I wrote this in July 2017 during the Women’s World Cup. The archive for All Out Cricket, the magazine for which I wrote it, seems to have largely disappeared so I’m uploading this, and possibly other articles, here for posterity.

Derbyshire CCC had put the call out to local club players to come and bowl to international teams while they were based at the county ground during the Women’s World Cup. Like a few other local hopefuls, I decided it was probably going to be my first and last chance to net with international cricketers, so I signed up.

I had been standing at the side of the nets for half an hour, waiting to be asked to bowl. I was neither warm nor loose. Suddenly the call comes. Now, my club team will tell you that my first delivery of a spell is something of a lottery. My bowling analysis after one ball frequently reads 0.1-0-4-0. So it’s fair to say that there was an element of trepidation as I marked out my run.

I picked up a white ball, stood at my mark and looked up to see Heather Knight at the crease, bat raised in anticipation. Yes, the England captain, having her last knock before her team would play on the opening day of the premier international women’s cricket tournament, one of the most important days of the players’ lives.

On the plus side, I made it to the bowling crease. From there, it went downhill. As I bowled, I felt as if I had momentarily inhabited someone else’s terminally uncoordinated body and following a confusion of limbs making a series of unrelated movements, I watched, powerless, as the ball landed – for the first time – nearer me than her, before looping in a miserable parabola and landing again three-quarters of the way down the net then finally falling miserably, ignominiously, ground-swallow-me-upingly into the side netting.

It’s amazing how long a few seconds can feel at moments like this. I jogged down the net to retrieve the ball and offer my apologies. The heavy silence was broken by the voice of a coach in the adjoining net, “One more in the side netting and you’re out.” I looked round to see if he was smiling. He was not.

I managed to land the next ball on the cut strip and spent the next 20 minutes trying to banish thoughts of side netting, the yips, beamers and broken fingers. Then I settled in, my body loosened up and I began to enjoy it. And by the time I got to Nat Sciver, I was bowling ok, induced an edge to first slip and am definitely claiming it as my first international wicket.

It was an interesting experience. Net bowlers are very much a commodity, human bowling machines to be switched on and off as required. You must be ready to bowl at any moment or be prepared to wait for an hour at the side until your type of bowling is required. Most volunteers were young and fit so their bodies, full of youth and vigour, seemed better suited than mine, full of age and inertia, to bowling on demand and without warning.

The day before the first match was a fascinating time to watch the England players close up. Brunt chirpy, Shrubsole deadly serious, Taylor busy and genial, most of the squad happy to sit and chat in groups when not required in the nets, happy to shoot the breeze. “The day before a game is very much the players’ time,” England coach Mark Robinson said, watching on. “They practise what they need to practise, maybe replicate what they might face out in the middle tomorrow. It’s important that the bowlers go and spend time in the middle, getting used to the ground and local conditions, see what it’s like bowling at either end and generally getting comfortable ahead of the game.

“I’ve already told the players who is in the starting eleven tomorrow. Sometimes I can do it the day before, other times we need to wait until matchday depending on the pitch, conditions, injuries and so on. Those in the side can focus on preparing well and it’s important for us to look after those who haven’t made the team. Apart from anything else, they’re only one injury away from playing.”

Watching the players from 22 yards, perhaps the most consistently striking feature of the batsmen was their timing. Tammy Beaumont in particular timed it beautifully, sending the net bowlers to the cover and mid-wicket boundaries with regularity. Sarah Taylor was less expansive and adventurous than I expected, perhaps still working her way back towards 100% – although never missing out on the chance to absolutely leather any half-trackers through midwicket. Having bowled to Heather Knight and Nat Sciver, I bowled to Fran Wilson, solid and powerful, and Danni Wyatt, full of energy and purpose. Then Alex Hartley and the chirpy Danielle Hazell batted while Anya Shrubsole practised hitting length balls for six in the next net.

Throughout, Mark Robinson stood and watched, occasionally having a brief conversation with a player or group. He cuts a thoughtful and largely inscrutable figure, his natural stance being arms folded and head tilted slightly to one side. However, he is calm, approachable and friendly, and has clearly formed an excellent and trusting relationship with the team.

As the session drew to a close, Mark Robinson was happy to chat. He had been quite content with all the net bowlers and thanked us for our time. Mark’s only slight concern had been the difference between the surface in the nets and the playing surface. The nets were a little slow, stopping a bit, turning and had some variable bounce, whereas the track the next day was expected to be a belter. He remained fairly phlegmatic about it though. “It is what it is,” he said. “It’s just that if anyone’s out of nick with the bat, this sort of surface can make it worse.”

A few days later and New Zealand were in town. I waited with half a dozen clubbies while the NZ team warmed up on the outfield. They were soon into a game of touch rugby – and the previously relaxed conviviality of the group changed quickly to intense competitiveness.

Moving into the nets, the atmosphere immediately felt different to when England were in town – probably indicative of the fact that NZ had just easily won their first game, while England had been facing the pressured prospect of the first match of a home tournament. As the net practice went on, the atmosphere remained utterly focused but also calm, with a real sense of underlying confidence.

The coach watching on was the epitome of that calmness. Even when one batsman got pinned by a bouncer, he took so long to walk down to see if she was ok that that by the time he reached her, she’d got up, dusted herself off, shaken her fingers and taken guard again. No dramas.

The bowler of the bouncer – and a number of others – was Lea Tahuhu. She was distinctly sharp and the only bowler across the two days that I saw bend the back netting at head height.

My own bowling was much steadier this time and I was fortunate enough to bowl at NZ’s two high-class batsmen, Suzie Bates and Amy Satterthwaite, who went about their business unostentatiously but classily. While still working on their own games, they were also giving feedback to the younger bowlers in the squad. I didn’t manage to get either out but did nick off one of the following pair for my second international scalp.

All the NZ players, and the coach, thanked the net bowlers for their efforts, which was a nice touch after two or three hours bowling to them. They’re a genial group (unless they’re playing touch rugby) and it was a pleasure to be a small part of their preparations.

Indeed, bowling to both England and New Zealand was a pleasure and a privilege – a high point in the bewildering litany of mediocrity that has characterised my recent cricketing life. I was able to stand and watch at close quarters two of the best international teams prepare for their biggest competition. While I’m not exactly expecting a call-up to the England’s next training camp, I hope my contribution helped the cause. Apart from that first ball…sorry Skip.