Alice Davidson-Richards feared her England career was over at just 23 years old.
The all-rounder from Kent made her debut against India in 2018 – a sole one-day international followed by five Twenty20s against Australia.
Struggling to cement her place in a competitive side, she was awarded a rookie contract by England in 2019 but was not called up again.
But four years later, it’s time for round two.
Davidson Richards is one of five potential debutants named in England’s Test squad to face South Africa, and she could not be happier.
“I was driving to training when I got the call to tell me I was in the squad,” she says. “I rang my mum and I was just crying.
“My mum was saying: ‘Is everything OK? What’s happened? Have you had an accident?’ I had to tell her: ‘No, it’s good news!'”
Davidson-Richards oozes confidence and positivity. She is always smiling, her optimism contagious. You can hear her smile even through a phone call.
She is even grateful for the difficult period that followed her international debut for the change in perspective it has given her.
“There were some really rubbish times in those couple of years,” she said. “So the call-up made me a lot more emotional than I thought I would be, especially telling my parents who have been there with me throughout.
“If I went back now and told myself in those days that it would all be worth it, that this was going to happen, I really don’t think I would have believed it. Happy doesn’t cover how I feel.”
The call-up is the result of four years of hard work with an added dose of uncertainty after her previous England appearances.
While she had the security of the rookie contract for a year, Davidson-Richards was working as a personal trainer alongside it, with thoughts creeping in she may have to take up employment elsewhere.
But in 2020, she was able to fulfill her dream of becoming a professional cricketer, when the England and Wales Cricket Board introduced domestic contracts for the first time.
Until then, the only way to earn a living as a cricketer was if you played for England.
Now 28 and into her third year as a professional with her region South East Stars, she knows she is ready for her second chance.
“I definitely had the skills to do it,” Davidson-Richards says of her debut. “And I don’t think it was completely the wrong time, because sometimes people make their debut at that age and they flourish, but I’m more confident and a much more rounded person now.”
‘It’s sending a positive message’
An England debut at a young age is certainly not uncommon in the women’s game – the last time an England player made their debut over the age of 24 was in 2004.
Before there was a professional domestic path in place as there is now, the only way for England coaches to see whether players with potential could compete at a higher standard was within international cricket.
Therefore, predominantly young players were handed debuts as older, more experienced county cricketers had commitments of other jobs – until now.
In 2018, six players made their England debuts, with Davidson-Richardson and spinner Linsey Smith the oldest at just 23. Katie George was 18, Kirstie Gordon was 21 and Bryony Smith and Sophia Dunkley were 20.
Dunkley has established herself as a mainstay of England’s middle order but, for the others, while they may not have featured regularly since, they are all still able to continue their careers as professionals within the regions.
But such is the significance of Davidson-Richards’ recall, it is symbolic of the strides made by the women’s game, a demonstration of the international side reaping the rewards of the professionalism beneath it.
“I think it definitely sends a really positive message to other players that there is a way back,” she said.
“You’ve got to put the work in to get the rewards but it can only be positive for others to see the door isn’t ever closed any more. It’s me who’s been picked this time but it might be someone else in the next club.”
Davidson-Richards’ achievement mirrors that of seamer Tash Farrant, who was recalled to the England ranks in 2021 after impressing in The Hundred – eight years after she made her England debut at just 17.
‘It’s going to push us forward’
The backbone of the England women’s team has been largely unchanged over the past five years, with Heather Knight, Nat Sciver, Tammy Beaumont, Kate Cross, Amy Jones, Lauren Winfield-Hill and Danni Wyatt all among the first recipients of central contracts in 2014 – and they still hold them today.
But with seamer Anya Shrubsole announcing her retirement from all forms of cricket and Katherine Brunt retiring from Tests, the transition process is beginning.
And with the talent pool increasing beneath the England contracted players, Captain Heather Knight says she has already started to notice the impact.
“We’re talking about so many different names now when it comes to selection,” said Knight. “Someone like Alice Davidson-Richards has had the consistency of training with the domestic set-up to prove what she can do.
“It’s exactly what we want to see and it’s really going to push us forward as a team having that competition for places.”
Announced alongside the Test squad was in England A side to take on South Africa in a three-day fixture, an opportunity for players on the fringe of the international set-up to fight for selection.
Opening batter Eve Jones, 29, is included, having also toured Australia with the A side in 2021 and was tipped by many for a call-up during the Ashes and World Cup after impressing on the regional circuit.
Georgia Elwiss captains the side while Winfield-Hill and Wyatt are also named, suggesting the familiar faces in the England line-up are not always guaranteed any more.
While it may have seemed unlikely in the past, it could be that older and more experienced domestic players start to earn call-ups – or in Davidson-Richards’ case, being called back.