Dani Hazell is expecting a wide open fight for silverware in this summer’s programme of 50-over and T20 Regional cricket.
The Northern Diamonds will kick off their bid to go one better than last season’s final finish in the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy tomorrow when Central Sparks visit Emerald Headingley (10.30am).
Diamonds head coach Hazell believes both sides will challenge strongly.
The Diamonds finished top of the North Group before losing in the final to Southern Vipers, while the Sparks were second.
“We played them in a warm-up game a couple of weeks ago, and they looked really good, as they did last year,” said Hazell.
“They were the only side to beat us in the group.
“I think they’ll be there and thereabouts again.
“It’s a different competition this year. We’re not in a North Group, which means there’s a chance to pitch ourselves against some different teams.
“I don’t think there will be any runaway favourites.
“The Vipers will be up there again having won it last year, but I expect it to be a pretty even competition, the same with the T20 when that starts.”
Hazell and the Diamonds are in confident mood.
An encouraging showing last summer has been followed by a productive winter in which contracted players Hollie Armitage, Phoebe Graham, Jenny Gunn, Beth Langston, Linsey Smith have set the standards for others to follow.
Hazell said: “Last year was, ‘Stutter, stutter, ooh let’s play some cricket’. Now we’ve had a really good winter, and it’s time for the girls to show that out on the field.
“I’m really happy with the squad. It’s pretty much the same as last year.
“But this year we’ve had a decent run-in through the winter.
“I’ve got some stalwarts in there, haven’t I! Some ex-England players and others who have aspirations to get to that level.
“The girls understand the demands of being a professional cricketer and what comes with that - more training and gym time. They are driving the standards for the other girls, who are not contracted, to get to.
“The girls have all bought into that. We’ve some challenges around Covid, but we’ve adapted. We’re just looking forward to getting going now.
“We’re naturally going to be amongst the favourites given what we did, but I feel like we’ve made strides as a squad since then. We’re looking forward to it.”
Led by 35-year-old England legend Gunn, the Diamonds have retained the experience of last summer, also contracting Langston and Smith, both of whom have had previous senior international exposure.
“There were a lot of players last summer who I didn’t need to tell how to suck eggs,” said Hazell.
“But that now is starting to rub off on the younger girls.
“There might have been question marks about a Jenny Gunn, who has got another contract after all that she’s done in the game. But the value that someone like that adds off the field can be worth almost twice what they add on it.
“Hopefully we’re creating a real professional environment that carries on when Jenny isn’t around and the kids such as a Rachel Slater are ready to step up.”
Current England trio Katherine Brunt, Nat Sciver and Lauren Winfield-Hill are all available to the Diamonds for the first four RHF Trophy 50-over games.
National wicketkeeper Amy Jones should feature for the Sparks, as should highly-rated fast bowling star of the future Issy Wong, who was part of England’s travelling party to New Zealand over the winter.
This will be the first first-team fixture at Emerald Headingley with a crowd present since September 2019.
Secure tickets to watch the opening Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy game, Northern Diamonds vs Central Sparks, at Emerald Headingley on Saturday. They cost just £5 adults and £1 juniors/seniors.