England series a stepping stone of a pillar towards the World Cup: Sophie Devine

New Zealand skipper Sophie Devine. © Getty Images

Sophie Devine entered a bio-bubble for the first time before the tour of Australia in 2020. New Zealand went through a 14-day hard quarantine, played the three ODIs and T20Is in a bio-secure environment. From there, she travelled to the Women’s Big Bash League village – another bio-bubble – in September and stayed there for a month. Once she got back to New Zealand, Devine played in the Super Smash and the Hallyburton Johnstone Shield under similar environments. Then came the England series at home in February 2021, followed by another series against Australia in March. 

In the eight months, Devine was in sublime form with the bat, scoring runs for fun in the domestic leagues both in Australia and New Zealand. She was the highest run-scorer in the Super Smash, third in WBBL06, averaged over 85 in the HBJ Shield games she played. Hell, she even smashed two centuries, including a record-breaking 38-ball 108* against Otago Sparks in the Super Smash.

For some reason, Devine was unable to replicate that success in international cricket. While the performances in the domestic competitions seemed good preparation for the home series against England and Australia, that wasn’t actually the case. She averaged 21.16 in ODIs and 12.85 in T20Is for New Zealand in the same period. The fact that the results, too, were not going their way did not help.

By the time the T20I series against Australia began, Devine had realised that she was exhausted mentally. On the eve of the second T20I against Australia, Devine had to skip the match due to illness, and her deputy Amy Satterthwaite had to step in. However, the 31-year-old realised that missing one game wasn’t a long-term solution for mental health, and therefore chose to take a sabbatical.

Devine stayed away from cricket, in her own bubble, for more than three months before returning to training in June. During the camp, Devine spoke extensively about the significance of mental health and what she did to get better.

Just remember that behind the helmets, bats, and the pad, there is a person under it too,” she had said. On the face of it, a rather obvious statement, but one that’s easily forgotten.

A week before the series against England, Devine reiterated the importance of mental health, stating that the break was necessary for her to get better. “It is just the same as any physical injury – your hamstring or hand. It is the same with the mind,” she tells Women’s CricZone in a video chat from Derby.                         

“I was in the bubble probably from August last year, through close to January. COVID is posing some difficult challenges, and for me, being in the bubble restricted living… (I had to go through) quite a few quarantines, self-isolations.”

“I guess it put me under strain, and I didn’t realise until deep into the cricket season. For me, it was really important that I took some time away from the game and spent some time with friends and family; to gain a little bit of perspective, but also to learn a few skills to try and learn with the new environment.”

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During the three months away from the game, Devine had worked with New Zealand Cricket psychologist Natalie Hogg. She said that Hogg played and continues to play a critical role in her recovery, and having a travelling psychologist could be “huge” for the well being of the players.

“I have got a great relationship with Nat Hogg, and have worked with her for a number of years. It is really important. I guess, one of the key strategies I have worked on is having constant communication with her whether things are going well or not so well. She has certainly been important for me in getting back to this space.”

With Amelia Kerr opting out of the England tour to take care of her mental health, the New Zealand skipper said that the team would miss the services of their star allrounder. However, Devine acknowledged that she understands Kerr’s decision more than anyone else, having gone through a similar phase earlier this year.

“I was fully supportive of Amelia’s decision to stick away. I guess, me more than anyone, would appreciate the importance of putting yourself first. The key thing is not just myself, but everyone in New Zealand Cricket understands that we are people first and cricketers second.”

“We will miss her, but we know that she is going to have to look after herself first and foremost. She will be coming back whenever she is ready, whenever that might be.”

While she was not able to replicate her form in domestic cricket to internationals, Devine felt that a big innings is just around that corner and that things will take a turn from there. In her first 50-over game since February, Devine got out for an 11-ball six against England A on Monday (August 23).

Sophie Devine

Sophie Devine has not been able to convert her form in domestic cricket to the international arena.

“I’m the first one to put my hand up and say, ‘my performances weren’t good enough’. But it wasn’t due to lack of trying or effort. It is important for me to stick to my process, knowing what I do well, and fingers crossed, the results will come on the park.”

Despite the absence of Kerr, the big positive for New Zealand and Devine going into the England series is the return of the experienced Suzie Bates, who is coming back from a shoulder injury. The veteran opener looked in good touch in the warm-up fixture, scoring 70 runs off 110 balls. 

The skipper said that she is delighted to have Bates back in the team, adding, “She played beautifully in the warm-up game. It was like she hasn’t been away at all. It settles some nerves for her, which is really important. She brings an amazing youthful buzz and energy, and I know it has already had a massive impact on the group.”

Devine also backed the other opener, Hayley Jensen, to perform in the series against England. Jensen averages 14.33 and 9.00 in ODIs and T20Is, respectively, in the last twelve months. New Zealand have struggled with the top-order as their previous 100-run opening partnership came in June 2018. However, the skipper said that the team has collectively failed to perform at the top in the recent past and that she believes Jensen would come good sooner than later.

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“She has only had a handful of games. We all know how tough it is, playing against the new ball. We have got full faith in her. Whoever opens, we have got to take the responsibility, and need to do a lot more with a bat, and then, hopefully, do the job with the ball.”

With the ODI World Cup scheduled to played in New Zealand next year, the White Ferns will want to better their ODI performance in the upcoming series. They have lost 14 of their last 15 games, with a solitary win against England, the first under Devine’s captaincy, at Dunedin in February 2021.

The skipper said that the team has been through several winter training camps at home, working hard to prepare for the World Cup.

“We had been holding camps every two weeks together as an extended squad, and have had five camps over the last ten weeks, which has been enormous for us. Spending some quality time training together with an eye on the world cup next year at home,” she said.

Devine added that they are excited to be in England and echoed the views of head coach Bob Carter, who said that the series would mark the beginning of their preparations for the World Cup.

“We know the challenge we are up against. We know that they are a quality side. They are the reigning world champions. We need to be at our best to win games here, but this is just a stepping stone of a pillar towards the World Cup next year.”

 

With inputs from S. Sudarshanan