International Cricket

EngW vs NZW: Heather Knight welcomes heatwave as New Zealand ODIs offer chance for World Cup experimentation

England will use the upcoming white-ball series against New Zealand to fine-tune their preparations for the T20 World Cup in Bangladesh later this year, with Heather Knight suggesting XIs will be more experimental than usual in home conditions to establish better role clarity ahead of the ICC tournament.

The first engagement is an ODI series, which begins at Chester-le-Street on Wednesday. The five-match T20I series that follows offers more suitable preparation for the low, turning pitches that await in October on the subcontinent. But with the 50-over leg separate from the ICC Women’s Championship – England sit second, four points behind Australia, with the top five qualifying directly for 2025’s ODI World Cup – there is scope to use the first three matches of this White Ferns tour to try different things.

The weather will also help that preparation. The UK is in the midst of a heatwave, and while Durham may be a long way from Dhaka, where England start their T20 World Cup against South Africa on October 3, temperatures are expected to reach as high as 30 degrees Celsius in the north-east on Wednesday. The pitch, which spent Tuesday morning uncovered, is likely to favour spin.

“It will probably turn a little bit, which is great for the spinners that we have,” Knight said in her press conference on Tuesday. “It’ll be really great conditions for us for what we’ve got coming up with Bangladesh. It’s going to be hot, the pitch is going to be a little bit dry and it’s going to spin.”

It is a far cry from the damp, overcast conditions for last month’s series against Pakistan, with England winning all five completed matches. Though they will be favourites once more over the coming weeks, having beaten this New Zealand side 4-1 and 2-1 in WT20Is and WODIs in March and April of this year, Knight insists that a results-first approach will still be the priority, regardless of any experimentation.

“Winning is obviously really important, and with that T20 World Cup coming up we want to build up that momentum,” Knight said. “But also get the combination of the XI we play on the field, get that right.

“We might try a few things that we’re thinking about doing in Bangladesh that might not necessarily match the conditions we’re playing in here. I’m talking more about the T20 series here, obviously. But there might be a few little bits that we try.

“The main thing is about trying to get the whole squad in the best place that we can and give that clarity around roles as much as we can. In an ideal world, as a captain, I want my bowlers to bowl in all different phases and be able to bowl players in different stages when the match-up is right, or when I get a feeling.

“That flexibility, we’ve been trying to build that up over the last year or so. Winning is the main thing, but there are little narratives inside of that as well.”

With Sophia Dunkley recalled and Nat Sciver-Brunt ready to reprise her role as an allrounder, there is a familiar feel to the squad. However, an abominable niggle picked up by Kate Cross last week while playing for the ECB Women’s Development XI against New Zealand has ruled her out of the first ODI.

South East Stars seamer Ryana Macdonald-Gay has subsequently been drafted into the squad as cover, arriving in Durham on Tuesday afternoon. The 20-year-old has started the domestic season strongly, taking 12 wickets in the Rachael Heyhoe-Flint Trophy – the second most – off the back of an impressive England A tour of New Zealand in March with 11 wickets across two 50-over and two T20 appearances. She was also part of the England squad for 2023’s inaugural women’s U19 World Cup.

Knight admitted she has not seen all that much of Macdonald-Gay., although the England captain was part of the broadcast team for Oval Invincibles versus Manchester Originals in last year’s women’s Hundred when Macdonald-Gay took 4 for 16.

“I first saw her in The Hundred. I think I interviewed her – I was working for the BBC down there and she got player of the match. I remember thinking she was quite accurate and quite skilful with her variations of pace. She doesn’t leave the stumps too much as a little skiddy seamer. From what I can hear, she’s grown a lot in the last year.

“That A tour to New Zealand was a really big one for her, she performed really well, against good opposition as well. She’s started this season stellar-ly, and she can bat and field as well. I saw her in the U19 World Cup, she was quite impressive out there for England as well.”

Meanwhile, New Zealand skipper Sophie Devine believes her team can cause an upset. Wednesday will be their first international fixture since the visit of England in March and April. And though the finale was a consolation win in the third ODI at Hamilton, led by Devine’s unbeaten 100, the 34-year-old believes the introspection that followed, along with three gruelling training camps, has them in good stead to exact some form of revenge.

“I think it’s something that New Zealanders are pretty used to, to be fair,” she said of the underdog tag. “Unless it’s rugby union.

“Whether we’re underdogs or favourites, it doesn’t really matter to us. We know at the end of the day that we need to be playing to our strengths. And know that we’re going to have fear, but we need to play in the face of fear.

“We’ve looked back on that tour because we thought it was a really important phase for us. We came close in a number of those matches but it showed England’s strength to get out of a number of tricky positions. We went back, we reflected really hard on that, and we’ve had a really incredible block of training where we’ve come here and ready to take them on in their backyard.”

Devine also championed White Ferns opening batter Lauren Down, who will earn her first international cap since December 2022 after giving birth to her daughter, Ruby, in January.

“She certainly makes me feel a little bit guilty,” said Devine. “I’m tired and here she is with her five-month-old daughter Ruby, up and down in the night.

“What she’s been able to achieve has been incredible. I certainly hope she feels she’s got 15 aunties on tour. She certainly has been handing Ruby around a little bit, in the changing room or back at the hotel.

“I think it’s really important we make her feel comfortable and safe in our environment. But what she’s been able to do on the cricket field has been just astonishing. She’s such a professional in terms of she wants to be in the best possible shape before she steps out on the park, and that’s something I’ve got a lot of time and respect for.

“We’re really stoked to have her back, and it’s obviously nice to have another little bub on tour. It certainly brings a little bit of perspective to the group as well. Cricket is incredibly important to us. But when you’ve got a little one there that doesn’t care how your day is gone, all she cares about is getting fed and getting cuddles from mum, it certainly brings a smile to a lot of our faces.”

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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