Sport

England face their first Test without Katherine Brunt and Anya Shrubsole

Anew era for England women’s cricket dawns on Monday as they begin a Test match – at Taunton, against South Africa – without Katherine Brunt and Anya Shrubsole for the first time in 14 years. With Shrubsole having retired from international cricket and Brunt stepping back to focus on white-ball cricket, Lisa Keightley says the summer represents the beginning of “a new cycle”. “We need to see which players are going to stick their hand up and lead the way with the ball,” says the coach.

Aiming to do precisely that is the 21-year-old quick Lauren Bell, who is in the frame to make her international debut after being included as a travelling reserve for the World Cup this year. “If it happens, which I’m still not sure if it will, it will be really exciting, a real proud moment,” Bell says. “It’s special to play this format of cricket.”

England could field as many as five Test debutants: Emma Lamb is set to open alongside Tammy Beaumont, while Bell is competing for a place with Issy Wong, Freya Davies and Alice Davidson-Richards.

Setting Bell apart are her prodigious inswing, pinpoint accuracy and above all her height – she is six foot tall and has been given the nickname “The Shard” by her teammates. Having been handed her Berkshire county cap by Heather Knight aged just 14, the prospect of receiving an England one from the same captain is a nice echo.

England are fresh from a topsy-turvy World Cup campaign in New Zealand. They were on the verge of elimination after losing their opening three matches but reached the final, only to be walloped by Australia. So they will be keen to get their new formula right as they go into another huge summer for women’s cricket: the Test match is part of a multi-format points-based series that includes three ODIs and three T20s. The second edition of the Hundred and a September series against India are also on the horizon.

The big event, though, will be women’s cricket’s debut at the Commonwealth Games. A T20 tournament is taking place at Edgbaston between 29 July and 7 August, a once-in-a-lifetime chance for England to win gold in front of a home crowd. All their matches are to be televised live on the BBC, offering a unique opportunity for the sport to reach a new audience.

For Bell, who first trained with the England squad in the summer of 2020 after impressing for Southern Vipers, it couldn’t be a more exciting time to make her mark. “If it’s my time then I feel confident and ready,” she says. “I haven’t been thrown in there too soon.”

Though she has played little red-ball cricket, Bell is not the only bowler taking a step into the unknown. Taunton will be the first women’s Test in the modern era to be played with a Dukes ball. The hope is that it will swing more and for longer, making a result more likely in the four days – something that certainly plays to Bell’s strengths. “With the Dukes ball you’ve got a bit more licence to try a few new things,” she says. “As a bowler there’s a little bit more in it for you. It’s exciting.”

The match will be the first England v South Africa women’s Test since 2003, sparking hopes that a broader revival of the red-ball international format could be on the cards in defiance of recent remarks by the ICC chair, Greg Barclay, that Tests are not “part of the landscape” for the women’s game. Keightley and the South Africa coach, Hilton Moreeng, have spoken out in favour of the women’s Tests while Knight also called out Barclay’s remarks.

“Test cricket is seen by a lot of people as the best and the most challenging form of the game,” she said. “It’s a dangerous message [for the ICC] to send, that women shouldn’t be playing what’s seen as the pinnacle of the game. We shouldn’t limit what women’s cricket can be and what it can do.”