Timing and grace are the first two words that come to mind when I think of England women’s captain Charlotte Edwards. The timing has been evident over the course of her two decade career, dotted by so many of those trademark flicks and cuts.
For twenty years she has been a constant reassuring presence in the England top order, and the most obstinate of obstacles for oppositions. For twenty years, she has been knocking down boundaries as well as notching them up: from being the schoolgirl who lead a boys team, to becoming the teenager who scored a century in only her second ODI; or from having to pay for her own England blazer, to being among the first professionally contracted female cricketers in the country.
While her intrepid longevity itself is a thing to be marvelled at, it does not dilute the volume of her achievements - winning the Ashes after 42 years in 2005, captaining the side to the giddy highs of 2009, when England claimed both the 50 over and T20 World Cups, back to back Ashes wins in 2013 and 2014, and more than 200 international caps.
Her tally of 4844 ODI runs means that she tops a luminous list, ahead of fellow legends Belinda Clark and Mithali Raj. She also holds the record for most runs in T20Is. A CBE and Wisden Cricketer of the Year award also sit on her mantelpiece, but her highest accolade might be that “she has remained constant, true to herself”, in the words of her former skipper Clare Connor.
Her grace on and off the field has been as impressive as her timing on it, if not more. I first saw it back in 2007, before the quadrangular tournament in Chennai . After her team beat us in a warm-up match, she came over to my new ball partner and me, and said, “Well bowled, you She didn’t have to. But a smile and a few kind words seem to come as naturally to her as runs did from her bat. "My personal record and team record stands for nothing, really," she said. “But being a role model for young girls... that is really special to me.”
Her grace was apparent in the manner of how she responded to her retirement as well. While she has said on a number of occasions that she wanted to play the 2017 World Cup in England, her retirement has been precipitated by the vision of England coach Mark Robinson. After their loss to Australia in the Women's World T20 semi final, Robinson stressed that England needed fitter players.
The 36-year-old Edwards, despite her dominance with the bat, worked within the limitations of her twice operated right knee and was the least athletic in the side. Also, counter-intuitive though it may seem, her consistency with the bat had meant that the team was overly reliant on her, and the rest of the batting had not flowered in her shadow. After Robinson made it clear that she did not fit into his England plans, she selflessly put the team first, despite her hunger or skills being undiminished. Like Han Solo, she was prematurely and unexpectedly removed from an era she helped define, by her own creation.
I imagined such a scenario being played out in Indian cricket, and I could not help but visualise a certain amount of dirty laundry flying through the air. While the professional era does demand such measured and polite responses to less than fairytale endings, the grace with which Edwards has left international cricket has left it richer.
If all this talk of grace gives the impression that Edwards was a softie on the field, then you have never seen her in action. One innings that stands out in my memory is the ODI hundred she scored against India at Scarborough in 2014. After a shock Test loss to the inexperienced Indian team, she was under pressure even before the game began. Then Jhulan Goswami got the ball to talk on a bitterly cold morning, blowing away the middle order and subjecting Edwards to a thorough examination of her technique, even giving her a painful blow on the gloves. Edwards shook it off, weathered the cold and the Goswami-storm and carried her bat to register a hundred. With the next highest score being 23, she had singlehandedly propped up a batting order that was limping worse than Cormoran Strike, and helped England secure the series.
For twenty years, she has been the common denominator while the landscape of women’s cricket shifted around her, and in no small part, because of her. She and Clare Connor, now head of women’s cricket at the ECB, formed a formidable one-two punch combo in the fight to take women’s cricket into greener pastures. While Connor has rung in the revolution from the boardrooms, Edwards has consistently justified every move with results on the field. But since they achieved a long standing goal - professional contracts for female players - the slide in Edwards’ fortunes as captain has been accentuated.
A shock test loss to India and an Ashes loss at home, both in the glare of unprecedented media interest meant that her captaincy was under scrutiny. After the recent World T20, she was expecting to be replaced at the helm, but when the extent of Robinson’s plans became apparent, she chose to go out selflessly, putting the team first, as she always has.
“For me to get closure and the team to move on, which is the most important thing, the decision had to be made,” an affected Edwards told the press. “They are the most important people right now.” She would have liked to go out on terms entirely of her choosing, but it was not to be.
For once, Charlotte Edwards’ timing had failed her. But her grace had not.