Women's Ashes T20s
The day Lanning unleashed to storm England's fortress
Australia's superstar captain Meg Lanning had been building all series for a big innings. It arrived in spectacular fashion on July 26, 2019, in an Ashes-winning performance
Laura Jolly previously wrote for News Corp Australia and the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015, and is now cricket.com.au Women's Cricket Editor providing dedicated coverage to all aspects of the women's game
In late July last year, an unsettled feeling hung over Chelmsford.
The Essex city, and the United Kingdom in general, was in the middle of a record-breaking heat wave.
Dubbed "short but exceptional" by the UK's Met Office, temperatures reached 38.5 degrees Celsius in some parts of the country – an all-time UK record.
It's the sort of weather that is unremarkable in most parts of Australia during summer, but in England – built for harsh, cold winters – it somehow becomes a relentless, energy-sapping beast.
In Chelmsford, inland from the famous seaside villages of Essex, there was a general malaise in the city as locals wandered the streets, shoulders sagging in the humidity as they sought any possible respite – an airconditioned shop, the freezer aisle of the supermarket, an (actual) ice-cold lager.
But in nearby Colchester, where the Australian Ashes squad was based, a different sort of unrest was bubbling away.
And on the evening of July 26, it would boil over into one of the most devastating displays seen in women's Ashes history: Meg Lanning's (then) world-record 133 not out from just 63 deliveries, which sealed an outright series win for Australia.
A few things were playing on Lanning's mind in the lead up to that first Ashes T20I at the Essex County Ground.
There was the Australian captain's own form.
There was the state of the series.
And then there was the Essex County Ground itself.
Lanning had not been in bad form since arriving in England for the multi-format, points-based Ashes series, scoring 16, 18 and 69 in the ODIs and 57 and 21 in the one-off Test.
But when you are a player of Lanning's calibre, even averaging mid-30s can be considered a lean run – and in the eyes of the ultra-competitive right-hander, it was a definite source of consternation.
"I probably had been frustrated for a period of time, to be honest," Lanning told cricket.com.au this week, as she looked back on that Ashes campaign.
"I felt like I was going okay, but I wasn't dominating as I would have liked.
"I had a few opportunities but I hadn't gone on with them to make significant scores as I'd done in the past. The T20Is probably came at the right time."
Australia had dominated the Ashes up to that point, holding an 8-2 lead after three one-dayers and the one-off Test, but they needed to win at least one of three T20Is to ensure they claimed the Ashes outright.
It was something they had failed to do on home soil in 2017, surrendering in the final two T20Is as England drew the series, and the bitter taste it had left still lingered.
"Those experiences in the past, where we hadn't quite finished it off, was burning," Lanning said.
"And you could tell within the squad that everyone knew we hadn't gotten the job done yet heading into that Chelmsford game."
If there was a place to put those demons to rest, it was at England's much-loved "Fortress Chelmsford".
The ground had never been breached by any team, including Australia – a winning record England were inclined to frequently remind their rivals of.
"The fact it was at 'The Fortress' as they call it, I think helped steel us," Lanning added.
For the Australian captain, one of the world's most dominant players, those three factors combined to create the perfect storm.
Lanning recalls those five days leading into the game as a something of a "weird week".
After the Test in Taunton ended in a frustrating, rain-affected draw, the Australian squad spent two days in London.
There, they mixed much-needed downtime with a reception at Buckingham Palace that ended in the somewhat surreal experience of posing for a group photo in what was essentially the Queen's backyard.
Then it was back on the bus for the short journey to Essex, where they were installed at a golf course resort in Colchester.
On the eve of the first T20I they made the 35km journey into Chelmsford for an evening net – their one and only opportunity to switch into 20-over mode.
"I felt I was batting okay, but not amazing," Lanning said.
"We were coming off a Test match into T20, so I found in the nets I was tending to slog it too much, going too hard to try and find the right tempo.
"Going into the first T20, I wasn't too sure how I'd go, to be honest."
Chelmsford's fortified reputation was not built on England's successful record alone.
It is a small, compact stadium boasting a proud record of sell-out crowds – around 7000 very vocal locals – whenever England's women come to play.
"The atmosphere at Chelmsford is always amazing," Lanning said.
"You feel like you're really close to the fans ... it feels like the fans are on top of you a little bit, and there's only 7000 people there, but it certainly feels like a lot more."
The crowd were given good reason to hit full volume just five balls into the match, when Natalie Sciver took a brilliant running catch to remove Australian opener Alyssa Healy.
It was not the start the tourists would have wanted – but as it happened, it was perfect for Lanning, batting at No.3.
"The more I sit on the sidelines the more nervous I get, so it was nice to get out there and involved in the game," she explained.
"From memory, we wanted to bowl first but England sent us in, so it turned out to be a good toss to lose.
"It was a ripper wicket, you could just see it had really good pace in it and the outfield there is always really quick.
"After a couple of overs out there with Beth Mooney, we realised we needed to get a pretty good score to be competitive.
"I tried to go in with a free and aggressive mindset – T20 cricket can do that for you in a way, it takes the decision-making out of it in a way and you can just go out there and try and express yourself."
Lanning made an ominous start, hitting back-to-back boundaries in the fourth over and clearing the ropes in the sixth.
Her half-century came off just 24 balls as England's much-vaunted bowling attack felt her wrath, and while she was handed a life on 85 when Tammy Beaumont put down a regulation chance at point, there was little else the hosts could do to stem the flow of runs.
Her century came up, fittingly, with a six.
The relentless attack continued, as Lanning cleared the boundary four more times to lead her team to their highest ever T20 total, and setting a new world record for highest individual score in a women's T20 in the process (one that would be broken by Healy just months later).
The capacity crowd at Chelmsford may have been firmly on the side of the home team but they nonetheless gave the Australian captain a deserved standing ovation at inning's end.
Lanning even surprised herself.
"It just clicked," Lanning said. "I look back on that innings and I played some shots against (left-arm spinner) Sophie Ecclestone which I couldn't normally play, I hit a six over long-on which was very unusual for me, but it all seemed to come together at once.
"It was just one of those days where everything hits the middle of the bat and finds the gaps.
"Beth Mooney at the other end was also going well, which made it fun and easy to keep going and play with complete freedom and not worry too much about any consequences."
Even for a batter as accomplished as Lanning, it was the rarest of rare days when absolutely everything she wanted to do, actually happened.
"You're not over-complicating anything, you're just literally thinking about where you can hit boundaries, Lanning said, trying to explain a feeling very few cricketers ever experience in their careers.
"You think where you might hit the ball, and it eventuates every time.
"It's almost like you know where the bowlers are going to bowl and where you can hit each ball (before it happens) … you just feel you're a step ahead of the game.
"That very rarely happens.
"The more I think about it, that's only happened maybe three or four times in my whole career which is not a lot, when you consider how many times you go out and bat."
Lanning's unbeaten 133 combined with Mooney's 54 guided Australia to an imposing 3-226.
It turned out to be more than enough. A flawless start with the ball from Ellyse Perry and Megan Schutt reduced the hosts to 4-22 and they never recovered.
Victory in the bag, the Australians were able to relax and soak it up as they romped to a 93-run Ashes-sealing victory.
"The crowd was amazing, even though England were being beaten," Lanning recalled.
For the 28-year-old, that unbeaten 133 ranks among the most special innings she has ever played – alongside her 45-ball ODI century against New Zealand in 2012, and her unbeaten 152 against Sri Lanka in the 2017 World Cup.
"It is right up there, because of the situation in the series and because England are such a strong opposition," she explained.
"It was good to do it against a team that is particularly challenging and for it to be the night we won the Ashes in pretty significant fashion, that's why it's so special."