In association with Virgin Money Giving, The Mixed Zone has helped produce a series of video documentaries in which two leading sportswomen have the opportunity to sit down and quiz each other about their careers. In the first programme, to be aired by Virgin Media today, two of this country’s most celebrated female captains – cricket’s Charlotte Edwards and hockey’s Kate Richardson-Walsh – talk intimately about their careers. And Mixed Zone editor Sue Mott provides the behind-the-scenes story of the meeting. Both women have been in the news recently: Kate because she is about to lead Britain’s hockey team at the Olympic Games in Rio; ‘Lottie’ because of her enforced retirement from the England captaincy role that had consumed her for the past ten years
A cricket pitch. An unbroken blue sky. Church tower posing pictorially beyond the boundary. The odd beer being pulled in the club house. A gaggle of girls warming up for the match and a young beagle threatening to be an unruly spectator. A classic scene at Maidenhead and Bray Cricket Club into which a bolt of excitement is about to be inserted.
The arrival of two of England’s greatest and longest-serving sportswomen prompts an outpouring of noisy excitement and selfies, and – Lottie being Lottie – a quick burst of pre-match training. It involves catching. “Oh, I’m rubbish at catching,” says Kate R-W, and you think: “Ah, that’s nice. Typical captain trying to put the girls at their ease.” But she is rubbish at catching. She and her unfortunate young partner come last.
The two “captains” have said hello/goodbye at various awards and events but have never spoken in depth before despite having led their country in their respective sports for so long. They have always wanted to but such is the silo in which modern athletes operate – professional, obsessional, all-consuming responsibility – this is their first opportunity. We’re essentially eavesdropping on an intrigued conversation.
“… boys’ cricket at the start was a little bit intimidating, but I loved the game too much to be put off by boys bowling beamers at me,” Lottie is saying.
“That’s quite sad, isn’t it really? Do you think a lot of girls have been put off by that?” Kate asks.
“Probably. Certainly in my era. Dad used to leave me at boys’ games. I used to turn up and everyone would look at me like I was an alien from another planet. I’d ask about changing rooms. They’d say, ‘Why?’ ‘Well, because I’m playing’. And they’d say, ‘Just go in the ladies’ loos’, or wherever. Wouldn’t happen now, would it?”
On the pitch, M&B’s captain, Susannah, vocal and inspirational in the C.M. Edwards mold, is orchestrating her troops. “For girls to have all-girls’ cricket now is brilliant,” muses Lottie.
The two women have already been highly amused to discover that hockey had a crucial role in Lottie’s development as a superstar of world cricket. Aged 20, turning out as a hockey ringer for a friend, she collided with the goalie and tore her cruciate ligament. “In cricket … I was the rising star, scored runs quite easily. It was then I had my injury. It changed my whole perspective. It made me realise I needed to work much harder. I had to put 110 per cent into it. I just was so devastated I thought I’d never play again. I’d taken cricket for granted up to that point. It was the best thing that ever happened to me – as well as the worst.”
There’s a break. Plane overhead. The squawking bird and chug of motorbike the microphones can absorb, but whacking great jumbos out of Heathrow are just a decibel too far. The talk during the intermission turns to captaincy. The joys, satisfactions, rewards, but also the ever-intense responsibility and burdens.
“I realise that now,” says Lottie quietly, still decompressing from the sudden, public, controversial loss of her England career in May. “You’ll realise that, too.”
The camera runs up to speed. Kate asks how the Edwardian era of England women’s cricket began.
“I got into the team in 1996 and was made captain 2005,” Lottie tells her. “I was more than ready to take it on. I loved captaincy. Even if I got a duck I loved making that field change or bowling change that could win the game. A lot of people used to call me FEC – Future England Captain … It just consumed my world for 20 years really. And the last ten years – unbelievable. I’d wake up in the middle of the night thinking about bowling changes. Desperate for the team to be successful. I guess I now realise I gave it my all.”
Kate: “I can totally understand that. I’m the same. Absorbed to the point where sometimes I have taken it too far. Just living and breathing every player’s ups and downs. The coach’s ups and downs. You don’t have that time for yourself to make sure you’re OK.”
She changes tack and wonders: “What sort of captain were you: shouty or arm round the shoulder?”
Lottie: “Look, I’m pretty hard. I expect really high standards. I’m a heart-on-sleeve type of person. You’ve got to be yourself. You’ve got to be natural … I’ve been through some massive highs and massive lows. Certainly the last few years have been hardest, probably learnt the most from them. I think it was my downfall that the girls looked up to me so much. Everything I said, they did. Whether it was right or wrong. I’m sure you’re in exactly the same position as me. They look up to you.”
Not only is the massive and mutual respect between the two evident, but also the empathy. They share, after all, what some people might call trivial but still real devastation of sporting defeat. As captains they feel more than most.
Kate asks about her most desolate time.
“Oh, I’ll have to think about that,” says Lottie,
“Think about how you word it maybe,” says Kate, tactfully.
“No swearing,” says somebody.
She remembers crying twice on the field – instructively, both at moments of victory. Once at the World Cup in 2009, and again when she scored the four to win back-to-back Ashes in Australia’s own backyard in 2014. “I’ve cried twice on the cricket field. I’ve never cried when we lost. Probably says how much it meant to me. Watching the team run on – well, you know, you’ve been there – it’s one of the best feelings ever.
“I got myself in a bit of trouble after the game. Shows how emotion can change your thinking on things. I remember Alison Mitchell [Radio 5 presenter] coming up to me and asking, ‘What are you going to do tonight?’ I just went – out of nowhere – it was so unlike me, ‘I’m going to get absolutely smashed’. Next thing my phone’s going mental. There’s a Radio 5 phone-in about me. From that point on I realised women’s cricket had changed – media scrutiny now – I learnt the hard way again.”
Kate looks pleasantly surprised: “I don’t think it’s that bad. I was wondering what you were going to say.”
“I know. I just said I was going to get smashed – and I did.”
Kate can identify with a similar moment of elation, the entire England hockey team going out in Stratford’s Westfield last autumn having won the European Championship – all still in their kit. Striker Alex Danson had her gum shield down her sock the entire night.
Yet, both recall defeats of equal intensity.
Kate: “The lows – in the moment – feel so desperately sad, and quiet, and dark. It’s hard to get perspective. Have you felt like that?” she asks. “Is anything comparable?”
“Losing my dad 10 years ago puts perspective on life. Still my retirement made me feel as sad as a death. I’d been playing a sport for 20 years I also loved. It was like losing someone really. It shouldn’t be but it means so much to you. It’s what make you tick. Suddenly it’s been taken away and it’s pretty devastating …”
Kate: “We get told by psychologists all the time that when you lose you go through a grieving process. You’re going to be upset, bitter, angry …”
Lottie asks her about the inevitable sadness now, which flows from the “cut-throat” culling of the hockey squad. A total of 31 have trained together for four years, but only 16 are Rio-bound.
Kate: “It’s just heartbreaking. I still get emotional now. Everybody’s giving everything every day for the purpose of the team. When those dreams are completely shattered – you ask them to keep training because a door might open for them … I just think they’re the strongest characters in the squad.”
This is an accolade indeed coming from the Olympic athlete whose own strength was exemplified at London 2012. Whacked in the face by a hockey stick, her jaw was broken and yet she returned from hospital surgery to lead her team to the bronze medal a few days later – wearing a face mask and only able to sip mushed food through a straw.
Lottie wants to know what she went through. The full gore.
“From that moment of impact I knew I’d done something bad because all this row of teeth popped up. Then I went really calm. I felt like everyone else was faffing around me. Three blokes were trying to get this suction thing to work to get all the blood out of my mouth. I got into an ambulance with two lovely ambulance ladies, but they were from Yorkshire and didn’t have a clue where they were going. The whole night seemed to draw on forever. At that point I thought I was out. There were quite a lot of tears. I didn’t sleep. But from the moment I saw the surgeon it was like a guardian angel walking into my room. He said, ‘I think we’ll be able to get you back out there’.”
When doubt crept in again, reinforcement in the form of her sister was on hand. “She could see me thinking, ‘Actually, I’m not sure I can do this’. I just felt really weak. So she started force-feeding me yoghurt, mashed banana, anything. She was basically just shoving it down me.”
It took her nine weeks to eat solid food again. She couldn’t even take steroids to help the healing for fear of the drug testers. She brushes off Lottie’s admiration.
Kate: “But then you’ve obviously shown that strength of character. You’ve dealt with that hideous time recently – your international retirement – which was so much in the public eye. I can see talking to you. You seem exciting. You’re 1996 again. Do you feel like that?”
“I do feel excited. I love the game too much to walk away. I’ve realised there’s a whole new world out there. You’ll realise it soon.”
Sooner that Lottie realises because she’s about to uncover a Rio news story.
“One question I do want to ask you – because I’ve been asked a million times over the last three years – if I’d had a £1 for every time – the retirement question. How long are you going to keep playing, Charlotte? I felt like I was at the top of my game right to the end.”
Kate: “Yeah, it does get your goat. Part of you is like, ‘Well, do you think I should retire?’ I felt they were questioning me. ‘Come on, Kate, you’re over 30 now. You’ve not had any children.’ It’s that – maybe a bit of pity. ‘What else are you going to do?’ You could let it really bug you. But after Rio I felt like I was still as fit as ever, still playing well … still with more to learn and more to give.”
Lottie homes in on the story. “So – for £1 [which she doesn’t produce, by the way] – is Rio the last tournament for you?”
“Yes, this is my last thing. At the moment I keep touching wood like a nutter because I just want to get to Rio and play my best. But, yes, it’s time to go on to pastures new. I’m going to play in Holland for a couple of seasons in their domestic league. I want to go into coaching and want to get a different perspective.”
At the end, they say their goodbyes. “Huge, huge good luck from me for Rio. I’ll be watching every game. You’re someone I’ve always admired.”
Kate: “And good luck with all your new adventures. Go out with a massive bang. I can’t wait to see you as the next England coach. Maybe the men’s team, actually.”
“Probably not,” reckons Lottie.
Anyway, she has more cricket to play just now. Captaining the Southern Vipers in the revolutionary Women’s Cricket Super League which launches this weekend. The 36-year-old has come a long way since she made her England debut in a skirt – as revealed in an old scrapbook compiled by her aunt. The haircuts are unbelievable. Embolden by the sight, Kate admits to a mullet in her youth. And the final revelation is truly shattering. Lottie does a sensational karaoke version of Celine Dion’s Think Twice.
It’s the sort of admission that could only be admitted to a captain of equal renown. Now we just have to hunt down the video evidence.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles