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Ashes win cements Edwards' place as one of the greats

It was in the Harris Gardens at Lord’s, in 1998, that the Women’s Ashes was truly born.

Although the first match between England and Australian women’s teams had taken place back in 1934, the contest took on new significance when a miniature bat was passed around to be signed by the players in both squads before they took to the field.

The bat was set alight and the ashes were then sealed in a yew-tree trophy, which will accompany the England team on their flight home after they sealed victory in Hobart last week.

It’s a remarkable sign of consistent excellence, not to mention longevity, that Charlotte Edwards will present the silverware at the Sydney airport check-in desk, the only England captain to have won the Women’s Ashes twice on Australian soil.

The trophy houses her own signature, scribbled on the bat at Lord’s when she was just a teenager.

Rarely recognised outside England, Edwards is a giant of the women’s game.

Since becoming the youngest woman to play for her country, at the age of 16, the aggressive opening batter has been a constant fixture as it’s grown from something of a novelty to a sport that is almost fully-professional in England and Australia.

When Edwards made her debut, she wore a skirt and paid for her own blazer; these days, after winning back-to-back Ashes Series, there’s talk of making her a Dame, adding to the MBE she was awarded after winning the 2009 Women’s World Cup.

“It’s pretty much unrecognisable to the game I started playing,” said Edwards. “The game’s played by athletes now I guess and the professionalism now is fantastic.

“I’ve loved every minute of it – there’ve been many highs and lows and I think that’s what’s kept me quite grounded now as I sit here in the latter part of my career.

“Some of the experiences I’ve had, not just as a cricketer but as a person, you can’t put a price on that,” Edwards said. “For me as a person you just want it to last forever but it’s not going to.

“There’ll come a time when I’m ready to give it all away but I don’t feel it’s yet,” she said. “I’ve still got a lot of hunger to keep getting better.

“I think that’s the reason I want to keep on playing, because I still feel I can get better and I’m so much better educated in what to do.”

Edwards has set her sights on playing in the 2017 World Cup in England and there’s no doubt the 34-year-old has much to offer her side – in the sole Test match that opened this summer’s multi-format Commonwealth Bank Women’s Ashes Series in Perth, Edwards’ second innings knock of 54 runs was central to the tourists’ 61-run victory, which netted them six points in the series, a massive early lead that the Southern Stars couldn’t pull back.

Then in the first T20 International in Hobart, Edwards took it upon herself to secure victory, cracking a boundary off the first ball she faced, and then after smashing 92 runs off 52 balls it was fitting that the skipper scored the winning runs as England sealed the series with an emphatic nine-wicket victory with 22 balls to spare.

The Commonwealth Bank Southern Stars had won the two previous matches in the series, and Edwards appeared to consider it a personal mission to thwart any late ambush by the Australians.

“I was pretty determined,” said Edwards. “When I went out there, and I think when I got to thirty, I realised ‘this is a good wicket and I need to be here at the end’ and if I was there at the end I knew we’d win the game.

“I wasn’t going to give away the Ashes.”

“Both series have been mentally tough. I’ve had many sleepless nights, throughout the Test match, throughout the One-Day Series.

“It means everything to me to score the winning runs and to lead the team.”

Edwards’ journey to captain a successful England side started in an unlikely location - on a potato farm in rural Cambridgeshire – where, bereft of the distractions of more populated areas, she played cricket with her brother in the backyard and on the boundary of Ramsay Cricket Club, while her father was out in the middle.

“Watching the guys play from my local club are some of my fondest memories of cricket,” said Edwards. “Overseas players used to come over and watching them and following them, they became your heroes in a way, and I think on TV it was probably Graeme Gooch’s 333 against Lord’s – I remember watching that and in the summer holidays I used to sit in front of the TV watching Test matches.

“There wasn’t particularly a great deal to do because we lived quite a long way from the village,” Edwards recalled. “So me and my brother, I had an older brother, we just used to play in the garden constantly.”

Edwards says she didn’t even know women’s cricket existed but she became a self-confessed cricket geek.

“There wasn’t a lot of junior cricket played and it was when I was ten I finally got into the under 13 boys team and then I played at school as well.”

But the turning point for the young Edwards was she made her first visit to the county ground in Essex and shocked observers with her talent.

“I played – I guess it’s MILO in2CRICKET here - and my school got to a national final at Chelmsford cricket ground, and from that moment on someone spotted me on the outfield.

“I hit a ball (out of the ground and) into the river and I haven’t looked back since then really.”

The teenager’s ability to lead as well as wield the willow saw her captain the boys' county team for Huntingdonshire between the ages of 12 and 16, and after her first county match as a 12-year-old she was called into the England under 19s team.

“It sounds pretty ridiculous,” admitted Edwards. “I didn’t even know women’s cricket existed until 93 in the World Cup and when they lifted the trophy I thought “Right I think I’d like to do that” and then I watched it and followed it, I was just desperate to play.”

After taking on the captaincy in 2005, Edwards fulfilled that dream by leading England to a 50-over World Cup victory in Australia in 2009, before returning home to lift the Women’s T20 World Cup Trophy.

“To win out here, it was my fourth World Cup and I thought “Am I ever going to win it?””, she said. “It was my first one as captain as well and then to go and win the T20 world cup back at home at Lord’s in front of thousands of people was really special.

“They’re the two that stand out but there’s been many – winning the 2008 Ashes here, first one as captain, was fantastic and even the recent Test victory in Perth was a special moment.

“I think Test cricket always brings out those special memories because you don’t get to play them very often so yeah, they’ll be up there.”

Edwards is a big fan of the current multi-format series and would like to see all international series follow the same concept.

But she confesses to being shocked at the lack of public support for the women’s game in Australia compared to England, particularly for a side that includes the talents of players like Ellyse Perry and Meg Lanning.

The small crowds have been in stark contrast to the thousands of paying fans who flocked to see the previous series, held in the English summer.

“I’ve been really surprised by the lack of support over here,” Edwards said. “I’ve been really, really shocked.

“Considering you’re world champions in both formats and you barely have anyone coming to watch two brilliant teams playing cricket.

“I think you would have seen from the summer how the support we get in England is fantastic and it’s just increasing year on year which has been great for me to see through my career,” she said. “How people write about the game now in England, it’s very positively written about and supported.”

“We were talking about it at the Test match,” she said. “Maybe you need to charge people for the tickets because I think sometimes when you charge for something they feel like they’re getting something worthwhile.

“That’s something we’ve been doing in England for a while, we’ve been putting a price on watching the women play and it certainly hasn’t put people off.

“Admittedly it’s a smallish fee but at least we’re charging.

“I never thought I’d see the day when we’d be selling grounds out in England, reasonably small grounds but seven or eight thousand is fantastic to play in front of.”

Edwards is passionate about the women’s game getting more exposure, not for personal gain, but for the inspiration it may give to other young girls.

The captain is a coaching ambassador for the ECB’s Chance to Shine programme that promotes the women’s game and, as the squad’s most recognisable face in England, she has a reputation of being tireless in her efforts to grow the game.

“People are always saying to me I’m too good in the things that I do but I always think about that one kid who might want to see me and get that inspiration from playing,” Edwards said. “Ultimately you want a female role model, not a male role model like I had to have.

“The most important thing for me is that young girls out there can see a pathway to playing cricket which I never saw when I was six or seven, I thought I had to play in a men’s team, I didn’t think there was a women’s cricket team.

“But I feel very honoured to have played through all the eras and to be here now,” she said. “It’s been a fantastic journey and I’ll treasure it for the rest of my life.”