Sophia Smale and Niamh Holland are currently in South Africa preparing for the ICC Under 19 T20 world cup.
The two Western Storm players were selected in the squad for the inaugural staging of the competition, which begins later this month.
We caught up with them both ahead of the tournament to see how preparations are going and what it means to be involved.
Sophia Smale: “It’s amazing. I’ve had my sights set on getting into the team and then working my way through to the England team via the Under 19s, so it’s a massive honour to be a part of the first Under 19 world cup for girls. We’re all really proud to be a part of this squad.”
Niamh Holland: “It’s such a great opportunity for all the players. I’m really grateful for the opportunity because a lot of people in the past haven’t had this chance because it’s the first world cup.”
It’s an exciting time to be involved with the women’s game. How pleased are you that cricket is now a genuine career path for local women and girls?
SS: “There are more opportunities for younger girls coming through regional cricket. It just goes to show that the game is growing, which is really good to see. When I was young, I always wanted to play for England, and the chance of playing professionally wasn’t really an option when I was younger. I’ve come along at just the right time because more and more professional contracts are being given out each year. I’m very fortunate to have one and it’s great that the women’s game is growing and growing. It’s so good to see that girls can make a living out of being a professional cricketer.”
NH: “Girls now can see that there really is a career for them in cricket. When I was younger, that wasn’t the case unless you played for England. That’s such a big step for the women’s game. At Storm, we play entertaining cricket and we get good crowds, especially at Taunton, and there’s a good pool of talent in the West Country especially at Club level. The regional set up really helps to push people towards the international level.”
Can you believe how much has happened in the last few years? You’ve gone from playing behind closed doors to representing your country at a world cup.
SS: “I can’t believe how quickly things have happened. It’s insane when I think about it. It was great to make my debut for Western Storm because I’d worked really hard to earn that. It was really special to be playing every week, but I never thought that the opportunity would come to play in The Hundred and I never thought that I would play every game. I still can’t believe what’s happened this year. To now be in the world cup squad is amazing.”
NH: “I never even thought that there would be an Under 19 world cup, let alone be playing in it! I’m just so grateful for the opportunity. Two years ago, if you’d said I’d be doing this I definitely wouldn’t have believed you. You never think these things will happen to you.”
How did you feel when you received your call up?
SS: “I was really hoping that I would get into the squad, so to get the email was incredible. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. To pull on an England shirt means a lot.”
NH: “It was so good! I was in college at the time and had just finished a lesson. I got a ‘phone call from a number that I didn’t know and I thought it was spam to be honest. I did think twice about answering it, but I’m glad I did. My mum was the first person I told, but she actually knew before me! I was under 18 at the time so the person who was informing the players of their selection had to tell the parents of the under 18s first. Therefore, she knew a few hours before I did, but she kept it quiet and did a very good job of acting shocked when I told her.”
How important a role has Western Storm played in you getting to this level?
SS: “They’ve helped a lot. I’ve worked my way up through the ranks since the age of about 13. Dan Helesfay has pushed me really hard and helped me to get here. I was really disappointed not to get a go in 2021 and I knew that I had to really prove myself. Dan gave me the opportunity to go to Desert Springs and I did well out there. Storm have given me so many opportunities and have played a huge part in my development over the years, as have Cricket Wales and everyone that I’ve worked with.”
NH: “Western Storm have had a big role to play. Being involved with the senior team has sort of set me up for this tour and has helped me no end when coming into this environment. Having that experience with the seniors over the summer has given me extra confidence to go into this. That’s really helped with the build-up over the winter.
“The West Country is such a big region and the more people that we can get to come and watch Storm, the more people will be entertained and want to be involved. The way that the regions are building the women’s game is really positive.”
It’s going to be an experience you’ll never forget.
SS: “It’ll be an amazing experience and playing for England is a dream, especially at a young age. It’s going to be really special. We know that we have to just go out there and put in the performances and enjoy it.”
NH: “I can’t wait, to be honest. We’re all so grateful for this opportunity that we’ve been given. We’re the first people to do this so it’s a real honour. The fact that this competition will be happening every two years is brilliant for the people coming through cricket pathways.”
In order to develop as a player, how important is it to be testing your skills in foreign conditions against the best players in the world?
SS: “I’m really looking forward to seeing how the South African wickets are going to play. We’ve been told that there’s a little more bounce in them, which for me isn’t a bad thing. It’ll be interesting to see if it will turn much and we will need to adapt. It’s great to be able to go to a different country and experience different cultures, grounds and climates.”
NH: “I’ve been lucky enough to go on a few tours and the experiences that you get abroad are different from what you get back home. It gives you a more rounded experience and that’s very important. It’s going to be such a good learning experience and hopefully I can take that into the English summer. All of us have learned so much already by being in this group together.”
Can England go all the way and win the competition?
SS: “I’m confident that we can win. We’ve got a very good group of people who are very talented. Some of them have played at the highest levels already in England. We’ve got a very strong team and everyone is fighting for places. England will be expected to do well, but hopefully we can go out there, have some fun and put in the performances that we know we can.”
NH: “We’re confident that we can win, but we have to respect all of the other countries. Anything can happen in tournament cricket, so anyone could win it. It’s important that we’re not complacent because every country has the right to be here. Everyone has qualified to be here so we have to treat every team the same. It will be interesting to see what happens.”