA Sports Broadcaster of the Year in 2013.

A former world number one ranked bowler and World Cup winner, Guha made the seamless transition into the media during the early 2010s and has quickly become one of the most respected commentators around. Having worked for ITV, Sky Sports and Fox Cricket in Australia, she was named as the lead presenter for the BBC’s highlights shows this summer, the first time the broadcaster has shown any form of home Test cricket since 1999.

Rainford-Brent followed a similar path to Guha, who she won the 2009 ODI and T20 World Cup with, after retiring in 2010. She made her first TMS appearance in 2012 and became one of the first female expert summarisers to commentate on the men’s game. Having been a regular on TMS, she recently made the switch to Sky’s coverage and has already proved her worth. She also delivered an extraordinarily powerful speech on racism in cricket that you must watch.

Alongside these three regulars, our airwaves have also been graced by a host of other fine female commentators in recent years. Mel Jones and Natalie Germanos were a joy to listen to during last summer’s men’s World Cup and England internationals Charlotte Edwards and Alex Hartley have provided plenty of laughs and interesting points whenever they’ve appeared.

That’s not to say everything is perfect. There are still significantly more male commentators and pundits around and it has only been in the last five years that the presence of women has become a regular occurrence.

But what cricket is proving is that women most definitely have a place when it comes to talking about sport, especially ‘men’s sport’. Not that anyone should have ever doubted that would be the case.

Unfortunately that is exactly what many ignorant individuals do believe; women shouldn’t be allowed to commentate on men’s sport because they don’t understand it.

Really? Really?

While we believe that men’s and women’s sport should never be directly compared (and instead celebrated in their own individual ways), only a moron would be of the mindset that a woman should not be talking about men. It’s the same game!

Cricket should not rest on its laurels though. Yes they are leading the way at the moment but there is still a lot more work to be done.

How many female print journalists can you name? Alongside Mitchell, Lizzy Ammon is one of a relatively small collection of women writing about the sport in this country while Australian Melinda Farrell is another well respected reporter.

It’s well known that the proportion of women in the sports media is significantly smaller than it should be. Statistics in the USA last year suggested that 90% of male sports reporters, journalists, broadcasters etc. were men. It’s just not acceptable.

But what Mitchell, Guha and Rainford-Brent are doing is proving that it is now possible for women to not only enter what is still a male-dominated industry; they can thrive in it too.

There are so many talented female sports journalists out there – let’s just hope they get the chance they deserve.

Cricket is back and with it is the hope that things can change, although perhaps not England’s fortunes with the bat just yet…

No Balls: The Podcast We All Need During Lockdown

There hasn’t been much to smile about over the last few months.

A deadly virus sweeping across the world, quarantines and lockdowns forcing us to stay at home, the lives and livelihoods of many under severe threat. It’s been a rough ride.

Finding something to take our minds off the situation has become a priority and many have managed to find that solace in podcasts.

One that particularly stands out is No Balls: The Cricket Podcast, hosted by England international cricketers Kate Cross and Alex Hartley.

Whether you’re a fan of the sport or not, this is a show that nearly everyone can relate to in some way. Furthermore, you cannot help but have a smile on your face while listening.

In essence, it’s two friends having a chat and a laugh while sharing what’s going on in their lives. The show may be loosely centred around cricket but you don’t have to really understand it in order to enjoy listening.

While it may not be a unique type of podcast, there’s one thing that makes it stand out from so many similar shows; their incredible friendship.

It’s clear, even though they spend most of their time slating each other, just how close Hartley and Cross are. They bounce off each other brilliantly (regaling hilarious story after hilarious story), their laughter is infectious and they are so in sync that you wouldn’t be surprised if they finished each other’s sentences.

Speaking to The 52’s Will Moulton on SportSpiel, the duo said it was because of this friendship that they were encouraged to enter into the podcast world.

“There’s been loads of times where mates have said to us that they really enjoy our company, especially when we are at our liveliest or taking the mick out of each other,” says Cross, a member of the England side that won the 2013/14 Ashes series.

“We both started listening to Chris Ramsey’s podcast which he does with his wife, who is not a comedian. We both said she’s funnier than him and I remember Al saying something along the lines of ‘if she can be funny on a podcast then so can we’.

“I think we just rated ourselves and the next minute we were doing this little trial run and sending it out to our families.”

Nearly 20 episodes later, No Balls grows ever more popular with each new release. This has especially been the case since lockdown started as they now record shows weekly rather than on a more ad hoc basis.

As well as chatting between themselves, the duo also spend a lot of their time responding to messages from listeners. This includes answering cricket-related questions as well as discussing some of the odd life habits their followers admit to in the LBW (Little Bit Weird) section. The theme here often involves food, with examples including one listener soaking their Weetabix for 15 minutes and arguments over whether certain condiments should be kept in the fridge or not.

They also delve into the role of Agony Aunts, handing out relationship advice to those who ask for it. However they do admit that what they say in this regard should also be taken with caution.

“It’s like the blind leading the blind. Someone messages us and we’re absolutely terrible with relationships. I don’t know why people come to us but they do,” admitted Cross.

“I think it’s because we give terrible advice so people just want to see how bad we can get.”

“I’ve found it all really strange,” says 2017 World Cup winner Hartley when talking about the amount of messages they receive.

“We’re used to people coming up to us at cricket games and asking us to have a little chat but the fact that we’re getting 50 or 60 emails a week from people wanting to talk to us or wanting advice on things or wanting questions answered, I think that this could be something really good.”

Not only is No Balls an exceptionally funny experience for the listener, it’s also clear just how much the two Lancashire players enjoy recording it.

“Wednesday, which is our recording day in lockdown, is my favourite day of the week,” Cross states during their interview with SportSpiel.

“Even if we come into the podcast in a bad mood at the beginning, we’ve cried laughing throughout. Even for us two selfishly it’s a really good day for us and I feel loads better afterwards. Then I realise I’ve got to edit it and slump back down again!”

Hartley also adds: “When we recorded with Sophie Ecclestone she texted us afterwards and she said ‘I can understand why you do that, I’ve had an absolute laugh over the last hour’. And that’s the reason why we do it – we really enjoy it.

What makes this podcast even more refreshing is that there are no holds barred when it comes to sharing their personalities and those of their guests.

This isn’t a sanitised media interview; this is what they’re really like and we love them for it.


“Primarily there aren’t many female sports people out there doing podcasts, which is one of the reasons we thought it might be a good opportunity,” Cross said.

“Everyone hears and sees a lot of the male cricketers on the TV but no-one really sees the women’s game or who we are as characters so we try to get that across as much as possible.

“My favourite episodes are when people like Sophie are just themselves. She wasn’t in interview mode, she wasn’t worried about saying the wrong thing, she was just the Sophie that we know.

“And that’s we want to get across. We see her in the dressing room and know how much fun she is and when she does go into an interview she does freeze up a little bit.”

In what for many is an extremely bleak time, these two provide us with a beacon of fun and positivity that brightens up our day by quite simply being themselves and sharing that with the rest of us.

We’ll leave Hartley to sum up the show in one sentence…

“If you want to listen to a podcast that is a complete shambles and has no recording equipment but is two mates having a laugh and giving some advice on life, then tune in to No Balls: The Cricket Podcast.”