By Hamish Stuart
From laughing-stock to record-breakers, from online abuse to on-field winners, the turnaround in fortunes for Welsh Fire Women this season is dramatic.
As they trained in the Cardiff sunshine before heading up to London for Saturday’s Eliminator against Northern Superchargers, there was one more transformation possible for Tammy Beaumont’s team – from Hundred Wooden Spooners to Champions.
Bottom of the table for last two seasons – one win last season after getting just two the year before – they were even bottom of the table in the abandoned 2020 season, though admittedly that was alphabetical order!
Now, Welsh Fire are ready for the Kia Oval ‘semi-final’ on Saturday and just that one game from a Lord’s Final on Sunday. It has taken a while, but their success is also moving the dial for women and girls’ cricket in Wales.
The Women’s Hundred season has been most defined by two firsts for the Welsh Fire, Beaumont’s record-breaking 118 against Trent Rockets and Ismail’s hat-trick off the last three balls of the innings to beat Birmingham Phoenix by three runs.
It is all a far cry from the end of last season.
“I remember being incredibly emotional last season, it had not gone anywhere near how we would have liked it to, I also received a lot of abuse online and I took things to heart,” remembers Beaumont.
“People were saying things like Welsh Fire should not be in Cardiff, it should be back across the river.
“I know I am not Welsh but I feel like I really took on the job to promote Wales as a cricketing place to come and make it a real hub, so I took it all quite personally.
“It took a bad year to create something pretty good this year and the turnaround for me is the most pleasing thing, the feelings this year are just so different and going through that tough time makes this all the sweeter.
“We set ourselves some goals we wanted to achieve and we have ticked so many of them off. We broke the attendance record here at Cardiff and then we broke it again on a weekday, we wanted to bring exciting and inspiring cricket and people are coming out to watch it.
“We have broken the record for highest total, we have three of the top six highest totals, we have bowled a team out for the third lowest total, the cricket we have played has been brilliant and we have had a great time doing it – so in a way we have already succeeded.”
Claire Nicholas is one of three Welsh players in the squad, along with Kate Cappock and Alex Griffiths.
— Esyllt Green (@essiedavies) August 15, 2023
Nicholas is a teacher when not playing cricket, heading back into the classroom a few days after the Hundred finals weekend, and she is noticing a difference in Wales on the back of this season’s success as the squad embrace the Welsh Hwyl.
“Hywl is part of our Welsh culture, about getting it over the line, getting results, underdogs having to fight for everything we get, and it is something Welsh people have in bundles,” she explained.
“Everyone in our squad has embraced that and also being in Cardiff, eating lots of Welsh cakes. Both the Welsh Fire men and women have played some good cricket, entertaining the spectators coming through the door.
“I think our success in the competition is making a huge difference to cricket in Wales, and women and girls cricket especially. Seeing he faces of children I teach in the crowd is a nice development.
“One of our coaches, Aimee Rees, has that role looking after Women’s and Girls with Cricket Wales and Glamorgan, it shows the commitment they both have to pushing the women’s game forward.”
Welsh Fire coach Gareth Breese was a late replacement in the role last season, but the combination of time and lessons learned means they are also benefitting from a different approach this time round.
— Gym+Coffee (@gympluscoffee) August 14, 2023
“We retained three people coming out of last year. It was not a case of needing a clean slate, but we needed a few more experienced bodies in to support Tammy and we had a really good draft,” he said.
“Coming out of it we were all very happy and almost 100 per cent of what we wanted.
“Also it is not just the big players who have held their hand up, Claire Nicholas has been fantastic, Alex Griffiths performed really well, Sarah Bryce as well.
“The girls who have not played have been unbelievable, they probably do not understand how much of a contribution they have made.”
There is no doubt the influx of players has made a massive difference, such as Shabnim Ismail who won the Hundred for the last two years with Oval Invincibles, taking 1-14 and 2-12 off her two 20 ball spells in those finals.
Beaumont credits the draft as being a big moment in the Welsh Fire resurgence. “We felt the only positive about coming last was that we had a favourable draft pick and we knew we had to get it right,” she said.
“To get someone like a Georgia Elwiss for us was a big target, there are not many domestic players who can bat in your top five or six and then offer something with the ball.
“Also we felt we needed some real firepower with the ball, someone who could strike at the beginning and at the death, so Shabnim Ismail was a key one for us.
“Shabs has loved it from the off. I was around for the draft so I dropped a text to quite a few people, I got interviewed quite quickly afterwards and said how I was not just looking forward to her bowling but her influence around the team.
“Her and a couple of others are the people who have unified the team, she has given out nicknames to everyone. A few of us are Calamari because if you get nought she hands out a calamari ring. Emily Windsor does not like cherries so she is called Cherry Blossom.”
The unity between the men’s and women’s squad this year is also much greater, both getting to the ground early and staying late to watch each other in action. Ideas are transferred between the squads.
“There is no comparison between this year and last in the way the men and women have worked together. Mike Hussey (Welsh Fire Men’s coach) and Gareth Breese together have had so much open communication,” said Beaumont.
“We talk about what the wicket is doing and I have spoken to Glenn Phillips about power hitting, for instance.
Former Durham and West Indies all-rounder Gareth Breese has been appointed coach of the Welsh Fire women's squad for the Hundred tournament 🏏
— BBC Sport Wales (@BBCSportWales) July 27, 2022
“Particularly when Shabnim Ismail took that hat trick, they were all up on their balcony screaming. I didn’t realise for the home games they were walking to the ground and had clearly chosen to come and watch us.
“I got that hundred in the first innings, so that’s hours before their game, and they were all there for me. There has been such unity across the teams and staff which has made it such a pleasant experience.
“I guess now we have got to carry the mantle for the men’s and women’s team this weekend.”
There are potentially two more steps this weekend to completing the turnaround, summed up perfectly by the skipper. “Hopefully two more wins will be the cherry on the cake that Emily Windsor cannot eat.”