England vs. Australia, Bowral 2008

Ellyse Perry bowling during the Bowral Test

A Formidable Team

The centrepiece of the museum’s displaying honouring Sussex’s women’s cricketers is a signed player’s shirt from the 2008 Ashes Test match played at the Bradman Oval in Bowral, Australia. The signatures include four Sussex alumni: opener Caroline Foster (Atkins), a methodical run-scorer with multiple record-setting batting partnerships, freshly returned to the England squad and set to begin a purple patch by averaging 50.53 across formats between February 2008 and March 2009; all-rounder Rosalie Fairbairn (Birch), sadly in the swansong of her international career but nonetheless making crucial contributions throughout the multi-format tour; off-break bowler Laura Marsh, still in the nascent stages of a career that would encompass multiple World Cups and 217 international wickets, the most successful spinner in England women’s history at the time of her 2019 retirement; Holly Colvin, a Brighton College alumnus who had made her Test debut during the 2005 Ashes at Hove, becoming the youngest player to represent England in a Test match at 15 years and 336 days old and claiming three wickets to justify her selection; and Sarah Taylor, the superlative wicketkeeper and batter whose quick glovework and creative shot-making mark her as the undisputed finest wicketkeeper in the history of the women’s game, but in 2008 was a fresh-faced addition replacing long-time keeper Jane Smit.

Another notable signatory of the shirt is team captain Charlotte Edwards CBE: England’s greatest player, one of only eleven women in the ICC Hall of Fame, and the current coach of Southern Vipers, the women’s regional hub team for the South-East who represent Sussex in the Rachael Heyhoe-Flint 50-over competition and the Charlotte Edwards Cup 20-over competition.

The shirt reflects not only an exemplary team performance in a crucial Test match, but also serves as a reflection of the continued systemic growth and development of the English women’s game at international and domestic levels. With an increasingly professional coaching and training programme that enabled each successive generation of women’s cricketers to develop further and faster than their predecessors, the 2008 Bowral Test showed the early fruits of these efforts, with a hungry, dedicated English side able to take the fight to Australia in their home country, at the home of Bradman himself, and emerge with a historic victory.

For Wont Of An Urn

England began the 2007/08 Australia tour as reigning Ashes champions, but as is often the case when England is playing south of the equator, they entered the game as underdogs. Winning a Test in Australia is no easy feat, and the women’s Test side had not achieved a victory there since the very first women’s tour of 1934/35.

Unlike the modern women’s Ashes which uses a points-based system to decide an overall winner based on the results of Test, ODI and T20 matches, the 2008 Ashes were decided by a single four-day Test match at Bowral, beginning on February 15th. While a draw would ensure that England retained the Ashes, the possibility of winning a Test in Australia was an enticing prospect for Edwards and her team.

Charlotte Edwards

The Bradman Oval in Bowral is a picturesque heritage site, named for the great Sir Don Bradman who grew up in the town, and played his first club games at the ground. The 2008 Test is the only women’s Test to be played at the ground as venues of similar or better capacity can be found more conveniently located around Sydney, including the famous North Sydney Oval. Nonetheless, Bowral was a suitably impressive venue for a historic Test match. England entered the game having lost the single T20 played between the national teams but buoyed by a more encouraging 2-2 draw in the ODI series – Marsh was lead wicket taker in that series with seven wickets while Birch and fellow Sussex player Holly Colvin made significant contributions with the ball throughout, with Taylor remaining a crucial presence behind the stumps

Nonetheless the Australian team proved formidable, with seventeen-year-old debutant allrounder Ellyse Perry beginning to build her reputation as the finest women’s player of the modern era with a slew of successful performances with bat and ball. A potent batting line-up included centurion Alex Blackwell, Lisa Sthalekar, Shelley Nitschke and captain Karen Rolton, whose end of career average in Tests reached 55.66, presenting a true challenge for the English women to overcome.  With the Ashes on the line and no clear superior team in the limited-over games, the entire tour of Australia came down to this final match at a historic venue, and the opportunity for both teams to make a significant statement about the quality of their developing women’s programme.

Bowral, February 15-18th, 2008

The match began with mixed emotions for the English side – winning the toss allowed Edwards to send the Australians in first, taking advantage of conditions that favoured the bowlers considerably: Scyld Berry in Wisden described the ground as “a green pitch offering the seamers some help every morning”, with complimentary cloud cover providing ideal options for both teams with the ball. In spite of these ideal conditions, a failed fitness test by key fast bowler Jenny Gunn left England in a potentially precarious position, without their preferred opening bowler to take advantage of the seaming conditions. The opportunity to step up and deliver was given to Isa Guha, who had played only a few overs in the preceding limited-over game, but was now given the unenviable task of opening the attack against a mighty Australian line-up. Guha rose to the occasion, taking advantage of the favourable conditions and tearing into the Australian top order, claiming five for 40 in 18.5 overs while ably supported by fellow quick Nicky Shaw, who claimed two wickets with an economy of 0.94. Reflecting on the match later, Guha said that: “At the top of my run I felt that I could get a wicket every ball”, and with the Australians bundled out on the first day for only 154, they might well have felt similarly.

Isa Guha
Clare Connor
Sarah Taylor

The trio of Sussex bowlers were left in the enviable position of just having to support the quick bowlers with some economic spin to keep the Australians under pressure without opportunities to score match-saving runs. Marsh was able to end a potential rearguard by wicketkeeper Leonie Coleman, but more importantly a dynamic piece of fielding with the support of Taylor behind the stumps led to the run-out of debutant Perry, who at 17 and 104 days old was the youngest Australian Test player of any gender in the history of the game. Colvin also contributed to the Sussex women’s run-out portfolio by claiming the top-scorer Kate Blackwell for 45 with a sterling effort in the field, while Taylor executed a trademark “athletic take”, per cricinfo, to dismiss opener Melissa Burlow. Day 1 ended with the final Sussex representative Atkins unbeaten on 14, marking the end of a truly exceptional day of cricket for the English side.

Atkins fell early on day 2 to become Perry’s first in a long tally of Test wickets, before the experienced duo of Edwards and Claire Taylor dug in and put together a substantive third-wicket partnership of 159, a record for the national side against Australia. Batting for a majority of the day in conditions as bowler-friendly as the day before, both batters endured a fearsome combination of seam, pace and methodical off-breaks for nearly four hours in the case of Edwards and five for Taylor, and in doing so put England into a commanding position. Edwards fell painfully close to her fourth Test match century, caught off Perry with the new ball on 94, while Taylor fell to Sthalekar twenty overs later for 79. These Herculean efforts formed a bulwark against the impact of the subsequent collapse by England – Sarah Taylor fell to Sthalekar an over later, having scored 19 off 85 deliveries, and the next highest scorer to follow was Birch with 12 as England lost five wickets in the final session of Day 2, finishing the next day on 244 all out. Sthalekar ended with three for 39 and Perry two for 46, both having claimed some of England’s most effective and dangerous batters.

Guha repeated her magic in the second innings, claiming the entire top three for only 34 runs and leaving the Australians reeling as they began their response on the third day. Sthalekar’s response was an imperious 98 off 204 deliveries, forming key partnerships with Nitschke and Kate Blackwell to see Australia begin to take a respectable lead, 195 for four at the close of play on the third day. Colvin made substantial contributions to prevent the game getting away from the touring side – her bowling claimed the wickets of Nitschke at the end of the third day and Blackwell at the start of the fourth, the former coming off a catch by Marsh. Reflecting on the third day’s play she ruefully conceded that “We didn’t maintain the pressure on the Australians as a bowling unit and gave away too many loose balls to enable them to capitalise”: claiming Blackwell so soon on the fourth day may well have reflected a change in attitude based on those remarks. A sporting declaration on day four left Australia on 231 for nine, Guha with match figures of nine for 100, and England needing 142 to win. With only a few streaky moments in the fourth innings, they were able to chase down the total with Claire Taylor finishing unbeaten on 64 and Edwards hitting the winning runs.

England Cricket Team at the ICC Cricket World Cup Sydney ,March 2009

A Sign of Things to Come

Reflecting on the game in 2020, Edwards would note that the Bowral Test was “a turning point” for her as captain and the England cricket team, and looking at the team’s subsequent achievements it’s easy to see why. The women’s team had a prolific eighteen months, winning both the ODI and T20 World Cups and retaining the Ashes within a blistering 2009 season, along with many records being broken – a particularly notable one for the Sussex contingent being Atkins and Taylor’s record-setting first-wicket partnership of 268, which stood for nearly a decade. Claire Taylor, key contributor to every major win the team enjoyed, was the first woman in history to be named one of Wisden’s Cricketers of the Year in 2009.  Throughout this run of form Sussex continued to contribute healthily to the national side – Atkins, Marsh, Colvin and Taylor were effective contributors throughout the next few years, with Taylor in particular making herself an indispensable part of the national set-up until her final international retirement in 2019. The high-achieving England side helped galvanise interest in women’s cricket across the country, with nearly 13,000 fans attending the final of the T20 World Cup at Lord’s – by the time of the 2017 World Cup final at the same ground, attendance would rise to 24,000.

England Women at the 2009 T20 World Cup

Equally important in the aftermath of Bowral was the ECB’s elevated commitment to professionalising and supporting women’s cricket. As Berry noted in Wisden “there was no money for retaining the Ashes, not even a tour fee; just the intangible rewards of honour, pride and satisfaction”, but for most players these conditions left a full career of playing cricket untenable. In April 2008, the ECB offered eight contracts with the grassroots charity Chance to Shine to members of the national side, including Edwards and Birch, enabling them to earn as players and coaches to support their development. The ECB also offered money through Sport England to players in training, supplementing their incomes and allowing them to dedicate more time to the game. These measures were not on the level of the contemporary franchise and ECB central contracts enjoyed by Sussex players like Freya Kemp and Danni Wyatt, but they were a start. The Bowral Test was one of many examples during the 2000s that reflected the combined efforts of the ECB and women’s cricketers to elevate the women’s game – Sussex, as is so often the case, was close to the heart of these events.

By Simon Edwards, September 2023

Further reading:

Reports in Wisden 2009 by Sarah Potter and Scyld Berry