International Cricket

Sophie Devine says New Zealand cricket lacks depth

Sophie Devine warned they were on their way about four seconds before the tears arrived. At Paarl in February 2023, she was hurting for every New Zealand player under her watch whose T20 World Cup campaign was basically over before it had begun. Back-to-back thrashings by Australia and South Africa had left the White Ferns captain wishing for a quick fix but knowing there was none, just a long road ahead.

A year on, Devine says there is still work to be done if they are to match the depth of Australia, England and India. However, she sees New Zealand’s home T20I and ODI series against England as a benchmark ahead of their return series during the English summer, followed by another T20 World Cup in Bangladesh. Key to New Zealand’s concerns is a tiny population compared to their biggest rivals, just over five million people to draw from in a country where rugby union and netball dominate the sporting landscape.

“Being brutally honest, no, there’s not much depth coming through and that’s where we’ve got to be realistic as a country, we don’t have millions of people that are playing cricket,” Devine told the ESPNcricinfo Powerplay podcast. “Although there’s been every intention to try and attract players, it’s similar to the men, we’re a small country and we’ve got to make the most of what we’ve got.

“We’ve got a great domestic set-up in terms of the teams and the amount of games played, and I guess I’ve been lucky to have seen Australian Cricket for a number of years, both involved and also from the outside, and see the work that’s been put into their domestic set-up. That’s what has laid the platform for them to be so successful over the last 10, 15 years, the development of the professionalism of the game and the domestic set-up.

“We’re still a fair way off that, and so I think there’s always going to be a bit of a gap. When you see the White Ferns and the contracted players and then the domestic players, bridging that gap is going to take time. But that’s not to say that a lot of work hasn’t been put in through New Zealand Cricket.”

Devine’s team won their last two group games at the T20 World Cup but, unsurprisingly given the earlier results, they failed to qualify for the knockouts. Since then they have won a T20I series in Sri Lanka 2-1, drawn 1-1 on a rain-hit tour of South Africa and been defeated at home 2-1 by Pakistan in December. In ODIs they lost to Sri Lanka and South Africa before beating Pakistan 2-1, with Pakistan winning the third game in a Super Over.

Against England, New Zealand’s core remains the same, albeit without WPL players Devine and Amelia Kerr to begin with. Georgia Plimmer, who has played 21 T20Is and was originally selected in the ODI squad, has been called up as a replacement, along with the uncapped Mikaela Greig. Seamer Rosemary Mair is back after making her last international appearance in August 2022 while batter Brooke Halliday, spinner Leigh Kasperek and teenage wicketkeeper Izzy Gaze are the other names back in the White Ferns squad who didn’t play at the T20 World Cup.

New Zealand have an A team facing England A during the senior tour, and a North vs South series is also providing opportunities for domestic players outside and on the fringe of White Ferns selection. But Devine knows more can be done, namely tapping into the opportunities cricket can offer outside rugby and netball. Equal match fees for men and women at international level is an incentive, although pay parity in central contracts is yet to be realised.

“It’s certainly a selling point when I talk to female athletes coming through,” Devine said. “Cricket is such an attractive option as a career because we don’t necessarily have big numbers of it in New Zealand. There’s a very big picture that’s going on behind the scenes, but there’s got to be, I guess, a bit of realism and a bit of perspective that it’s going to take time. As long as we can keep chipping away at the likes of the Australia or England, I think we can certainly be out there with the best.”

Both England and New Zealand are without some leading players for Tuesday’s first T20I. Devine lifted the WPL trophy with Royal Challengers Bangalore after they beat Delhi Capitals in Sunday’s final, having beaten Kerr’s defending champion side Mumbai Indians in the Eliminator. Nat Sciver-Brunt (Mumbai) and Alice Capsey (Delhi) are due to link up with England later in the T20I series, as are UP Warriorz players Sophie Ecclestone and Danni Wyatt. Kate Cross (RCB) will join the ODI squad.

Like other players who have been caught up in the scheduling clash, Devine hopes similar conflicts can be avoided in future but is also pragmatic about the financial implications of the franchise vs country dilemma.

“I still think in the female game there’s space for everyone,” she said. “Obviously it’s going to take a bit of a give and take, but I’d really hope that people and competitions and boards can be a bit flexible in terms of allowing space for each competition as well as international cricket. That’s really important for the women’s games to keep that driving forward.

“New Zealand cricket have been fantastic and this has been a space that I think they’ve been excellent at for a number of years, in terms of allowing a lot of us Kiwi players to go and play on these franchise leagues. They’ve always been really upfront and honest in terms of allowing us that time to go off and if there’s any clashes then our, I guess, loyalty can lie with the franchise.

“They obviously work incredibly hard to make sure that there aren’t any clashes with international cricket and my priority is always to try and play international, but if I’ve signed a contract then I guess legally I’m bound to front up for that and hope that there are no clashes. At the end of the day it’s what you’re comfortable with.”

Devine didn’t have a huge impact in her second year at the WPL – she still holds the record for the tournament’s highest individual score with 99 last season – although she reached her highest score of this edition with 32 in the Final as RCB chased down 114. She was back opening with captain Smriti Mandhana in the Final and Eliminator, having started there before dropping to the middle order where she has been batting for New Zealand since last year’s T20 World Cup.

“It’s just been adapting to the situation that I find myself in,” she said. “With opening you know exactly where you stand, you’re going to face the new ball, two fielders are up, whereas batting 3, 4, 5, you could be in the powerplay, it could be in the middle order, it could be late in the innings. You’ve got to be prepared and be able to adapt and adjust quickly to what’s required at the time. But I think it’s a really exciting challenge for me.

“Having played for a while now, you’re wanting to keep evolving and develop your game. I look around the world and try and see what the best players are doing. Nat Sciver-Brunt has always been the absolute frontrunner in that space, so to look at what she does. How she constructs innings through that middle order is probably something that I – not model my game on because I think I’m a different player to her – but certainly how she can construct an innings and manage run-chases in particular, is something that I really admire.”

New Zealand’s future could well lie with the likes of Kerr, who is still just 23 but vastly experienced, as well as offspinner Eden Carson and left-arm spinner Fran Jonas, who are 22 and 19 respectively and have played 68 internationals between them. But they also need their more senior players, such as Devine and Suzie Bates, to play on. Devine, 34, knows life beyond cricket is drawing nearer, but she believes she has some good years left to give the game.

“It’s going to be a pretty full-on 12 months for the White Ferns, but I think it’s a really exciting challenge,” Devine said. “This is going to be a really good test of us as a unit. We’ve sort of been bubbling away for 12, 18 months now and we might not have had the performances and the results that we would’ve liked but for me, being a slightly older head and looking at the bigger picture, that stuff’s going to take time.”

Valkerie Baynes is a general editor, women’s cricket, at ESPNcricinfo

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