August 25th 2021. I’m sitting on the boundary at Guildford, watching Stars v Lightning in the Charlotte Edwards T20 Cup, while keeping half an eye on the scorecard from Hove, where Vipers are playing Sparks. Vipers have made 162-4, but Sparks are going well in reply – after 10 overs, they are 103-0, with Eve Jones on 37 and Marie Kelly on 57, needing 6 an over from there.
By the end of the 15th over Sparks are cruising, despite the loss of Jones. They need 26 runs from 30 balls, with Kelly set on 77. It is technically possible for Kelly to hit her first T20 century, but she’d have to score all but 3 of the remaining runs required, so it doesn’t feel likely.
An over later, that’s all changed – Kelly has hit 13 of the 14 runs to come off Georgia Elwiss’s 3rd over, and she’s now on 90, with Sparks needing 12 off 24.
But is there a twist to come? Charlotte Taylor comes on, and dismisses both Milly Home and Gwen Davies, for the cost of only 1 run; then Lauren Bell sends down an over which goes for just 3.
The equation is now 8 off 12 balls, with Kelly 7 short of that hundred and wickets starting to fall around her.
With Stars in the meantime having closed out the win at Guildford, I tweet:
Five minutes, and a severe dent in my mobile data plan later, Sparks have won the game in the 19th over, with Kelly finishing on exactly 100 not out off 53 balls.
I tweet again:
You see, I’ve always felt cricket has been slightly unfair to Marie Kelly.
Admittedly this sounds like an odd thing to say about someone who became Warwickshire captain aged 20, just at the point where the men’s county club were starting to invest in the women’s game, leading them to their first (and ironically, with the demise of county cricket, last) ever silverware – winning the County T20 Cup in 2019.
But then there was the Kia Super League. With just six franchises to cover the whole of England and Wales, some teams were always going to miss out… and one of them was Warwickshire.
“We were definitely disappointed at the time,” says Kelly reflecting on the formation of the KSL. “Watching on, we felt that the West Midlands really needed that franchise; and it meant a few of us didn’t quite get the opportunities that we might have gotten.”
Kelly herself was a case in point. Despite being Warwickshire captain throughout the lifetime of the competition, she made just 6 appearances in 4 seasons: one with Lightning in 2017, then a further five in the final year of the competition with Vipers, even then batting well down the order. It can’t have been easy, but it is an experience she reflects on philosophically:
“We just tried to get what opportunities we could in those franchise teams – you learn different things in different environments, and you get to see how other teams operate; and then you bring that back into county cricket, which hopefully we did quite well.”
The disbanding of the KSL, and the reorganisation of elite women’s cricket into 8 regional teams in 2020, saw the creation of a new West Midlands franchise – the Central Sparks – with Kelly become one of the first domestic pros. In some senses, however, not much changed:
“We’ve all been training like professionals for a long time – especially the guys that have been to Loughborough University, or on the England program or the MCC [Young Cricketers]. So we were used to training like professionals… just without the pay!”
“Now, even though we’re professional, we still have to do other work because the salaries aren’t quite high enough yet; but it does give you that opportunity to train more and play more and practice more.”
The more intense level of competition in the 2020 RHF Trophy was quickly apparent however, as were its benefits:
“It was quite an interesting season – there was a lot of good cricket played and there were a lot of times where we knew we kind of needed to step up and be a bit more professional – I feel like it made us cleverer and smarter as cricketers.”
Kelly herself was going well – averaging 55 in the first season of the RHF for Central Sparks – but when it came to The Hundred this year it was deja-vu all over again, with Kelly sat on the side-lines just as she’d done for so much of the KSL.
“It was disappointing,” she admits. “I feel like I’ve learned as much as I can off the pitch – the next thing for me to progress as a batter was simply to just play in those environments and I didn’t quite get the opportunities I thought I should have had.”
Nonetheless, she did “go viral” when the official The Hundred Twitter account posted this clip of her and three other Phoenix players busting some moves during a strategic timeout.
Kelly looks faintly embarrassed.
“I didn’t actually know that that was going to be on Sky – if I’d known that I probably wouldn’t have suggested going in the box! But you know what? I thought: if I’m not gonna play I might as well enjoy as much as I can out of it; so I thought I’d entertain the crowd, and if my cricket career doesn’t pay off, I think I’ll become a dancer!”
After 8 matches running drinks, Kelly finally got her chance – thrown into the cauldron of The Eliminator at The Oval, replacing the departed Shafali Verma in the Phoenix XI. It was a baptism of fire, in front of a crowd of 12,000, and the game was already pretty-much lost when Kelly came in with 4 wickets down. She made 4, as Phoenix fell to defeat to the soon-to-be champions, Oval Invincibles.
“I just tried to stay positive – I was only playing that game, so there was nothing for me to lose. And I actually felt really comfortable at the crease, considering I hadn’t played for five weeks – it actually felt better playing in front of a bigger crowd because it felt a little bit more detached. So that was a good sign for me – that actually, yeah, this is what I want to do; and hopefully I can play a bit more next year.”
After the disappointment of The Hundred, a loss of personal momentum for Kelly on her return to Sparks would have been understandable; but instead she came out of the blocks flying to play the innings of her life at Hove.
Was this, I ask, a big “f- you” to the world in general, after the bitter pill of The Hundred?
“It was more like just ‘f- it‘,” she replies. “I wouldn’t say The Hundred was a write off… but it was from a personal point of view – there was nothing for me to lose, and it couldn’t really get any worse.”
“My performances before, in particular in T20, hadn’t been great. So I was just kind of like: well, what I’m doing currently isn’t working, so I was trying to switch up. I did a lot of analysis on their bowlers before I went in, so I knew exactly what my plans were for each bowler and just went out and tried to execute it.”
The availability of video analysis data is still fairly novel in the women’s game, and not every player makes use of it; but Kelly is one of those that has devoured it.
“A lot of coaches have said I overthink, but I say I don’t overthink: I just think! Having NV Play and things like that, where you can go back and watch videos, I think helps massively – especially for me – it helps create a plan. I’ve basically watched every dismissal that Charlotte Taylor’s got people out on; and every dismissal that I’ve got out to, so I don’t make the same mistake twice.”
One thing Kelly is consciously not thinking too much about, however, is the future.
“I think now’s the time to really commit to playing professionally – The Hundred will be bigger and better next year – I think it will open many doors in the future, so I feel like now’s the time to really, really commit to this. I’ve got my Level 3 [coaching badges] but Level 4 is quite time-consuming. All my life, I’ve juggled studies and cricket, or work and cricket. So I feel like now’s the time to just fully commit to being a professional cricketer and see what see what comes out of it.”