Jo Harman speaks to Sophie Ecclestone, the world’s No.1 ranked T20I bowler, about her path to the peak of the world game, captaincy ambitions, and wanting to play more Test cricket.
During the Women’s T20 World Cup early last year, Sophie Ecclestone, at the age of 20, became officially the best T20I bowler in the world. In the midst of a tournament which ended limply for England as the rain refused to relent in Sydney, the left-arm spinner’s rise to the summit of the ICC’s rankings didn’t receive much fanfare, but it’s a title she shows no sign of giving up.
Since December 2019, Ecclestone has taken 30 wickets in 19 T20Is at an average of 10.83 with an economy rate of 4.69. No one has taken more wickets in that period, and no bowler from a Full Member nation has a better average or economy. She is both a strike bowler (her career strike-rate is the fourth best in the history of the format) and a miserly container. In short: a captain’s dream.
The Cheshire-born 21-year-old might not have the same profile as Heather Knight, Nat Sciver, Tammy Beaumont or Katherine Brunt, but she has become just as pivotal to England; a precocious talent who has evolved into a bowler as dependable as any in the game.
“I spoke to the coaches a couple of years ago and a long-term goal for me was to be No.1 in the world in the bowling rankings,” Ecclestone tells Wisden.com. “It came really quick and I wasn’t expecting it. It was a massive achievement for me and I just want to stay there for as long as I can.
“It does come with a bit of pressure, but I’ve worked hard for that spot and it shows that work is paying off. Everyone has their insecurities in cricket. Everyone has their bad games and doubts themselves, so it’s quite nice to have that confidence to be able to say, ‘I’m No.1 in the world’.”
Gareth Breese, the former Durham spin-bowling all-rounder who is now England Women’s assistant coach, notes the rapid development in Ecclestone’s “game-awareness”, and says he has watched her develop into the complete package.
“The pace she bowls at is something different in the women’s game,” says Breese. “Matched up with her consistency, batters don’t have as much time to negotiate what they want to do. She gets pace naturally without needing to strive for it, and with her height she gets bounce. To back that up, you’ve got her competitive nature. That sometimes sets her apart from other players, in terms of how competitive she gets when games are on.”
It’s nearly five years since Ecclestone, then 17, made her England debut in an ODI against West Indies. She’s now played 71 times for her country but insists: “I don’t see myself as a senior player yet. People still have to look after me when we go away from home.”
That preference to operate in the background, to fill a more junior role, has no doubt contributed to her lower profile. She gives fewer interviews than many of her England teammates and has so far opted out of appearing in the Big Bash in Australia because it would mean more time away from home. “It’s quite a long time away after a long summer with England and I’m not very good away from home,” she says. “I’m a bit of a home bird. I need to put England as my priority, but I’d love to play one year.”
Ecclestone has, though, featured at the Women’s T20 Challenge in India for the last two years – supposedly the precursor to a full women’s IPL should the BCCI ever get around to organising it. She was outstanding at the last edition, taking 4-9 in her opening match and helping Trailblazers win the title.
It was another significant stepping-stone in her development – as much off the field as on it – and Breese is starting to see her leadership qualities shine through, particularly within a youthful spin triumvirate which also includes the 21-year-old leg-spinner Sarah Glenn (who sits two places behind Ecclestone in the T20I rankings after a superb start to her England career), and the 22-year-old off-spinner Mady Villiers.
“Socially it really helps her, especially on tour,” says Breese. “The three of them are interested in a lot of the same things. I think it’s been massive for Soph, and the girls bounce off her. She’s become a bit of a leader in that group and she shows the other girls that while she might be No.1 [in the rankings], she’s still pushing herself. That’s such a good example for the group as a whole.”
But while Ecclestone is enjoying the added responsibility of spearheading England’s spin attack, she says captaincy isn’t something she’s given much thought to. “It’s not something I’ve got much experience of doing. I’ve done it for a couple of games [in non-professional matches], and I did enjoy doing it, but it’s just the amount of thinking that Heather [Knight] does. I think it’s mad, how much she does for the team, and outside of cricket, too. Her brain must be working overtime. It’s a big role but I wouldn’t say it’s beyond me. Heather can keep that role for a while, though. She can do it for as long as she wants!”
Aside from Everton’s faltering bid for a Europa League spot (“I’ve never seen them win a trophy! My boyfriend is a Liverpool fan which really does not help the situation”) and her beloved cavapoo Rex (“He’s definitely top of my priorities”), Ecclestone has plenty to occupy her in the weeks and months ahead.
She’ll play for Manchester Originals in The Hundred, and hopes to turn out for Thunder in the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy before embarking on an international season which includes visits from India and New Zealand. Front and centre in that summer schedule is an unexpected opportunity to play Test cricket outside of an Ashes series, with England taking on India in a four-day match at Bristol, beginning on June 16.
“A Test match is always a massive occasion for women’s cricket,” says Ecclestone. “We don’t get to play them very often, and I’d love to play more than we do, so it’s nice to have one this summer and another in the Ashes. I’m really excited to get the whites on again. In Test cricket you’re trying to bowl your best ball as often as you can for as many overs as you can, which is very different to what I’m used to in T20 when you need to mix it up. It’s something you have to work on in the nets, just trying to hit the same spot every time. I’ve not won a Test match yet in the two that I’ve played so hopefully we can change that.”
Spinning England to a Test match win would be another notable addition to Ecclestone’s burgeoning CV, and help to bring her the wider acclaim her performances have deserved. Breese suspects she’s not too concerned about the latter.
“I don’t think that’s something she’s necessarily too bothered about,” he says. “It’s like it was with the No.1 ranking – it will happen in time. I think Soph’s happy and when she’s happy that’s when she’s at her best. Those things will come when they’re due.”