The Summer of Sophia: A gift that keeps on giving

Sophia Dunkley celebrates her century © Getty Images

Sophia Dunkley turned 24 on July 16. A lot has changed for the England batter in the last 13 months. Before June last year, Dunkley was just another talent with a few T20I caps to her name. But since then, she has had a homerun – to borrow a term from another sport – in international cricket, where she has become an integral part of the England set up with eye-catching performances.

Having made assured debuts in Tests and ODIs, Dunkley travelled Down Under and came through a tough Ashes campaign before playing a key part in England’s run to the final of World Cup 2022. The next target for the young batter was to find a place in the crowded England top-order. Although she made her desire to bat in the top four clear, it wasn’t expected that Dunkley would move up to number three so quickly, having made the finisher spot her own with some telling knocks.

But with England shedding their conservative selection calls recently, it didn’t take much for them to make that change with an eye on the next cycle – the South Africa ODIs are not part of the ICC Women’s Championship. Dunkley came in to bat at number three in the first ODI post the World Cup and she scored a fluent 22.

In the second match of the ODI leg on her birthday eve, Dunkley walked in at number three and became the first black woman to score an international century for England and it wasn’t as easy as she made it look by the end.

“They really bowled well to me when I first came in, and I found it quite tricky just to get going. It was just about building a partnership with Nat (Natalie Sciver) and setting up a platform to go off at the end,” Dunkely said after the match.

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Dunkley was hit on the pads on the second delivery she faced off Chloe Tryon and she was also beaten by Marizanne Kapp in the next few balls. Boundaries were hard to come by at both the ends after a terrific start and having only made 12 runs from her first 24 balls, Dunkley resorted to some hard running between the wickets in the next few balls.

England didn’t score a boundary in that 12 over period, where they also lost the set openers. And Dunkley finally decided to end the boundary drought with a couple of fours. She gave herself room by moving away from the stumps and whacked Ayabonga Khaka over mid-off before driving her through mid-on for another boundary.

Once that happened, the floodgates were opened and South Africa never came back into the bowling innings, with Dunkley and Sciver letting their attacking instincts take over.

“I think of the internationals (where) you get a lot of good bowlers upfront – really threatening bowlers like Kappie (Marizanne Kapp) and Ismail (Shabnim Ismail), who have done it for years and years now. So, just how to play that and how to get into the role and naturally, my aggressive nature is suited to it and my team obviously trusts myself to do that,” Dunkley added about her role at number three.

“If you see, you get a lot more time and you kind of want to build an innings – with Nat and Heather (Heather Knight) coming behind me – So, it gives me (time to do that). And we kind of managed to do that pretty well and in case of a couple of early wickets, they have got it in the locker.”

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From 23 off 38, Dunkley scored 27 runs from the next 23 balls with three boundaries. But it didn’t feel like she was in any rush and post her 50, she went into overdrive, with Sciver also teeing off at the other end.

Dunkley first slapped Kapp through backward-point for a boundary immediately after reaching her 50. But it was the Ismail over – the 43rd of the innings – that showed what the dashing batter can do as a number three. With their innings already reaching the backend, Dunkley unleashed the finisher in her and took on the South Africa speedster.

Sophia Dunkley

Natalie Sciver (L) and Sophia Dunkley © Getty Images

Ismail’s first delivery was in the slot and Dunkley launched it over long-on for her first maximum of the innings and like any self-respecting pacer, Ismail was going to respond with the shorter stuff. With the bowler giving width on the off-side, Dunkley cut the second delivery for a four and then left the third ball – a short-pitched one – alone. On the fourth ball of the over, came the best shot of the match. Dunkley rocked back to upper cut another short delivery over point for the second six of the over.

Boundaries came thick and fast from there, even as Sciver fell in pursuit of one of them. In the 48th over, Dunkley added another historic feat to her nascent career as a single off Nadine de Klerk brought her first ODI century. The feat came in 87 balls, with the second fifty coming in just 26 deliveries.

It was in Bristol, that Dunkley made history as the first black woman to play Test cricket for England and she has never looked back since.

Sophia Dunkley on her Test debut © Getty Images

“I have had some great memories of Bristol and it’s a great ground to play at. Yeah, some great memories there and hopefully more in the future,” Dunkley concluded.

It’s hard to predict what the future holds, but between those two innings at the scenic County Ground in Bristol, Dunkley has not just displayed some terrific batting, but has already carved out a place in English cricket history.