Just over a year ago, in June 2021, England announced that Nat Sciver would be replacing Anya Shrubsole as vice-captain. Sciver had done the role on a temporary basis during England’s tour of New Zealand earlier in the year; and the decision had been made that she should take on the role on a permanent basis.
Fast forward 13 months. It’s the eve of women’s cricket’s debut at the Commonwealth Games, and Heather Knight is receiving injections to try to relieve the nagging pain in her hip. She desperately wants to play… but it turns out that the pain is just too much. Sciver is called to a meeting with Heather and Lisa Keightley and told that she will be skippering the team. Not only will the anchor-batting role (in the absence of both Knight and Tammy Beaumont) rest on her shoulders, but so will leading a young side to the medal podium. Sciver is one of the world’s leading all-rounders, but even so… this is a LOT.
We all know what happens next. England’s first three matches are a walkover. Then they meet India in the semi-final, and fall just short in a desperate run-chase. The next day, they completely fail to turn up in the bronze medal match against New Zealand, seemingly deciding that if it isn’t a gold medal, it ain’t worth the bother. A picture of Heather Knight consoling a desolate Katherine Brunt after the match goes viral.
It could have been a very different story had England handled the situation with the captaincy-succession a little differently.
We thought at the time of the announcement that it was slightly strange that Sciver had been handed the vice-captaincy role – she is just two years younger than Knight, so it was clearly not a decision made with a long-term view in mind. Subsequent events have reinforced the view that Sciver is not seen by England as Knight’s long-term replacement. Last summer, with Knight out injured for the first two games against New Zealand, Sciver stepped in as captain. Afterwards, when I asked her about an on-field tactical decision, she made it very clear that all the key calls had been made by Knight before the game.
Then, during the Commonwealth Games, Knight was kept with the squad. “She’s been in all the meetings,” Issy Wong said after the New Zealand group-stage match, “and been pretty much 100% part of the group.” It seemed to be for the best, but for Sciver, trying to do the captain’s job on the pitch while (presumably) not feeling like the captain off the pitch must have been a challenge. She admitted as such in one of the mixed zones. “The first few games I was a bit like, ‘arghhh!'” she said, when asked about replacing Knight.
Arguably, the past few days for England have seen a real failure of leadership. As Syd put it in his piece yesterday:
England talk a lot about being role models, but after one player was given an official reprimand yesterday for swearing on the field of play, the overriding image of England today was another being shown live on TV, smashing over a chair with her bat on her way back to the dressing room after being dismissed.
I want to make it clear – I don’t blame Sciver for this failure. The real issue is that England have not been treating Sciver as a captain-in-waiting. They have been treating her as a captain-in-name-only, who simply executes decisions which seem to have already been made by Knight and Lisa Keightley before the match begins.
That can take you so far – but in crunch matches, like the semi-final against India, you need a captain who is equipped to think for themselves, who can come up with Plans C through to Z on the hoof, when Plans A and B fail. Has Sciver really been encouraged to develop that kind of independent thinking by England?
Imagine an alternative world, in which a year ago, England had decided that they were going to make a real effort to blood a proper successor for Knight. If you really want to think long-term, Sophia Dunkley is probably the most plausible candidate from the “next generation”. So appoint Dunkley as vice-captain. Allow her free rein to make some key decisions, even if you do that in “minor” matches against weaker opposition (e.g. those six white-ball games against South Africa). Give her the chance to captain the England Academy in warm-up games. Let her make mistakes. Allow her to be a real challenge to Knight’s authority.
Choose to do that a year ago, and losing your captain on the eve of a huge tournament is no longer a disaster. But they didn’t. And disaster it was.
Obviously, England can’t go back in time now – they’ve thrown away their chance to spend the past 12 months blooding Knight’s replacement, just like they threw away their chance at a bronze medal in the Commonwealth Games on Sunday.
But this should be a salient lesson for captain and coach. If you care about the future of this team, you need to let a future leader develop – really, truly, properly develop – and you need to do it now.