Mark Robinson, the England coach, has said a few times that Fran Wilson’s 75-ball 81 in the unsuccessful chase of 282 against India on the opening day of the ICC Women’s World Cup 2017 got the team’s campaign up and running. It lost that match, but won the remaining six to top the league table.
Wilson played that game because Lauren Winfield was injured. While the others looked a bit rusty in England’s first international game since November last year, Wilson batted at No. 5 with a definite plan against the spinners. Gripping the bat like a baseballer, she swept and reverse swept to frustrate the bowlers. Backing up a bit too far however, she was run out in the 44th over and England lost by 35 runs, but Wilson had lit the fire.
“It is kind of my game anyway,” said Wilson, reflecting on her career-best effort. “I like to sweep and paddle, something that comes naturally to me. The bowlers and the pitch kind of lent to my game as well. Ali Maiden, Mark Robinson and Chris Sykes do really good work behind the scenes, just analysing teams. I felt our preparation was specific with what we were going to come up against. The whole week I felt I had prepared well. I was just clear when I went there and knew what I was going to do.”
Caroline Foster, the former England opener known as Caroline Atkins in her playing days, says Wilson can be “irritating for the opposition” because of the areas she scores her runs in.
“She can go over extra cover. She can play orthodox sweeps, she can paddle, reverse sweep, she will take on mid-wicket; there is not an area on ground where Fran Wilson can’t access if she needs to,” said Foster. “I don’t think she necessarily looks like she’s got that Nat Sciver ‘I will clear the ropes straight down the ground’ (game), but she’s got awareness. She knows her game; she will move the field around. She is just one of those challenging batters for the opposition captain.”
Wilson smiled on hearing the compliment, and responded like a school kid answering her teacher’s question.
“It’s nice to be a bit different as you can come into a team and feel you have a role and have got something to add to the team,” she said, elaborating on her batting philosophy. “When you are a bit different, it means you complement the person you are batting with beautifully. It’s good for me as I can get good partnership with people who bat differently from me and play different shots, which probably throws back the teams a bit. In the bigger picture, that’s probably a nice thing for me.”
Wilson’s understanding of her game came from the experiences she had since making her international debut in Sri Lanka a week after turning 19 in 2010. Dropped within a year, she had to reinvent after a period of denial and “protecting ego”.
Anya Shrubsole’s father had coached Wilson at Bath Cricket Club since she was 11 years old, and she had told her primary school teacher that her dream job would be to play for England. Her teacher’s response – “You can’t do that, that’s not a real job” – had not dissuaded her. Being axed gave her a reality check.
Wilson used the next five years to complete a degree in Sports and Exercise Science from Bath University and gain a Masters in Sports Nutrition from Loughborough University. It expanded her horizons and allowed her to enjoy the game once again.
“I was probably a couple of years too early for international cricket,” she reflected.
“I had to re-understand my game, and understand the feelings you get when you are playing on the biggest stage. It is a scary thing sometimes, and I just didn’t understand that. It feels completely different now, feeling at home in an England shirt, which is a great feeling. I know what it feels not to feel like that. It really is special to be part of.
“When I did not succeed in cricket, it was quite hard because that is what I was good at. Suddenly I was not good with that. So I had to go away and find something else,” she added. “University gave me confidence and a role in academia, which I think got me respect within the cricket team. I was always the young one, who was all over the place. Getting that degree, kind of developing myself as a whole person, helped me develop myself as a cricketer as well.”
During her masters she trained at ECB’s National Cricket Performance Centre in Loughborough under Tim Boon, and also played football as a midfielder. She toured Sri Lanka and India, where she faced net bowlers who “turned it a long way in different actions”. It helped her recognise the areas she was good at, against spin bowling. That apart, playing for Wellington as a professional in New Zealand’s domestic 50-over competition for women last year made her understand accountability.
“You are expected to score runs because you are the overseas player,” she pointed out. “I struggled at first, but overcoming that and playing some best innings of my career was such a big learning for me. It was such a valuable experience to be put under pressure, so to overcome that was great for me. It was great experience.”
When Wilson returned to the England setup last year in the home series against Pakistan, Charlotte Edwards and Lydia Greenway had retired and Heather Knight was the captain.
“Although at the time it was quite a turbulent period, looking back it was probably the best thing for the team,” she said. “Heather has really stepped into Charlotte’s shoes, and done a really, really good job. The team is in a really, really good place at the moment. I cannot exactly put a finger on what exactly is different, but I know we are playing very well as a squad and anyone can come in and do a good job.”
The comeback also allowed Wilson to recognise another reason behind her ordinary show six years prior. “To be fair, it was probably the problem when I was growing up,” she said, when asked if she was overawed by the star appeal in the dressing room initially. “It is good to look up, but when you start they are like so much more inhuman. But now I look up to them so much, but I look up to them in the sense I want to. I know I can be as good as them.
“That’s why competitions like the Super League are important. You are put into situations where big players come into your team and you are not putting them on a pedestal anymore. You are seeing that you are as close to them,” she added. “It’s important not to put people on a pedestal and just respect them and know that you can be as good as them. It’s about keeping things simple and not worrying about things not in your control.”
Confident of her standing in the scheme of things, Wilson remembered falling in love with cricket after watching the 2005 Ashes series win and being taken to the Taunton dressing room next year for the women’s Test between England against India.
At the World Cup, Wilson’s knock against India might just have got a future generation to fall in love with the game.