'Proud that we put the person first': Lisa Keightley on mental health prioritisation

"England Women all-rounder Nat Sciver has decided to withdraw from England Women's Vitality IT20 and Royal London Series against India to focus on her mental health and well-being," read the statement from the England and Wales Cricket Board.

Sciver was to lead England in the series against India. The 30-year-old all-rounder has been the backbone of England women's cricket over the past few months, across formats. Remember the World Cup earlier this year? Of course, you will. And of course you remember how Sciver was the only player to score not one but two 'unbeaten' hundreds against 'that' Australian team. Fast forward a bit to the England-South Africa one off Test. 169* earned her the player of the match title. More recently in the Hundred, she scored 228 runs across six outings that included a 72* at the strike rate of 200 in the Eliminator. An innings that was quoted by the opposition captain Anya Shrubsole as 'worthy of a win'. A player that good, playing multiple formats of the game, is the first to get cooked in the crazy cricket schedule. And it is something the England team management under coach Lise Keightley have put a special emphasis on.

Keightley took over as England head coach in January 2020, only a month before the T20 World Cup in Australia. England were the defending T20 as well as ODI champions and the task at hand was big for the former Australia player. But in two months time, the responsibilities would transcend the cricketing field with the world being thrust into the dark age of the Covid-19 pandemic. A time where 'mental health really got challenged', as she shared with the Indian Express in an exclusive interaction.

"For England, I suppose in a way we're really lucky we're still able to continue to play the game," she said. "But within that I suppose came a prize and that's when the word bubble got thrown around and we spent long periods of time away from family and friends, living in a hotel. It was really tough and mental health really got challenged over the last two and a half years."

Jonathan Finch, the ECB's director of England women's cricket recently termed the period as the toughest they have faced off the field and commended Keightley for her management during the same. In the 51-year-old's words, it is about prioritizing the person over the athlete.

"I don't think anyone throughout that time didn't suffer at some stage. The pleasing thing is that we managed to get through it as a group. If players needed to go out of that environment we were very open to that, we understood that. We've gotta be empathetic and caring for people. If it does arise, we've got to take them as a people and not as an athlete and make sure they get all the support they need to get back to feeling in the best place to cope with what's going on and then get back into the transition of coming back into international sport. Challenging. Definitely learned a lot. But I'm proud that we put the person first."

Transition & chasing Australia

As little talked about as it is, the challenge of transition is the toughest for world champions. One that was lined up for Keightley & co. when she took over the England job. And one that this cricket summer showed England have been able to succeed at quite a bit.

"I think coming out of the bubbles where cricket wasn't being played and in England in domestic cricket it was very limited and there weren't many games going on so you didn't have that opportunity to look at many other players," Keightley said.

"Since Covid has quietened down a little bit and domestic programs have been able to run....England's invested a lot of money into their domestic structures to make sure their transition from playing at that level to playing international cricket is a lot smaller and we' re seeing transition of a player coming in and performing sooner than potentially it has been in the past with those domestic structures supporting players in playing competitive cricket under pressure with crowds in the Hundreds."

"You've seen Issy Wong, Alice Capsey, Lauren Bell, even Bryony Smith come through this summer and have an impact on the competition. And then you have someone like Alice Davidson-Richards, who's played for England, hasn't played for a number of years in the regional program and is coming in for the Test match (vs South Africa) and performing extremely well."

The England head coach believes the conclusion of the 2022 World Cup, where England were only second best to Australia, has ushered the team into a new cycle, giving opportunities to new players ahead of the next World Cups (T20 & ODI).

"We know Australia is the team we're chasing," she said. "To chase them, you've got to make changes."

The Indian team of 2021 & 2022

Even though it was only a year ago, it does feel like the India tour of England happened a long time ago. The ODI World Cup, Mithali's Raj retirement and the recently concluded Commonwealth Games where India defeated the hosts on their way to win silver, have played their part in shaping up the team that visits England for three T20Is & as many ODIs in 2022. A total of six changes have been made in the squad for the T20I series in England compared to last year's. Changes which Keightley believes will help India improve further as a team.

"It looks like they've got a nice transition of seamers coming through that will make them competitive and give them options in different parts of the world, they've got four good seamers up front at the present" she said.

"Then it looks like they're trying to add a bit more power through their (batting) order and not just up top but towards the back end of an innings to make sure they can clear the boundary and have good strike rates. They've made a lot of changes in the last 12 months to keep up with the game and it definitely looks like they've got the players to help them improve as a team."

Watch the LIVE coverage of England Women vs India Women 2022 – 1st T20i on SONY TEN 1 & SONY TEN 1 HD channels on 10th September 2022 from 11:30 pm IST



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