Confident South East Stars aim for lift-off

South East Stars celebrate a wicket. © Getty Images

There is a growing sense of confidence in the South East Stars camp at the start of a new season as they look to improve on an underwhelming beginning to life as a professional outfit. The Natasha Farrant-led Stars kick off their 2021-22 summer in Chelmsford on Saturday (May 29) where they will take on the Sunrisers who they beat twice in the shortened first year of the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy last summer, their only victories of the tournament.

Farrant though believes that being able to spend time together as a squad during the winter has made a key difference as they enter the first full year of the new competition. New head coach Johann Myburgh is also optimistic, setting out his aim for the Stars to be one of the best teams in the tournament.

Speaking to Women’s CricZone Farrant said: “The standard [in the tournament] is really high and we’re going to have to perform at our best. I don’t think as a team we fulfilled our potential last year. We’re a very young squad.

“There are loads of positives to take out from last summer, but we’re going to have to perform at a high level to beat other teams.

“It does feel very different having had a winter block together and there are a lot more games this summer. So, there’s a lot of opportunities for us as a team to perform.”

The Stars, who draw players from across south London, Surrey and Kent, have completed an extensive winter training programme developed by Myburgh. Among those taking part were the club’s five full-time professionals, Farrant, vice-captain Bryony Smith, Sophia Dunkley, Alice Davidson-Richards and Aylish Cranstone. Crucially though, the winter has allowed the pros to work alongside members of the wider Stars squad all hoping to secure summer ‘pay-as-you-play’ contracts. Thirteen of these were announced by the Stars this week.

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“What I’ve been most impressed about this winter is those girls from the wider squad, the amount that they’ve trained and put in,” Farrant said.

“They made a lot of sacrifices they needed to break into the summer squad. It was going to be tough because we have a really strong region. Hopefully, we’ll see some really good performances from the girls this season.”

In the Stars camp, only Freya Davies has a full England central contract. The new domestic professional deals therefore offer a life-changing opportunity to other England fringe players, something which Farrant and Dunkley spoke about this week.

Top-order batter Cranstone, 26, the only one of Stars’ five full-time professionals yet to play for England, says she is benefiting from the new set-up.

“It’s really nice to have the opportunity to be recognised for your performances and efforts over the years,” she said. “But also, for me, my career is only just beginning, and I still feel young.”

“I’m probably playing the best I’ve played and to get the opportunity to now train more and, and really perfect those things that you’ve been really putting the work into for a number of years. I guess the progress was probably a little bit slower when I was younger.”

Aylish Cranstone © Getty Images

Aylish Cranstone guides a delivery behind point. © Getty Images

Investment in women’s cricket by the Stars – as well as by Surrey and Kent – has really benefited players like Cranstone. It’s meant increased opportunities to train and access to strength and conditioning coaches and physios. It stands in contrast to the early years of Cranstone’s career when only limited training opportunities existed outside of monthly England training programmes at Loughborough.

Cranstone, who was part of the Surrey Stars side that lifted the Women’s Cricket Super League Trophy in 2018, said young girls coming into the game should be excited about the opportunities available to them.

“Whereas for a lot of us, we tried really hard for a long number of years. And maybe when you didn’t quite get into those England programmes, at maybe 20, 21, 22, you started thinking, what shall I do now, where will my career take me? So, to have this opportunity now, is fantastic.”

“It really feels like it’s opening a lot of doors for a lot of girls who didn’t potentially get where they wanted to be when they were a bit younger.”

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“The girls that are coming through now have trained phenomenally this winter. You see their development year on year is just shooting really high. Our wider squad have grabbed those opportunities and you can see the improvements massively within the squad. It’s a really exciting time.”

Former Somerset batsman Myburgh has been impressed by what he found on taking over the head coach reins from Jonathan Batty.

“We’ve got a very well-balanced squad with some terrific athletes. You can expect girls that are going to go out and compete and show a lot of energy on the field. We’ve also done a lot of hard work on our fielding.”

“We want to be up there with one of the best in the tournament. We’ve got a lot of skill in our squads with a lot of versatility. We’ve got a very exciting squad of players that cover a lot of bases and want to play a nice attacking brand of cricket.”

For much of the winter though, Myburgh had to negotiate government COVID guidelines and restrictions while planning the squad’s training programmes. At times, only two players could come into train at one time.

“Credit to the girls – they were terrific – and the staff. They were stretched and the girls responded really well to getting in and each player doing what they needed to do to develop themselves. I’ve seen a big improvement in the physical side, our fitness, our strength as a group and also the skill side.”

A stint playing in the Women’s County T20 has been useful preparation – a competition in which Farrant lifted the trophy as captain of a victorious Kent side.

Natasha Farrant © Getty Images

Natasha Farrant is confident her side can put in a much improved display this season. © Getty Images

Richard Bedbrook, Regional Director of Cricket for London and South East, was encouraged by what he says was a noticeable improvement in standards in that county T20 competition, particularly in games between Surrey and Kent. It’s another sign of how standards are rising in the region.

For now though, attention turns to Stars’ opening two fixtures this Bank Holiday weekend including a tricky encounter on Monday (May 31) against last year’s dominant champions Southern Vipers.

Vice-captain Bryony Smith says the Vipers are the team to beat. Stars will be looking for revenge after Georgia Adams’ team overwhelmed them last year by 111 runs. Their second encounter last season was closer, but Vipers still emerged victorious by four wickets.

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“We play them close to the start of the season and hopefully we can go into that and put a real mark down and say, right we’re here to compete,” she says. “If we beat the champions then teams are going to fear us, so let’s aim for Monday!”

Cranstone gives her thoughts on the summer ahead: “Maybe we didn’t quite fulfil our potential last season and I just think we’re in such a different place this year.”

“We need to just take every game as it comes, every side is looking really strong. Like ourselves, everyone’s put in a really hard shift over the winter. If we can really push for those wins in every game, then we’re going to be in a really good place.”

Fast bowling allrounder Alice Davidson-Richards agrees: “I don’t think we’ve fully shown how well we can bat and how well we can bowl and put that together.”

“So, it’s exciting going forward into the season, being able to nail both batting and bowling in a game. Obviously, Southern Vipers are there, but I’d be pretty chuffed beating everyone. Every game, for me is there for us to win.”