Thursday, 1 November 2007

Caroline Atkins - Feature

Five years ago, Caroline Atkins set a world record opening partnership in international cricket and yet just three games later, she was dropped from the England set-up. Now, Atkins is back, and is out to prove that she belongs on the international stage.

"Only thirty seconds to go and the pain will be over", or at least that is what I tell myself as I carry out my pitiful attempt at a press up. It is University circuit training and by some cruel twist of fate, I’ve ended up with my least favourite exercise to round off the session. "Twenty seconds!" a voice cries from the background, as my aching muscles valiantly try to muster one last effort. "Its no good" I think to myself inches from collapsing, when I hear the same voice shouting the times say, "Keep going, you can do it". Alas although my mind wants to take heed of the voice’s advice, my body can’t take anymore and within the blink of eye I’m in a heap on the floor.

The voice is in fact that of Caroline Atkins, international cricketer and head of Strength Conditioning at Bournemouth Univeristy. But although she is a reliable leader at circuit training, trying to track the England international down proves to be a difficult task. "No-one knows where anyone is in this place", jokes a representative on reception. Thankfully, after much searching, I do eventually find her, albeit swamped by a group of rugby players. "It’s a tough job but I enjoy it, it provides balance in my life, and when that balance exists, that’s when the cricket starts to go well", she tells me. The right mix of work and cricket is certainly beginning to pay off, with Atkins holding down a regular test and one-day place since 2005. A major feat considering there her England career looked in jeopardy when she was dropped in both forms of the game in 2002.

Due to the busy nature of the department on a Tuesday (the day before all the sports teams compete) we’ve had to seek refuge in the cafeteria. But for Atkins it comes with the territory and how far Bournemouth has come in the time that’s she’s been there. "We’re starting to build a reputation now and it is exciting to be a part of". As she speaks there’s a sense of pride in her work, and enjoyment from the nature of her job. Success away from the cricket pitch it seems certainly appears to have brought success on it.

As is the case with any top-flight sporting career though, the path to that success is far from straightforward and Atkins is no exception. After enjoying unprecedented success at county level, Atkins was thrust into the limelight in 2001 making her test debut against Australia at the age of 21. And after setting a world record for an opening partnership with Aaran Brindle against India, things were looking promising for the future. But just three games later, in January 2002, Atkins found herself dropped from the England set-up and worse still came under heavy criticism from the media who accused her of not scoring quickly enough. "It was frustrating at the time as I was just starting to enjoy some success with England, and of course setting the world record goes down on a personal level as a career highlight. But I can accept it when someone doesn’t think I’m good enough. And if anything in the time I was out I became a stronger person and better cricketer because of it". From the way she reminisces on the decision, there’s not a hint of resentment present in her voice. Just that of optimism for the future, what’s done is done, and now its time to look forward.

During her three years out of the international scene, Atkins set about rebuilding her career and in early 2005 the breakthrough came in the form of a call up to the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club) Young Cricketers scheme based at Lords. "I was at the home of cricket everyday, you can’t help but hit the ball then". Another key factor that came with her time at the MCC was rediscovering her passion for the sport. "I was enjoying it again. I was getting too caught up in worrying whether I was ever going to get another chance with England. Thankfully it did and it came at a time when I was getting better and better". Atkins was rewarded with a re-call for the tour to India in 2005, and hasn’t looked back since.

As Atkins strides off with the air of someone going places, no doubt with another crowd of sports students lurking around the corner, it is hard to bet against her achieving great things in the future. And with the small matter of defending the Ashes next year and competing in the 2009 World Cup, she has the ideal opportunity to show that she truly belongs on the international stage.