Heather Knight drops Sophia Dunkley opening hint as England target ‘ultra-aggression’ in T20I powerplay

Sophia Dunkley could be rewarded for her explosive form in the ODIs against South Africa with a role as England’s T20I opener, after Heather Knight indicated that “ultra-aggression” in the powerplay was the means by which her team intended to target Gold in the forthcoming Commonwealth Games campaign in Birmingham.

Dunkley, 24, thrived after being handed a promotion to No.3 for the ODI series, scoring 180 runs from 170 balls all told, including her maiden international hundred in the second match at Bristol. And, in the wake of the surprise omission of Tammy Beaumont from England’s CWG squad, she may well get the chance to partner the incumbent Danni Wyatt at the top of the T20I order, when the final leg of the multi-format series against South Africa gets underway in Chelmsford on Thursday.

“In terms of T20, Sophia is definitely an option to open the batting,” Knight said. “She’s done it a little bit here and there, and been really impressive in how she goes about doing things. She’s naturally a very quick scorer and wants to hit boundaries and take things on, so she’s certainly an option for us at the top end.”

It was Knight herself who made way at No. 3 to allow Dunkley to move up the order, and though the captain’s initial returns suffered in the opening two ODIs, an innings of 63 from 49 balls at the death in Leicester was evidence of what she hopes she can achieve as a designated finisher, as England racked up an imposing 371 for 7 – only seven runs shy of the team’s all-time record.

“Two areas that we haven’t been as good at in ODI cricket is being super-aggressive in the powerplay and also being able to manage the innings towards the back end,” Knight said. “We felt like Sophia has the strength to be super-aggressive in the way she plays at No.3. And also my strengths are probably managing an innings, so we felt like it was the best move for the team to try and create a really strong, dynamic batting line-up.

“Sophia has taken her opportunity massively, I’m really pleased,” Knight added. “I have got a really good relationship with Sophia, and I’ve really loved seeing her develop over the last few years. It’s been a bit strange, I guess, batting at five, getting a little bit of pad rash and waiting for a lot longer to go in, but it’s just something to get used to, I guess.”

The mainstay of England’s innings at Leicester, however, was Beaumont, whose 119 from 107 balls was the perfect response to her T20I axing. But while Knight praised her team-mate’s tenacity and insisted the “door was not closed” for a 20-over comeback, she doubled down on the decision-making that had led England to make such a tough call.

“Tammy’s ODI form is undisputable,” Knight said. “She’s one of the best players in the world and I knew she was going to get a hundred in one of those three games. Knowing Tammy’s character, she would have wanted to prove a point, and her ODI cricket is absolutely not in doubt.

“We just felt like we wanted to be more aggressive in that powerplay in T20. And we feel we’ve brought in players that can add that fearlessness and aggressiveness to the squad. I’ve no doubt Tammy will go away and grow, and she’s certainly not out of the frame in the future. But at the moment, we’ve gone down that line of the ultra-aggressive players that can go in there and really take the game on the front end, when there’s only two fielders outside the circle.”

To that end, Knight admitted that the team management already had an idea of their first-choice line-up for the T20I leg of the summer – one that could feature as many as eight games in 18 days if England make through to the Commonwealth Games final at Edgbaston on August 7. However, Knight added, the first priority was to ensure a new-look squad had a chance to get to know one another, given the addition of a number of fresh faces, most notably the teenage pairing of Alice Capsey and Freya Kemp.

“Obviously we’ve added six players to the squad, and they only arrived yesterday,” Knight said. “But the main thing we want as a batting unit is to be really flexible and adaptable to situations, and to make sure we’re getting the right players in to maximise various stages of the innings. We want the players that come in to be really clear on their roles, and what we want from them.”

Knight said that the next opportunity to mesh the squad’s blend of new and old players would come with Wednesday evening’s Women’s Euros clash, with England taking on Spain in a quarter-final in Brighton.

“We’re going to have a bit of a team social tonight,” Knight said. “The Lionesses are obviously playing a big match, so we’re going to get everyone together and that’ll be quite nice to bring people together as a group. We’ll obviously be in it together at training today too, but I think just keeping it simple and trying to have those conversations is going to be key.

“It’s a really exciting squad, it’s quite a bold squad,” Knight added. “Exciting not just in terms of their cricket skills, but in the way they’ve gone about it. The mentality of those younger players is exactly what we want to add to our squad, and you saw it in the ODI series too, with younger players bringing that rawness and freshness.”

Few are fresher than Capsey, who turns 18 in August, but whose talents were felt first-hand by Knight during a remarkable innings of 59 from 41 balls for Oval Invincibles against London Spirit at Lord’s last summer.

“I was at the other end bowling and she whacked me over my head, so I certainly know what she can do,” Knight said. “She adds a little bit of all-round ability with the ball as another spin option, and she’s a 360-degree player that can score quite quickly.”

The fact that Capsey was able to command such a big stage at the age of 16 is one of the reasons why England have felt able to trust their rookies in this format, to a degree that would not have been possible even two years ago. And while Knight admitted that Beaumont’s omission was bound to be a wake-up call to all the seniors within England’s ranks, she also acknowledged that it was a welcome problem to have to embrace.

“It’s a huge positive,” she said. “It’s going to be really good for us as a group to have that competition. If you don’t perform, someone’s going to come in and take your place. That pressure is there for sure, but it will keep everyone on their toes, and enable us to push our standards further.

“That’s what’s been very big for Australia,” Knight added. “Over the last three years or so, with young players coming through in the Big Bash, they seem to be able to slip in and perform and that means that their senior players have to perform and warrant their place too.

“The Hundred and the professionalisation of the domestic game means those players are a lot more well-known when they do get the call-up. They’ve probably got a bit more experience of dealing with scrutiny, being on telly, playing in front of big crowds. It’s definitely a positive but it’s also something different to manage. So it’s important that we get to know those individuals, know what works for them, and how we can best help them to be at their best when they’re in an England shirt.”

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket

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