For ‘London girl’ Naomi Dattani, leaving Sunrisers and moving up north to Old Trafford offers a new environment along her journey towards reaching her full potential, writes Katya Witney.
For all of us, leaving our hometown to seek a new beginning in a bright and exciting new city, there comes the hope of better than what has come before, and the fear that maybe we will end up back where we started. But, it is the leap of faith into the unknown that often brings the biggest rewards.
That is certainly what Dattani is hoping for as she joins a rapidly developing squad at North West Thunder, after spending the majority of her career based in London, where she grew up. Across a 14-year career, Dattani has played for pretty much every London team going over the various incarnations of the women’s domestic setup. She began with the Middlesex senior side when she was still a teenager, and captained them in 50-over cricket in 2017. She also crossed the river to play for the Surrey Stars in the Kia Super League, before signing for Sunrisers when regional cricket was introduced in 2020.
“I guess there were a few reasons, on and off the pitch,” Dattani tells Wisden.com of her decision to leave Sunrisers. “I wanted a little bit of change and I just felt like I needed a new environment. When I first wanted to see what was out there, I had never really explored the other regions in general and Thunder looked really exciting with the programme that they had. It seemed like they had a really professional setup to push the women’s game forward and it was just something that really attracted me to moving and it was something that I felt I needed.
“It was a really tough decision and a really emotional one. So by no means was it easy.”
North West Thunder have one of the most professional setups of all the women’s domestic regions. Being based at Old Trafford with all its facilities is a huge attraction compared to Northampton and Chelmsford where Sunrisers are based. Apart from that, the squad contains several leading names in international cricket, both home-grown and from overseas. Kate Cross, Sophie Ecclestone and Emma Lamb are among the England names in the side, while Deandra Dottin spent a brief stint in the region last summer before playing for the Manchester Originals in The Hundred.
“Just being around three England girls, obviously they bring a wealth of experience from the international stuff which is really exciting,” says Dattani. “And then the cohort of coaches that Thunder provide with Paul Shaw as head coach, it was kind of like, they tick every box around me as a fast bowler and then as a batter. I’m really looking forward to it, I’ve been enjoying working with them and having a fresh pair of eyes on my game as well.”
The Sunrisers will sorely miss her. Their leading run-scorer in the Charlotte Edwards Cup in 2022, Dattani also took six wickets in the competition. The innings that will live longest the memory, however, is her 106 not out in April against the MCC, making her only the sixth woman to score a century at Lord’s. But, as professionalism has swept across the women’s game in England over the last three years, it has brought with it opportunities to seek out new challenges and better environments in which to reach new heights of performance.
Now 28, Dattani has never represented England in senior cricket, and is part of the first generation of female cricketers whose career is not dependent on international caps. She was part of the first cohort of domestic players to be professionally contracted in England, ahead of the 2020 season. Without being tied down to jobs at the same time as playing top-flight domestic cricket, players can push themselves beyond the ceiling imposed by constant financial worry.
“You know, I’ve always had the goal for as long as I’ve been playing to hopefully play for England one day,” says Dattani. “But I guess now it’s just about doing what’s in the here and now and making sure this new challenge and all the new things that I’m developing lead me towards that goal. But as I said, it’s more about achieving my full potential and getting to my full potential, but England honours, that would be amazing.
“From the moment that I became professional in what, June 2020, from that time I didn’t really have to work a second job basically. I was a coach at a school and I’d do my own private stuff and before I used to have to rush and do my own training, which was also independent and then rush off to coaching, and I’d be on my feet for however long.
“So now I can go to training and actually rest and recover and you don’t realise until you do it day in, day out how much rest and recovery is really important for an athlete. When I was younger I never thought that cricket could be a career unless you play for England, so education was a massive driver for me, going to university and all of that. Whereas now a young girl can have aspirations to be a cricketer at a professional level without playing for England.”
Despite making the move up North, Dattani’s cricket ties to London remain in place. She is a firm fixture in the London Spirit XI, having played almost every match for them over the last two editions of The Hundred. When the draft is introduced for the women’s Hundred next year, Dattani may have to find her place in another new city for the month of the franchise competition, but her preference is more than clear: “I’m a London girl, of course I’d love to stay at London Spirit and play at Lord’s as well.
“I think there’s a little bit of nervousness around potentially going to a new team but I guess the way I see it, if you put yourself in the draft and you’re being picked up, you’re showing that you’re more valuable to that team. At the end of the day, it comes down to the cricket that you play and having the best opportunity to play in that team and show off what you’re about.
“Of course I’d love to be retained by the Spirit: that would be ideal.”