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One of the country's most exciting cricketers profiled for issue 29 of Beyond the Boundaries.
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There should be little doubt that there is a lot to be excited about when it comes to Sophia Dunkley. Her career so far has broken many boundaries and it seems there are many more to come.
From becoming the first girl to play for Mill Hill School’s 1st XI and now the first black woman to play Test cricket for England, Dunkley has a right to be “very excited”. And yet it is not breaking records and boundaries that excites her, rather it is just about the boundaries.
Dunkley, by her own admission, takes “every game at a time” and is “very excited to play in the Ashes” with the best of the best, beginning in Adelaide on 20 January. A batter from day one in her cricketing career, scoring runs is her modus operandi. Having met her, albeit online, it is clear to see why success has found her so quickly and hopefully why it will not leave her for a good while.
The 23-year-old batter talks of how “the energy of several thousand people watching you at the Hundred was such a buzzing feeling.” This experience, she says, in particular has helped her feel prepared for the upcoming Ashes series.
It will be her first Ashes series and one that she is looking forward to eagerly. It is clear why she is already playing at the top level, her smile is constant and you would have to be very cynical to think that she was overly concerned about her first Ashes.
The confidence is clear as she describes how the England team “is a very close squad” and how “everyone supports each other so we feel we can do anything”. This foundation of support will no doubt prove vital on the tough tracks of Australia, but Dunkley is not overly concerned, rather she is “just excited for such a big opportunity.”
In an age when the importance of mental health is being increasingly recognised, it is valuable that one of England’s brightest future stars values hers so highly. Life inside the bubbles of professional cricket is widely accepted as difficult, and Dunkley is not immune to that: “It can be tough but I speak to my Mum after every game and my best friends text me after each one to see how I’m feeling”.
It is her support network of fellow cricketers, friends and family that helps her make the best of it. Dunkley’s parents are ever-present in their support, even “if they are physically separate,” and the words of her mother often help her to refocus on the big picture: “If I’m annoyed about the match, she always reminds me that it is only a game and it happens one game at a time.”
Of course, enjoying life once you’re back in the open world is imperative. Rests and recuperative holidays in late 2021 could prove vital when it comes to the endurance that the upcoming Ashes tour will ask of her.
Despite Dunkley admitting that she “doesn’t really have any idea about what’s going to happen,” her eagerness will not be dampened. This is a major moment for her, one that has been coming ever since her recall to the England squad in June 2020.
After her debut in 2018 and the tours of India and Sri Lanka in 2019, she had to deal with being dropped from the squad. “That was probably one of the hardest moments in my career. It’s not easy just thinking about it for ages but I had to come back and play my best.”
For every player this is a hard blow to take, but especially for a young batter. However, like so many greats of the game, it is how you bounce back from a painful blow that dictates the success of your career, and it seems she is bouncing back with aplomb.
Her peers certainly agree after Dunkley was shortlisted to win the 2021 cinch PCA Women’s and Women’s Young Player of the Year Awards following a highly impressive summer, featuring in all 15 England internationals last year.
Her two Player of the Season awards at Middlesex and the accolade of being the highest run-scorer in the 2019 Women’s County Championship illustrate an immediate response to being dropped. After those deserved successes, she cemented her place back in the England squad with an unbeaten 74 in her first Test against India. Look no further for an example of her ability.
Dunkley joins players with top-class pedigree, who have similarly performed brilliantly in their first Tests: Sir Alastair Cook, WG Grace, Sir Andrew Strauss and Nat Sciver, who took England Women’s first hat-trick during her first series.
"Helping those of diverse backgrounds access and enjoy cricket is one of the highest priorities in the game."
There is much hope in the future of Dunkley and it is easy to see why: her easygoing and relaxed nature is something that permeates through to her cricket and much of her life. Forget the high intensity of Strictly Come Dancing, her chosen game show of choice? “The Cube. I love the challenge of the games. I still watch it on TV.”
While the Cube is a game of intensity, it is also one of careful and deliberate calculation. A game that requires focus rather than the bravado and confidence of Strictly. And yet it seems Dunkley possesses all these attributes in abundance.
The increased power of the boys in the Mill Hill 1st XI “wasn’t scary, although it was difficult, that struggle was really positive for me.” Throughout her career adversity is something she has thrived off.
Despite being a part-time leg-spinner in her youth and at times professionally, Dunkley says “it has always been batting for me. I just loved getting to properly hit the ball and I still do.” Perhaps it is the calculation and timing of batting that also attracts her to the Cube.
Aside from her burgeoning reputation on the field, Dunkley is also playing a vital role off it. She has stepped up to replace the departing Katherine Brunt in the PCA’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Working Group.
When it comes to politics in cricket: “I wish it was something we didn’t have to talk about, but it is very important.” To Dunkley, helping those of diverse backgrounds access and enjoy cricket is something that is one of the highest priorities in the game. This is a role that she will no doubt shine in, as did Katherine Brunt, who she states is someone “I’m very close to, she has been so good and helpful to me.”
A sportsperson by nature, whether she is watching football or trying to readjust to “the different technique of tennis”, the 23-year-old enjoys her time off. That time off will prove increasingly important in the years to come, for if she is to truly reach her thrilling potential then she will need her mind to be in the best place possible.
But, with so much support around her, and such happy confidence in her game and life, fulfilling her potential is something we should be very confident about.
Sophia was profiled by Theo MacDonald for issue 29 of Beyond the Boundaries, originally published in November 2021. You can read the latest issue below or click here to access all previous issues.