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Sammy-Jo Johnson: ‘Australia the hardest team in the world to get into at the moment’

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Across the space of three days in 2011 playing for Queensland, Sammy-Jo Johnson dismissed Alyssa Healy twice.

It wasn’t long after she had been told there wasn’t a place for her with New South Wales. Now, nine years later, the stars have aligned to bring her back to Sydney as she pushes her case for Australia selection.

Her partner, Brian, found work in Sydney and after he had done so much to support Johnson’s career, it was a chance to repay the favour. And it just so happened that New South Wales had vacancies in the pace department following the retirements of Rene Farrell and Sarah Aley.

“As a young teenager the dream was to play for the [NSW] Breakers,” she told ESPNcricinfo. “I don’t think I’ve really come to terms with it. I don’t regret playing for Queensland; I’ve loved the opportunity, I’ve had nine years and they’ve helped me become the person I am today. I wouldn’t be where I am without Queensland Cricket. But it is nice to come back – this was a dream, now I get to do it when I’m at the top of my game and hopefully, it might give me a chance to put on that green and gold shirt.”

ALSO READ: All the Australian state squads for the 2020-21 season

However, the journey has been far from easy. Her father died in 2012, there followed two years where she didn’t represent Queensland and jobs were lost, leaving the battle to scrape together a living and find somewhere to live. It appeared as though the cricket career could fade away.

“You come across adversities – everyone goes through different things – and experiencing what I did at the ages I did has made it so much easier when you are in a professional environment, because you know when you have a bad day. I’ve always got the outlook that there is more to life than cricket, but you enjoy it while you can,” she said. “Every day I get to put on the kit of whatever team I’m playing for, I just enjoy it, have fun. I’m a pretty laid-back person. I’ve also said it’s not a right, it’s a privilege to put on a shirt and that’s what I live by.

“Early doors I thought this is awesome – I want to play for my country – then life hits you smack bang in the face and you go, ‘hang on, am I good enough?’ You go through some ups and downs, start second-guessing your skill. I was driving three-and-half hours each way from Lismore to Brisbane three times a week to train, off the back of not a lot of money in women’s cricket. The love and passion for the game is what drives most of us, because anyone [of] my age realises it’s not about the money. We do it because we love the game and play with our mates.”

Johnson has pushed hard for that international debut over the last two years, earning regular Australia A selection and performing impressively for the Brisbane Heat in the WBBL. Where she plays her Big Bash cricket next season still remains to be confirmed due to the contract embargo currently in place, but her last two summers have brought 38 WBBL wickets while in 2018-19, she also hit 260 runs at a strike-rate of 139.78.

“My first [Australia A] tour was to India so that was very eye-opening,” she said. “I was actually very nervous because I’d never been to the subcontinent. You start second-guessing yourself a little – am I fit enough, am I strong enough? – but I played really well, and really enjoyed the experience. That set me up for WBBL 4. I just had self-belief and it’s funny what a bit of self-belief can do for you.”

Last year, Johnson closed up the gardening business she co-owned so she could focus more on her cricket and that international ambition. She is currently employed part-time with Rebel Sport, a job that allows her the freedom to focus on training and playing when needed.

“Trying to play cricket at this level, traveling, touring, it got too hard trying to run the behind the scenes stuff,” she said. “If I really want to give playing for Australia a red hot crack, I needed to commit those extra hours that I’m spending on paperwork and admin, into recovering and making sure I’m ready for my next session or game.

“I think [Australia] is the hardest team in the world to get into at the moment because they are so successful and everyone plays their role. You don’t want people to get injured, but I feel like it’s your only foot in the door at the moment – which is good because you want that competition. If I can keep churning out consistent performances with the ball and bat I’m hoping going to give the selectors no reason not to pick me.”

However, there is another challenge to moving to the next level: playing enough cricket. That is particularly relevant approaching a 50-over World Cup, which is due to take place next February and March in New Zealand, with the Women’s National Cricket League consisting of eight round-robin matches per team and a final. In May, when domestic cricket was briefly threatened with cuts amid Cricket Australia’s problems, Australia’s wicketkeeper Healy spoke out about the imbalance in the game, and Johnson believes the WNCL should be expanded to a full home-and-away season campaign of 12 matches.

“We train for so many months of the year and we’ve only just got to eight WNCL games,” she said. “Myself and all the players in other states want to be playing more cricket. The WBBL is fantastic, I think we have the right number of games for that and it now has its own window. I hope off the back of the T20 World Cup final that women’s cricket will only get bigger, but for the young kids coming through it’s not just about 20-over cricket. There’s a one-day World Cup next year and we need more 50-over cricket so the girls can continue to show their skills to put pressure on for the Aussie team.”

Come the new season, Johnson will be taking every chance she has to do just that.



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Zimbabwe’s three-match ODI tour to Australia postponed

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Zimbabwe’s three-match ODI tour of Australia in early August has been postponed due to the ongoing impact of Covid-19.

Although the series had been included in the schedule put out last month it was always unlikely that the short series, which was set to be played in northern Australia, would be able to take place.

A range of issues have prevented the games from being played including the short length of the series, the significant bio-security measures that would need to be implemented prior to August, and concern for the health and safety of players, match officials, and volunteers.

Speaking earlier this month Justin Langer indicated the matches were not on his radar when he spoke about getting the players ready for a potential return to action in September with the possibility of a rescheduled limited-overs tour to England.

The matches were due to be played on August 9, 12, and 15 although only the third game had a venue confirmed with Townsville. It is the first full home series Australia have lost due to Covid-19 although the final two ODIs against New Zealand in March were cancelled after the opening game of the series was played behind closed doors at the SCG. Their Test tour to Bangladesh in June was also postponed.

Outside of the 2015 World Cup it would have been Zimbabwe’s first visit to Australia since taking part in a tri-series in 2004 and Cricket Australia said they were committed to finding a future slot for the matches. Since Covid-19 struck, Zimbabwe have also lost series against Ireland, Afghanistan and India.

“While we are disappointed to postpone the series, CA and ZC agree that in the best interest of players, match officials, volunteers as well as our fans, that this is the most practical and sensible decision,” CA’s interim chief executive Nick Hockley said. “We are committed to working with Zimbabwe Cricket on alternative dates to reschedule.”

Acting Zimbabwe Cricket Managing Director, Givemore Makoni, said: “We were excited about facing Australia but, given the circumstances, deferring the tour was the only option. We are, however, looking forward to the rescheduling of the series as soon as practically possible.”

There are ongoing discussions between CA and the ECB about Australia travelling in September for the ODI and T20I matches that were originally scheduled for July. The next scheduled home cricket for the men’s team is two T20I series against West Indies and India in early October although they are also likely to be moved if, as expected, the T20 World Cup is postponed.



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Ben Stokes promises to take ‘positive route’ as England captaincy looms

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There have been times in Ben Stokes’ career – you know the times; we don’t need to rehash them here – when the captaincy of England seemed a distant dream.

So it is a reflection of how much he has matured as a cricketer and a man that he seems the obvious choice now. With Joe Root expected to miss one of the Tests against West Indies to attend the birth of his second child – the need to self-isolate for a week before returning to the team environment will extend his absence – Stokes, the side’s vice-captain, is set to step up. At some stage in the next couple of weeks, probably in Southampton for the first match of the series, Stokes is likely to become England’s 81st Test captain.

While his experience is extremely limited – he captained Durham Academy in three matches in 2008; he’s never done it in first-class, List A or T20 cricket and says the job as “never been a goal” – he is the natural choice. Already a leader in the dressing room, he has the complete respect of his team-mates, an understanding of the culture of the side and no long-term designs on the job. Root can, therefore, go away safe in the knowledge that his team will be in safe hands in every way.

Perhaps, were this a long-term appointment, there may be concerns. The media obligations, the meetings, the mental burden of planning, managing and worrying for 10 others can start to weigh on even the most enthusiastic captains.

Certainly that seemed to be the case when Sir Ian Botham, the man who perhaps most resembles Stokes as a cricketer, was appointed in 1980. England won none of the 12 Tests in which Botham was captain and, during that period, he averaged 13.14 with the bat and 33.08 with the ball. To be fair to Botham, nine of those Tests were against an outrageously good West Indies team. In retrospect, drawing six of those matches doesn’t look such a bad effort.

Either way, this is not a long-term appointment. It is likely to last, at this stage at least, just one game. Stokes’ shoulders should be plenty broad enough to carry the burden for a few days. There is no other option that can, at this stage, be considered an automatic selection for every game (James Anderson and Stuart Broad could well be rotated this summer; Jos Buttler and Moeen Ali are fighting for their places) or possessing the requisite experience. In a year or two’s time, Rory Burns may come into the equation in such situations.

With the bat, Stokes’ role will remain just about the same. In recent times, as he has evolved from a dangerous batsman into a consistent one, he has tended to build his innings in fairly traditional fashion. Yes, he has another gear that few can emulate. But the basic role of a batsman – clearing their head and focusing on the next ball – will remain. An England batting line-up missing Root needs Stokes’ runs more than anything else he can contribute.

It’s in the field where Stokes’ role may change. Root has tended to use him as something of a last-resort bowler; the man he turns to when the pitch is flat, the ball old and the opposition set.

He’s a better, more versatile bowler than that, though. Whether the situation requires him to find swing or test the batsmen with the short ball, he has the weapons to prosper and may operate in a more conventional third- or fourth-seamer role.

He laughed off the suggestion that he could over-bowl himself. Initially, at least. “If it is flat, I will throw the ball to Jofra, Jimmy and Broady and say ‘here you go’,” Stokes said.

But the opposite is probably true. It may be in those moments, when the pitch is at its flattest, that Stokes is most prone to take on too much responsibility and over-bowl himself. Andrew Flintoff did something similar at Lord’s in 2006 when he hurled himself through 68.3 overs (51 of them in the second innings) and rarely looked as potent again. In those moments, it will fall to England’s other senior players, the likes of Broad and Buttler, to have a quiet word.

There may be a perception that they will need to step in if Stokes starts to lose his cool, too, but that seems unlikely. While Stokes has not been short of a jibe to an opposition player, he is, at this stage of his career, very much in control of his emotions.

Perhaps the least surprising aspect of all this is Stokes’ promise to “always” take the “positive route”. At one stage on Monday, he joked he would be the sort of captain to employ “nine slips and a gully” – a novel solution to England’s wicketkeeping uncertainty – but he also acknowledged both his own experience (he has played 63 Tests now; that’s 11 more than Sir Don Bradman) and the experience within his team. He won’t be short of advice if required.

“I’ve been a senior player in the team since 2016,” Stokes said. “Being able to learn from Alastair Cook and Rooty in different situations has rubbed off on me.

“At the same time, we’ve got some really experienced guys. I’d like to think that I’ll be quite an open captain. I wouldn’t want to think that my way is the only way. There are 11 guys out on the field, so why not get 10 other opinions?

ALSO READ: England to pick strongest XI despite rotation plans

“I guess I’ll have to be a bit more mindful if I am the one making the decision about how much I bowl. If I am bowling well, Rooty doesn’t just say ‘keep going’. He says ‘one more’. And he will say that for another four or five overs.

“But I have been in so many different situations on the field that I can relate back to. And I can ask ‘what would Joe expect me to do in this situation?'”

The toughest aspect for Stokes may simply be retaining focus in the field. His catching ability is a crucial asset for England, so being able to compartmentalise the concentration required for that alongside planning for the next bowling change could be demanding.

“I always try to set the example in terms of attitude and commitment,” he said. “Having the added responsibility of being a captain also comes with pressure, in terms of making decisions through tough periods of the game.

“But that’s not going to change the way that I go about things. I’ll try to make a positive impact with the ball or bat in my hand. No matter what I do, it will always be the positive route.

“I’ve never set a goal out to be a captain. Alastair Cook was always destined to be England captain after Andrew Strauss. Root was always destined to be captain after Cook. I’m not one of those people you would necessarily think of as the next England captain

“But it’s a huge honour. Even if it’s only the once you can still say ‘yeah, I’ve captained England’. So I’m really looking forward to it if the opportunity presents itself. But I know I’m only stepping in for one game because of Joe’s personal situation.”

There’s a symbolic aspect to all this, too. Stokes admits in his most recent book, On Fire, that losing the vice-captaincy was the most painful of all the sanctions he faced after the incident in Bristol. This promotion to the captaincy cements the impression that he has not just won back the trust of the team management; he is seen as a role-model, an inspiration and a leader. He is a top player at the peak of his powers. There’s no reason to think he won’t cope.



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Jermaine Blackwood keen to prove himself against England attack

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Jermaine Blackwood believes he has something to prove against the world’s leading bowlers, should he find himself back in West Indies’ line-up for the upcoming Test series against England.

A measured 112 not out against England in April 2015, in just his sixth Test, remains Blackwood’s only international three-figure score. Having been dropped two-and-a-half years after that century in Antigua, he was a concussion substitute last August and regained his place in the Test squad to tour England after topping the run-charts in the Caribbean’s domestic four-day competition.

Earlier this month, Blackwood told ESPNcricinfo his “new way going forward” was to “bat as long as possible”. Now that he is in a position to make the XI for the first Test at the Ageas Bowl on July 8, Blackwood said that remained the plan, rather than going gung-ho from the off.

ALSO READ: West Indies to wear Black Lives Matter logo

“Over the years people have got the wrong impression about me, like I’m a ball-beater or whatever,” Blackwood told the Press Association after the first day of West Indies’ four-day intra-squad warm-up match at Emirates Old Trafford was washed out on Monday.

“But it’s just natural for me, I’m from the Caribbean, it’s only natural for me to score runs. I want to add a little bit more to my game and bat time. I’m really pushing hard for that and I’m really putting the mental work as well in to bat time. Once I bat time, I will score runs.

“It’s been two-and-a-half years that I’ve been out of the Test team. This opportunity has come out and I have to grab it with both hands. I have something to go out there and prove against all the best bowlers in the world, I want to score runs against them.”

Blackwood’s ton came against an attack featuring James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Ben Stokes, a trio who will almost certainly line up for England in Southampton.

A career average of 30.26 in 28 Tests swells to 55.33 in six matches against England, so it is little wonder Blackwood is relishing the chance to face the same opposition.

“I always love to play against England because they are one of the best teams in the world and they have one of the best attacks in the world as well,” Blackwood said.

“Anderson and Broad are two world-class bowlers so whenever I get the chance, once I bat some time against them I know I will score runs. They are wonderful bowlers but once I can wear them down and let them bowl spell after spell, that is going to be the key thing for me in this series.”

Blackwood made 3 and 15 in West Indies’ first intra-squad warm-up last week and his hopes of pressing his claims in the second practice match were dented as intermittent showers conspired to frustrate the squad’s preparations. The match represents the final chance for those on the fringes of the side to push their case for the first Test.

Whereas the first practice game between Kraigg Brathwaite’s XI and Jason Holder’s XI was played out amid a heatwave last week, several downpours and a strong gust were the order on a dreary Monday in Manchester.

Any prospect of play was officially ended just before 3pm and it is understood that the idea to award the match first-class status has been scrapped, potentially allowing all 25 members of the squad to feature at some point.

The initial team-sheet was missing wicketkeeper-batsman Shane Dowrich , who hurt his side in the first warm-up match, and fast bowlers Oshane Thomas and Keon Harding, but there is now no reason why any of the trio should be ruled out of contention altogether. Harding suffered a facial cut when he was struck while attempting to field the ball during that earlier game.

West Indies have announced that a Black Lives Matter logo will be displayed on their shirts in the series against England but, for this contest, they will line up in the maroon and navy training kit they wore last week.



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