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Katie George, England seam bowler

by Freddie

In most of the interviews we do we recall memorable stories from long and illustrious careers; but this month it’s something different as we speak to Katie George, one of the most exciting young talents in the women’s game. Katie is someone who at just 21 years of age has already experienced the high of taking a hat-trick on her debut in an England shirt, to the lows of stress fractures and side strains. She may not be a household name yet, but if, as we all hope they are, her injuries are now behind her, I’m happy to put my head on the block to say that with her desire and determination, her goal of becoming the number one bowler in the world, can be realised.

To reaffirm Katie’s potential, an article on ESPN Cricinfo, once described her as “a left-arm seamer with the ability to generate hostile pace, George has been earmarked as a potential attack-leading successor for England’s veteran quick, Katherine Brunt.” Not bad right?

“To be talked about in the same breath as Brunty is a huge compliment, if I can have half of her career I won’t have done too badly,” remarked Katie.

And by all accounts it’s not just hostile pace where comparisons are drawn. “Ok, it’s fair to say we’re both quite competitive and I definitely have white line syndrome! I love to be in the battle when I’m bowling.”

The competitive instincts are no surprise, as like so many female cricketers, Katie had to build her experiences through playing mixed and latterly men’s cricket. A similar journey to previous interviewees, Charlotte Edwards, Danni Wyatt and Linsey Smith.

“I played cricket with the boys and I still play cricket with men’s teams now. You always get the inevitable banter. I remember when I had to move clubs because of my Dad’s job and you rock up at a new club and you can see people questioning you because you’re not a boy. It was always quite nice when you sense the standard ‘I can’t get out to a girl’ looks on batsmen’s faces, it’s quite enjoyable to see those same faces when you get them out. Then you get the inevitable sledging: ‘you should be in the kitchen’, it’s difficult, but it toughens you up and I’m a massive believer that its times like these that put you in good stead for what’s to come. It definitely made me more competitive. If there’s one thing I’d recommend to any aspiring young girl, play as much cricket as you can and definitely try to play as much as you can with the boys.”

Growing up, it was a mixture of men and women that inspired Katie’s love of cricket. “I loved watching Wasim Akram bowl. My Dad is an avid cricket fan and he’s always spoken about Wasim Akram so I used to spend so much time on You Tube watching through videos of him bowling. I also loved watching Freddie Flintoff and how he attacked the game, both as a batsman and a bowler, and then there was Charlotte Edwards.”

Charlotte is an icon in women’s cricket, and her influence on Katie’s career has been significant. “I remember she used to come to Hampshire and do coaching sessions with us when I was in the age group sides, then she’d always be there to present the trophies at national finals day, so she was always around when I was growing up and was someone I always massively looked up to. And then to fast forward and end up playing under her was fantastic and to then have her present me with my international cap was a very special moment.”

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And Katie, you’ve now followed her in being an Addis interviewee, don’t forget to add that honour to the list in the future…

We’ll get to Katie’s early internationals shortly. But what many people may not know of Katie was that as well as cricket, she was damn good at football and having excelled at both sports had to make an unenviable decision of choosing between the two.

“I was involved in England age groups at football where I was pretty successful. I played for Portsmouth for two seasons, but it got to the stage where I had to make a decision. It was probably the hardest decision I have ever had to make. I genuinely love both sports. I miss my football a lot, but I also know if I chose football over cricket, I’d miss cricket. I think I made the right decision.” You did.

So, why cricket? “At the time I had to make the decision, it was my first season playing for the Southern Vipers and Mark Robinson, the then England coach, was on the radio and my Dad was listening. He heard Robbo speak very highly of me, and that he wanted to ease me away from football because he really liked the look of my game. When you hear about those words from the head coach of England it makes you feel that I am good enough, so that was a defining moment. Also, I love the fact in cricket you have individuals playing as a team; you can do well as an individual and turn the game on its head, but you can also score a hundred and lose the game and that draws me in. I also love the tactical side of it and the fight within a fight.”

Football’s loss is most definitely cricket’s gain.

Katie made her Kia Super League debut for the Southern Vipers at the age of just 16, when she made an immediate impact, becoming the third most economical bowler in the tournament’s first season, as the Vipers lifted the inaugural trophy.

“That first season was pure excitement. The Ageas Bowl was renamed the ‘snake pit’ and as a 16 year old to be playing in front of 4,000 people was pretty surreal. In the final I remember getting a bit of heckling off of their supporters, but I had the last laugh as I took the catch to get Heather Knight out, to win us the game. I admit I might have given a little celebration to those heckling me! The experience of that tournament was huge for me though. I was suddenly playing against the likes of Ellyse Perry and it was a wonderful learning experience. Lottie (Charlotte Edwards) was my captain and I just remember trying to take as much information in as I could. To come out of the competition as the third most economical bowler was a big highlight, it showed me I could hold my own at this level and inspired me to keep working harder.”

Katie’s performances for the Vipers in the first two years of the competition put her into the thoughts of the international selectors, and while international selection wasn’t on her radar, I asked her just how the Super League helped prepare her for the step up into international cricket.

“It was competitive and I remember in the second season we lost a couple of games which meant every game from then on became knockout cricket. You knew you couldn’t slip up or that’s it. You also were playing against the best crop of players out there and the games came thick and fast. In county cricket you play once a week, but in the Super League the intensity was huge.  For me at 16 and 17 it was a big eye opener into a proper professional environment, which definitely helped me when I was selected for England.”

And that England call came in early 2018 when Katie was called up to support the team in the preparation for the 2018 Ashes.

“It all happened very fast. The squad was preparing for the Ashes and I was asked to go down to Chelmsford. I wasn’t really told much else or knew what to expect. I had a net with a couple of the coaches, and ran some drinks on, and thought that was pretty much going to be it. I took part in a practice match, took a couple of wickets with the ball and then had a stint as a night-watchman with the bat when Alex Hartley and I were trying to see out the evening. It was all a great experience. I then trained with the squad at Loughborough and then I got asked how I felt about going on the tri-series tour to India! I was shocked. Apart from a high-performance bowling programme in South Africa, I’d never toured overseas, anywhere. I couldn’t wait. I thought I’d just be carrying drinks and working on some technical things in the nets and just learning from the experience.”

It’s fair to say it turned out a little differently.

“On the way to the ground for a second warm-up game against India A, I was told I was going to be playing. I didn’t really have time to prepare, which I think was a good thing – as it was, I’d left my match trousers at the hotel! But there was no time for me to get nervous which was great. It’s what you dream about. I had no idea if I’d be opening the bowling or coming on 1st or 2nd change. But I was then told I was opening the bowling. My first over was pretty solid, then I took 2 wickets in two balls. I just thought I’ve got to nail the Yorker and I did. The middle stump literally cart-wheeled and I had a hat-trick!”

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Katie went on to take four wickets for six runs in three overs. A dream debut.

“It probably didn’t sink in until four or five hours after play. It didn’t register how many people back home would be following. You have to give your phone up during the game, but when I received it back, messages didn’t blow up too much, but by the time we got back to the hotel it had gone absolutely crazy!”

Days later and Katie was making her full international debut against the Australians in Mumbai. “I was nervous but excited. It was a very proud moment singing the national anthem – something I will never forget. I held my own and I got a runout early off of my own bowling which settled me down and I just got myself into the battle straight away.”

Ahead of that tour, I asked Katie what the moment was like when her ‘tour kit’ arrived, as I recall from many previous interviews, this was often a cherished moment for a debutant.

“Amazing. I couldn’t open the boxes at first as I didn’t want to lose anything, so I waited until I got home. It was a wonderful feeling to see the kit with your name on the shirts etc. But, it was actually the moment I looked up and saw my parents faces that had the biggest impact. They were as proud as punch and I really do owe them everything. Without them and my brother, I wouldn’t have reached where I have. They all made so many sacrifices for me.”

Katie played in three T20’s on that tour, one against Australia and two against India, followed by two more the following home summer against New Zealand as well as making her 50 over debut against the Kiwis as well.

“When I came back from India, I played against New Zealand at home, which was a totally different feeling. There’s definitely more pressure playing in England, with more people watching.”

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But from these incredible high came incredible lows, as injuries brought a sudden, sad halt to Katie’s rapid rise.

“I’d got a stress fracture in my back after the first Super League season. Stress fractures aren’t the quickest things to recover from. The first two months you are limited to what you can do, you can walk around, but that’s pretty much it. I recovered from it, had the highs, felt like I was cementing my place in the England side and then it happened again. I felt like I’d gone back to the bottom of the pile again.”

And what made it worse, was it was World Cup year, a tournament England of course, went on to win so memorably at Lord’s. “It was so hard, as you watch it and think I should be there. But you realise you have to go again. My only goal was to get fit and knock the door down again.”

Katie was sidelined for 8 months, but then having thought she’d recovered, it went again. I asked Katie, if she ever had the dark thoughts of having to accept her cricket career could be over. “For sure.  It felt like it was slipping away. I knew I had to be right after this and that I couldn’t get another back injury. Robbo was always excellent, he fully supported me and would always be available for me on the end of the phone. All of the physios – and I got to know them all pretty well! – were excellent.  They knew me inside, out. They knew when to push me harder and when I needed to take my foot off the pedal a bit.”

And it worked. Katie was back on the field and firing in last summer’s Super League. “I made the switch to Yorkshire Diamonds. I felt after everything I’d been through I needed a change. I needed to break free from my ‘safe environment’, re-challenge myself and be part of something new. It allowed me to grow as a player and a person. My first two games were terrible, but we then we down to play Surrey at Guildford, on a batting friendly wicket, and I felt like I had the ball on a piece of string, and there’s no better feeling as a bowler.”

The comeback season though was cut short this time through a side strain, but as Katie admits, “at least it wasn’t the back!”.

It did though mean she would miss last winter’s T20 World Cup, as there just wasn’t any more games to prove her fitness. “Again, it was frustrating, we had a spell of 4 games in a week, and my side went in the fourth game. I remember driving home knowing I’d be missing my second World Cup. It was a tough 18 months, but all of the challenges have made me more resilient and it certainly makes you appreciate a lot of stuff, a lot more. I’m now more driven than ever.”

And from speaking to Katie you can sense it.

I asked her if after all the injuries, she’s had to re-model any of her action? “Between the 2nd and 3rd stress fracture I had to do a bit of re-modelling and I am now more front on in my delivery.”

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After the disappointment of the last 18 months Katie was determined to make 2020 her year. She nagged and nagged to get an opportunity to spend time in the winter in South Africa to get cricket under her belt. Despite her time in South Africa coming to a halt because of Covid-19, she still managed six weeks at the Pretoria Sports High Performance Camp, where she played a mixture of three-day games, T20s and 50 over games, all of which she came through unscathed, before having to return home. “I really enjoyed it and by the time I had to return home, I was injury free and feeling strong and in peak condition, so it was a great outcome for me. I wanted to go out there, prove my fitness and get into the best possible shape to impress Lisa Keightley and I definitely feel I’m now in a position to do that. I just need some cricket!”

And how has lockdown been? “The first week was tough, but I went home to my parents and it’s been nice spending more time with the family. I’ve managed to get to a local park with my brother, whose a wicket-keeper, and get a ball in my hand, so I’ve been able to bowl a few.”

Everyone is still waiting to hear how this season will pan out for women’s cricket. But the immediate future is bright for Katie. She was picked up in the Hundred by Cardiff Fire. “I didn’t expect to be a first-round pick, but I was. Their plans really excited me and I was looking forward to it and the opportunity play under, and learn from, Meg Lanning. I was excited to get going and have the pressure of being a first-round pick. I knew the experience would stand me in good stead to get back in the England side. We’ll just have to see what happens.”

Signing for Cardiff would also have seen her given the opportunity of picking the brains of Steve Smith, who’d of course had signed for the men’s team. “It would have been brilliant as he’s a genius, I’d loved to have seen how he goes about stuff. Hopefully next year.”

This year or next, the Hundred is going to play a big part in the development of the women’s game. “I know the competition has had bad press, but it’s going to be great for the women’s game. We’ll have the same coverage as the men, the revenue it will generate is going to allow contracts being brought in to the women’s game domestically, that wouldn’t be happening without the Hundred.”

And what are Katie’s short and long terms goals. “Short term is staying fit, impressing Lisa and getting back into the England side, and long term it’s to be the best bowler in the world.”

It’s a big goal but having spent over an hour on the phone in Katie’s company I can honestly say if her drive, determination and commitment, which comes through in abundance, is anything to go by, it’s an achievable goal. She’s a very, very impressive young woman, who now fully fit, just needs that opportunity. And when she gets it, that ‘hostile’ pace I am convinced is something Lisa Keightley will desperately want as part of her England side moving forward.

Just remember, when she hits those goals you read about her here first!

Good luck Katie, we’re excited to follow your journey.

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