The independent voice of cricket


Ismail and Sciver-Brunt: In the mould of fierce fast bowlers

Shabnim Ismail and Katherine Sciver-Brunt
by Karunya Keshav 5 minute read

Fast-bowling powerhouses Shabnim Ismail and Katherine Sciver-Brunt, the fiercest of them all, retired the same week from international cricket. Karunya Keshav looks back at what made them aggressive on the outside, soft on the inside, and awe-inspiring role models for several young girls to follow.

‘Fierce’, ‘fiery’, and alliterative phrasal constructions thereof have followed both Shabnim Ismail and Katherine Sciver-Brunt all through their careers. Now that they have announced their retirement from international cricket in the same week, and a reflection of the lives and careers of two of the greatest fast bowlers of our time is pertinent, using those same descriptors seems reductive.

Surely a combined 25 years and 652 wickets in top-flight cricket can serve up a paean of more eloquence?


But, but, but – that’s who they were. Fierce. Fiery. Fast.

It was really that simple.

In recent years, South Africa’s Ismail has regularly claimed the top few places on the list of fastest (recorded) deliveries in women’s cricket – she touched 127.4 kph at the T20 World Cup earlier this year, giving her the fastest recorded ball in World Cups. A decade ago, Brunt dominated those charts for England, staking her claim to being the world’s fastest with speeds of 124 kph.

The two took the stereotype of a fast bowler as they first saw it – Andre Nel for Ismail, Darren Gough for Brunt – found something that spoke to who they were within, and ran, ran fast with it. Ismail was diminutive, Sciver-Brunt wasn’t the tallest either, but they bossed their space. The intimidating glares punctuating their spells, the pulsing veins, the faces contorted in victorious snarls and fists pumping at the sight of cartwheeling stumps, the reputations at the top and tail of the bowling innings – they claimed it all.

And then, they elevated it.

At a time when women’s cricket needed big characters to carry its story to new audiences, Ismail and Sciver-Brunt were there, firing up the highlights reels with both skill and emotion.

‘Fiery’, in fact, is a description Ismail herself leant into. She once told me it fit her better than ‘aggressive’. She saw in it something positive: passion for the sport, hunger for competition and confidence in her own ability.

It was to love running in, hitting the deck hard and bowling fast, over and over again. It was the intensity in her bowling and expertise with the short ball.

They called her ‘the demon’ back when she was just starting out. But she wasn’t trying to put the fear of god in a batter; if that happened it was a happy side-effect. What she did was simply between her, the ball, and the three sticks at the end of the deck; the batter was just in the unfortunate position of getting in the way.

For Sciver-Brunt, the fire was in the fight. So much so that she had to work on controlling how brightly she burned. She needed the adrenaline rush to push her to bowl fast.

Before Michael Jordan and Netflix made it a meme, She Took That Personally. Sometimes the fight was with her own body. In recent years, it manifested most visibly with a batter half her age who had the audacity to take her on. Sometimes her own teammates were singed.

“When I’m on that pitch, I’m a different being,” she once said in these pages. She wore that fierceness with pride like the black eye she sported while taking 3-6 in the 2009 T20 World Cup final against New Zealand at Lord’s.

‘Fiery’ for Ismail and Sciver-Brunt was also in the absence of self-doubt. “I’m the best at what I do,” Ismail was rarely bashful in proclaiming, and you can almost see Brunt grab the ball to brook no argument.

This is not ego, nor narcissism. They knew they could be the best at what they do because their long-time new-ball partners, Marizanne Kapp for Ismail and Anya Shrubsole for Sciver-Brunt, were also the best at what they do.

This is also not about the stat that they are the leading limited overs wicket-takers for their countries. It reflected their confidence in their own ability; they were potent because they believed – and needed to believe – that they were the best.

And they did so for the longest time. They began in a different era. When they had other jobs to support their cricket and support for a fast bowler’s battered back wasn’t what it is now. Both were among the first in their countries to get contracts. Both saw the game progress from amateur, to semi-amateur, to professional.

In a tale as old as time, the beauty was that these stalwarts, who turn on beast mode on the field, were fallible and vulnerable off it.

When after a suspension for a Cricket South Africa code of conduct breach she returned to the middle, Ismail, a member of a minority community, was deeply conscious of the influence she could have on others. She was earnest, and lit up when talking about a young girl at the academy back home who looked up to her.

Sciver-Brunt, bullied in her younger years, has often been described as shy off the field. By her own account, having overcome her own homophobia, she opened doors for so many others by becoming the first contracted England player to go public with her same-sex relationship with teammate Natalie Sciver.

Sciver-Brunt grumbled a few years ago how fast bowling hasn’t quite kept up with how quickly the rest of the game has progressed. That, too, is changing.

A host of young speedsters, moulded in this professional era, are challenging the speed gun. The competition to claim the mantle of ‘the best, the fastest’ could get fiercer than ever.

Ismail and Sciver-Brunt would approve.

Have Your Say

Become a Wisden member

  • Exclusive offers and competitions
  • Money-can’t-buy experiences
  • Join the Wisden community
  • Sign up for free
Latest magazine

Get the magazine

12 Issues for just £39.99