The UK might be yet to return to any sense of pre-lockdown life but Nat Sciver and her teammates are enjoying an earlier taste than most. The England women’s cricket vice-captain is currently mid-way through a tour in New Zealand and admits she is feeling exactly as most of us are expecting to when the world begins to open up again: worn out, but more appreciative of the freedom than ever.
“We’re feeling pretty lucky out here,” Sciver, 28, tells me from Christchurch, where she and her fellow England squad members are enjoying being back in sunny stadiums after a two-week hotel quarantine. This morning, the team played in front of a real-life crowd as they soared to an eight-wicket victory in the ODI opener against New Zealand, and finally they are able to celebrate properly again: sightseeing and going out for dinner between training has been an “exhausting” but welcome relief.
Today’s match is their first 50-over international (and full stadium) in over a year. Since returning from their Australian tour last March, the last 11 months have been a relative dead-period for women’s cricket: their scheduled summer series against India and South Africa were cancelled due to the pandemic and next month’s chance to defend their 50-over World Cup crown has now been postponed to 2022.
The good news is 2021 should look a little busier than last year so a stint in New Zealand is just the warm-up they need. When Sciver and her teammates return home, they’ll enjoy a brief period of respite before test season (hopefully) begins in April. But the real highlight comes this summer: a shiny new “gender balanced” tournament, The Hundred, playing double headers alongside the men’s team. The will be equal prize money for both genders and most notably, the month-long event will kick off with a standalone women’s match at London’s Kia Oval on July 21 - a world first for a mixed-team sporting tournament.
“Summer could be the start of something really different,” says Sciver, who has more than 36,000 followers on Instagram and is excited to introduce a new legion of fans to her sport. She hopes this summer will do for women’s cricket what the Lioness’s 2019 World Cup success did for women’s football - but potentially with even greater impact given audiences’ thirst for post-Covid sport. She hopes “there’ll be an even bigger market for it after the year we’ve all had.”
Indeed, she and the team have hardly been immune from the effects of the pandemic. Aside from a brief five-match T20 series against the West Indies last summer, she and her teammate and fiancee, Katherine Brunt, have spent the last year doing the same as thousands of couples across the UK: locking down at home, buying a puppy and postponing all their plans for a grand summer wedding.
The couple announced their engagement on National Coming Out Day in 2019 after romance blossomed in the wake of their historic 2017 World Cup victory - according to Brunt, England’s greatest ever fast bowler, the couple were housemates and put off a relationship for four years before she asked Sciver to be her girlfriend on the renowned balcony at Lord’s post-match.
Their September wedding day, due to take place at Sciver’s childhood holiday home in Chamonix in France, was instead spent putting on a “fake ceremony” in tracksuits at a biosecure bubble at a Travelodge in the East Midlands. Sciver laughs when I ask her what it’s been like trying to rearrange. “I’ve learnt that our manager at the England and Wales Cricket Board really should have actually been our wedding planner,” she jokes.
At least their stints in Australia and the East Midlands mean the squad is used to quarantining by now. Like Novak Djokovic and Heather Watson who were pictured on their hotel balconies ahead of the Australian Open last month, Sciver and her teammates also had to spend their first two weeks Down Under confined to their bedrooms.
Sudoku and colouring by numbers were among activities they used to pass the days and Sciver says she was grateful to be in the same timezone as Australia for watching the tennis.
Quarantine hasn’t meant complete freedom, however. Even in the relatively Covid-safe New Zealand, players can no longer give their cap to the umpire or shine the ball with saliva, and there are talks about keeping some of these practices going as permanent hygiene measures.
That’s not the only aspect of cricket the pandemic has put in the spotlight, Sciver points out. Covid’s travel ban has also sparked conversations about sustainability. “Obviously we have to travel with what we do,” she says, but the pandemic has raised awareness of offsetting flight carbon emissions and cutting down on single-use plastics. “The amount of water bottles we used is so sad.”
Sciver says she will be “the first to put [her] hand up” for sustainability in cricket committees going forward, but before that there are some other firsts to attend to. When she and Brunt do eventually tie the knot in May 2022, they will become one of just three married couples who currently play on the same international cricket team (the others are in New Zealand and South Africa), and the first within the England team.
On top of that is their world-first women’s opening game at The Hundred this summer - one of dozens of fixtures from the Tour de France to the Tokyo Olympics being lined up to make 2021 a golden summer of sport. “I could watch anything,” laughs Sciver, who played women’s league football and basketball growing up and hopes to return to Wimbledon with Brunt in June.
Even if people aren’t traditional cricket fans, “anything to cheer everyone up and give them something to smile about” will hopefully be welcomed, she adds. “I’m excited to be part of something special.”
The Hundred begins on July 21 with Oval Invincibles v Manchester Originals. Tickets are available online from April 7 for those who have signed up at thehundred.com