Understanding the art of Sophie Ecclestone

Express News Service

CHENNAI: Sophie Ecclestone stands at the top of her mark — which is a tad ahead of the umpire. She is only a few feet away from the popping crease. That is all she needs to deliver the ball and make an impact. Her action is so minimalistic that she could do it all day, literally. In fact, that is what she does, more often than not, when Ecclestone takes the field for England in the whites.

In the six Tests the left-arm spinner has played so far, Ecclestone has taken 27 wickets, averaging 30.85 while striking at 67.2. These numbers should not come as a surprise. After all, she is the No. 1 ranked bowler in both ODIs and T20Is. If there was an ICC ranking for women’s Tests, she would be at the top of it too. However, the thing that stands apart is the number of balls she has bowled. In 11 innings, Ecclestone has bowled 1815 legitimate deliveries. The number of overs she has bowled in every match goes like this – 37, 50, 64, 44, 30, 77.1. To put these numbers into context, only three players in the history of women’s Tests have bowled more overs per innings than Ecclestone (27.3) — Jill Saulbrey (31.5), Catherine Campbell (28.1) and Neetu David (27.4).

Ask her how she has been able to do that whenever she plays a Test, Ecclestone will say her simple action, which came to her naturally from a very young age, plays a crucial role. “I’m quite lucky that I’m repeatable (action) actually. I keep repeating that and keep practising my best ball and training with my spin coach, Gareth Breese. That’s my job — to just keep bowling. I think I’d hold up one end, especially if I’m the only spinner, and hopefully, just buy my time, be a bit boring and take some wickets,” Ecclestone tells this daily.

What former cricketer and coach Aarti Sankaran calls an extremely simple, and rather “injury-free” action goes like this. Ecclestone spreads her both arms like wings as she takes her first step, brings them in and gets ready in her load-up by the time she reaches the stumps. The right foot is planted firmly, pointing towards the covers before she shifts the weight, moves her hips and gets to the high arm position. By the time she releases the ball, Ecclestone is standing on her right toe, with her heel pointing towards wide mid-off. She goes back to the top of her mark and does it all over again. And again. Until her captain Heather Knight takes her off. She uses the crease, varies the pace while keeping her line at middle-and-leg often and keeps coming at the batter.

When Ecclestone is on, there are no free lunches. With her high release, she makes the ball drift and dip without putting additional effort into generating extra bounce. Her killer arm ball only adds to the woes of the batter. In this process, Ecclestone’s innate mindset to keep attacking helps a lot in sustaining the momentum. “I just try and take wickets all the time. Be really aggressive. Taking wickets is my main mentality,” the England spinner says.

However, that doesn’t mean wickets keep coming her way. Sometimes she has had to really work for it. During Australia’s first innings of the Ashes Test earlier this year, Ecclestone came in for her second spell in the 25th over, and held one end up. It wasn’t until the 46th over, she was able to turn from middle-and-leg to clip the bails, removing Tahlia McGrath. She would go on and bowl till the new ball was taken — 28 overs from one end with lunch and tea breaks in between — taking two more wickets in that spell. Her overall figures from the innings (46.2-9-129-5) are a testament to her fitness as much as it is to her skills. 

“There is no compromise made in other areas just because she’s bowling the 30 overs. She’s not compromised as a fielder. She’s not compromised as a batter. We are talking so much about her bowling, like her catch yesterday (in the second T20I against India) talks about her fitness and fielding potential as well. And in a Test match, she’ll be expected to take return catches which she gets pretty often. So imagine she’s training for all of that as well. Say, if it happens in the 17.4th over of her spell? Yeah, she’ll do it again,” says Aarti.

Ecclestone acknowledges the same, saying that no one can prepare for bowling 70 overs in a few days. “I think it’s just trying to stay fit, make sure I get in the gym, keep running in, make sure I have a physical peakness and yeah, go out there and bowl the best ball. But I’m lucky that I’ve got quite an easy action to do. I think I just concentrate on that and make sure I have just been boring for a long period of time when I am bowling,” she says.

Apart from the natural action and the fitness, preparation plays a crucial role in Ecclestone getting ready for a Test match. For, it is not often women get to play the longest format. They do not have a domestic red-ball competition as well. Yet, Ecclestone loves bowling with the red ball and always practices with it. Even as she was recovering from a right shoulder injury, she practised a bit and then continued the same during the training camp the England team had in Dubai before arriving in India. Ecclestone also mentally prepares herself to bowl long spells because she knows the team is dependent on her and she has to deliver for them to do well.

“There is preparation on the field and off it. They all have their schedule. They are completely monitored. Evaluation of their players’ ability and strength at each point of time leading up to these tournaments has been spot on. Where do they train? They leave England and train in harsher conditions. All of it points towards that, right? You know, this player (Ecclestone) is going to do that. The challenge is the shift that Sophie does from bowling four overs to bowling 14 on the trot and with different balls, different field sets, and duration of the game,” says Aarti. It is something Ecclestone is aware of as well.

She has been bowling with the SG ball which will be used for the Test match in India. The seam of the SG ball is significantly more pronounced than that of Dukes and Kookaburra, which will only help her get a bit more grip off the pitch as a spinner. “I’ve noticed it’s (surface) just a lot slower out here, the best ball is a bit slower. It gets a bit more grip and turns, so it’s just varying the pace. I use my arm ball when I can, but it’s obviously not as needed out here in India. I think it’s just taking the pace off the ball, and getting them up to spin. Excited to bowl with the SG ball,” she said ahead of the Test against India.

Aarti feels, there will not be much change in the line Ecclestone bowls. She expects the left-arm spinner to continue bowling at the stumps, bringing both the edges of the bat into play. “She will still be there (middle-and-leg line) because there’s a possibility that the ball is not going to go towards off. We will see Sophie turn the ball more than she does now, which will then bring the slip into play. And if she’s over here (on the pads), a leg slip will be effective. I feel if she continues to persist in that angle, she will also start coming over the wicket a little bit more in the Test. With the SG ball, middle-and-leg line, if you don’t sweep, then you will have trouble facing her. For India, apart from Jemimah Rodrigues and Harmanpreet Kaur, others don’t sweep as much,” says Aarti.

At 24, Ecclestone is already the best bowler in the world and in all likelihood, she could go on and finish as one the greatest spinners to have played the sport. For now, all eyes will be on her from December 14-17 and how the Indian batters counter her at the DY Patil Stadium in Navi Mumbai.

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