By Richard Edwards
19 July 2021
Sophia Dunkley has flown high this summer, as well as achieving the simultaneously unlikely feat of flying under most people’s radar.
Which is just how the understated former Finchley star likes it.
Dunkley became the first black woman to play Test cricket for England back in June, starring as Heather Knight’s side drew with India at Bristol. It was a hugely significant moment for the women’s game and one which brought to mind the achievement of Roland Butcher in Barbados during England’s tour of the West Indies back in 1981.
Then Butcher broke through a barrier which would have seemed insurmountable to many a generation before. Now Dunkley has done the same. And the hope is that her Test debut will have a similar impact.
Dunkleys inspirational story also demonstrates the impact that club cricket and the Club Cricket Conference representative programme can have, with the 23-year-old synonymous with Finchley in North London, while also announcing her arrival as a cricketer of rare promise during a triangular tournament involving the CCC XI while still a teenager.
“There’s a picture of one of her England shirts up at the clubhouse and there’s an enormous amount of pride at what she has achieved,” says Julian Powe, the Finchley chairman. “Sophia joined us at under-11. She lived in the Watford area and came down to the Wilf Slack ground for training one evening.
“Dee McClean was running our girls’ section at the time and I think Sophia came to us, mainly as a result of there not being too many girls’ sections in the area. At that time she was a really promising leg-spinner who also batted. She started playing for the girls’ team at under-11s and just went from there.
“From under-13 onwards, she played in the club’s boys’ team. Sophia bowled very nice leg-spin and batting a bit as well. She got a bursary to Mill Hill School, a cricket scholarship, which obviously had a huge impact on her development. She played under-13 and under-15 but if I’m completely honest we all thought she would be a bowler. To see the way she batted in that Test match shows we were all completely wrong!”
Dunkley has found runs harder to come by in the T20 series that followed, but there’s no doubt that the 23-year-old is now an integral part of England’s future plans. Its also clear the impact that club cricket at large and the Club Cricket Conference in particular has played in ensuring she had an outlet for her talents.
At the age of just 15, Dunkley scored back-to-back hundreds for the CCC representative XI against the Combined Services and the MCC. She also appeared for the CCC against the MCC at Lords in 2015, in a match celebrating the organisations centenary. When she was selected for the CCC, alongside India Whitty, with whom Dunkley played a huge amount of youth cricket, it was apparent that here was a cricketer with a huge future. She is now delivering on that promise.
Ex-Derbyshire left-hander, Steve Selwood, must also take credit for Dunkleys lightning fast development, having coached her at both Finchley and Mill Hill during her time in North London.
Forward wind to the present, and with the whole of the club game having been hit by the pandemic, there’s now a real sense of urgency when it comes to ensuring that the Dunkley’s of the future don’t slip through the net. Particularly at a time when the ECB is looking to attract an increasingly diverse audience to the sport.
Finchley is very much part of the effort to expand the offering to young players of both genders, with Powe believing it’s essential that clubs work hand-in-hand with schools in a bid to reach as many children from all backgrounds as possible.
“Girls and women’s cricket is growing everywhere but I think we’re learning that you can’t do this on your own, you have to go into schools, you have to make children aware that these clubs are out there and that their doors are open,” he says. “Maybe we’ve got out of that habit as a result of the pandemic but it’s now incumbent on all of us to get out there and attract as many kids as possible.
“I think there’s a lot of parents very keen on getting their children active again after everything that has happened. We need to try and make sure that cricket competes with other sports.”
In Dunkley, the women’s game has found a perfect role model for those who are new to the sport and those who one day aspire to follow her into the England side.
“In the women’s game that star is there and people will be able to identify with Sophia Dunkley,” says Butcher.
“To be the first black woman to play a Test match for England is fantastic, I’ve done a couple of events with Sophia and I know her well, so I’m so pleased for her.
“She has grabbed the opportunity and I hope she can continue to really be a shining light. If she can continue to be a success, that will hopefully inspire black girls in England to want to emulate her.
“She has played white ball cricket for England before but she has been in such good form so far this season and really looks the part.
She shone in that Test. I’m delighted for her because she has had to work really hard to get there. She still has a lot of work to do but to get to where she is now is fantastic.
“She’s obviously British-born too, which is a huge thing. This is what we really need in the men’s game in England too.”
Like Butcher all those years ago, Dunkley is not only hitting boundaries, she is smashing down barriers.