Southern Vipers Head Coach Nick Denning is a familiar and popular face around the women’s cricket scene. A former Berkshire player – a bowler who also played a handful of List A games for Essex in the early 00s – Denning had been the Berkshire Women’s coach for a number of years before taking the reins at the Vipers for the inaugural Kia Super League this season.
In some ways it was a brave appointment – although the Vipers are theoretically a partnership between Hampshire, Sussex, Berkshire and Oxfordshire, Hampshire are very much the “senior service”, and with no experience at the top level of women’s cricket, the safer option might have been to select “one of the chaps” from the men’s game. That they didn’t was to their credit… and ultimately to their advantage, as Denning led the team to the top of the group table and subsequently on to lift the trophy on Finals Day.
Speaking to Denning after that triumph, we began by asking what the key differences were from coaching a county side:
“Professionalism!” he replies emphatically. “At Berkshire we got a £2,000 grant from the ECB and then we had to find the rest of the money – a bit from Berkshire and the rest from sponsorship – to run a £13,000 program. So when you go to a program that is as good as fully funded, it just makes a huge difference.”
Denning ticks off the items one by one:
“We get our Strength and Conditioning coach; we get our physio; we get all these specialist coaches; and we get great facilities at the Ageas Bowl.”
The Super League is of course not fully professional, but for Denning the important thing is to treat it as such:
“While this competition is semi-professional, the setup has to be professional – you have got to be all-in and do it properly.”
The same applies to the players:
“We said: Look, we are here to develop you – we are not here to be a 3-week thing – we are here to help you kick your cricket onto another level.”
In selecting the overseas players to augment his side, Denning looked for those who shared these values:
“With Suzie Bates and Sara McGlashan we knew we needed batters, but we also needed good people – we needed people who were going to buy into what we were doing – be good around the changing room and help the youngsters. Morna Nielsen [who came in as a late replacement for Megan Schutt] was also somebody we’d been talking about when we were selecting the squad – she was our next-in – and they’ve all been really, really good professionals. They have been fantastic around the changing room, but they’ve also come in and developed their games – they’ve learnt – they’ve asked questions to get better.”
The established internationals have been crucial obviously, but unlike some of the other franchises, the Vipers haven’t been afraid to throw in some of their youngest players, and actually let them play (rather than “just” field) such as 17-year-old Katie George:
“Katie has played four games and she has had two very good games and two games where she has possibly shown her inexperience, but she is seventeen so I’m not going to hold that against her – she will be a very, very good cricketer.”
Vipers’ glove-butler Carla Rudd is another younger player who has impressed in Super League. After being dropped from the England Academy program last year, Rudd was appointed girls’ coach at Felsted School, which has given her the opportunity to work with their boys’ coach – former England Test batsman Jason Gallian – in particular on her batting.
“Carla has always been a good ‘keeper, but she knows that if she is going to start pushing for an England place, it is her batting that needs to improve and she has been working really hard all winter with Jason.”
Someone else who Denning singles out for working really hard is Berkshire quick bowler Daisy Gardner, who ended up missing the entire competition through injury, despite the best efforts of the medical staff at the Ageas:
“It is just bad luck, and that happens with injuries in cricket; but she is still part of our squad and she has been as professional as anyone – if some of the other players had Daisy’s drive and her attitude they could be absolute world-beaters!”
Of course the Super League has been entertaining and has brought unprecedented attention to the domestic women’s game; but the ECB’s key aims also include “bridging the gap” between county and international cricket, and Denning is perhaps better-placed than anyone to assess whether this has been achieved. However, when asked he is cautious to emphasise that “bridging the gap” is a longer-term objective:
“I don’t think you can really tell until the county competition next year,” he says. “If the girls that were pulled in – not the Academy players or the internationals, but the girls that have been talent-ID’d from county cricket – go back to play county cricket and put some of the stuff they’ve learnt into that – then yes, we are bridging the gap.”