Arriving at Lord’s in January 2020 to attend Lisa Keightley’s first press conference, you could smell excitement in the air. This was the first female head coach to lead England in the professional era, and she had ambition. “I’m planning to be in the World Cup final,” Keightley declared.
Two months later, England were on a plane back from Australia having failed to achieve that goal, losing against India in the T20 semi-finals in Sydney, admittedly partly because of rain. Days later, the pandemic struck, putting the result very much in perspective. Suddenly, Keightley’s aspirations for the team took a backseat to navigating a new world where cricket balls were “vectors of transmission”.
The past two-and-a-half years has been a difficult period for Keightley, both professionally – negotiating the new restrictions of bubbles and “safe living” for her team – and personally, being unable for months on end to travel home to see her partner in Australia. Her decision to leave the head coach role at the end of the summer, announced on Tuesday by the England and Wales Cricket Board, therefore comes as no surprise. Effectively, Keightley has been functioning as a “lame duck” coach for the past few months, with it being common knowledge within the team that she would not be seeking an extension to her contract.
No one can blame the 50-year-old for wanting to spend time at home before she decides on her next role. And there will be offers. Keightley has experienced her share of success in the England job – taking the team to the final of the Women’s World Cup earlier this year, and blooding a group of young players this summer (Alice Capsey, Lauren Bell and Issy Wong) who already look at home in international cricket. Perhaps most significantly, she helped the team survive a period of pandemic restrictions which were often arbitrary and brutal for player mental health.
Some will ask whether Keightley’s decision to step down is in any way related to England’s miserable display at the Commonwealth Games on Sunday, when they threw away their chance at a bronze medal, losing to New Zealand by eight wickets. In fact the decision had already been made, though the timing of the announcement is convenient for the ECB – if they needed a scapegoat for England’s embarrassing display of petulance against New Zealand, they have found one.
In truth, throughout Keightley’s reign it has been the captain, Heather Knight, who has called the tune. “I’m definitely more in the background,” Keightley told the BBC soon after her appointment was made public. “I know Heather Knight will be a great leader for us, so for me it’s really getting her at the forefront. I’m there to help facilitate, set a really good programme up behind the scenes.”
Keightley’s “lame duck” status has only reinforced this state of affairs. Losing Knight to injury for the duration of the Commonwealth Games was especially devastating given the extent to which she has been responsible for driving the team forward, on and off the pitch.
Will Knight continue to dictate team affairs? And is it time, finally, to think about blooding her replacement? As the ECB begins the recruitment process for Keightley’s successor (who will begin in post after England’s September series against India), these two questions will undoubtedly be top of the agenda. Adding to their significance is the fact that the bookies favourite for the job will be Charlotte Edwards, the very woman who was fired as captain six years ago and replaced by Knight.
Edwards is known to have previously expressed an interest in the job, but may consider it too big a leap this early in her coaching career. Otherwise, it is possible that a coach who has not yet worked in the women’s game may throw their hat in the ring, as Mark Robinson did in 2015. Either way, there are big decisions to be made before a looming 20-over World Cup, scheduled for February 2023 in South Africa.