Meg Lanning: Australian star already firing-up dreams in Welsh cricket
Last updated on .From the section Women's Cricket
For Sophia Smale and other young cricketers in Wales, chances to see international stars such as Meg Lanning, Jess Jonassen and Beth Mooney are usually confined to watching games on TV.
But now they are planning on spending their summer holidays watching them representing Welsh Fire at Sophia Gardens.
The Cardiff-based franchise have retained the signatures of their overseas signings from 2020, when the first edition of the Hundred was due to take place before the coronavirus pandemic hit.
And they are a rather impressive trio: Lanning led Australia to World Cup glory last year, Jonassen is a key member of that squad and Beth Mooney is the number one ranked T20 batsman in the world.
"Meg Lanning is one of my favourite players of all time and now she's going to be playing in Cardiff? That's just amazing," said Smale, the 16-year-old all-rounder from Newport.
She particularly hopes to learn from Jonassen: "I'm a left-arm spinner, like her, so I think it will be really interesting to see how she approaches the hundred-ball format. I think I could learn a lot just from watching how she goes about her game."
Alex Griffiths, 18, from Port Talbot was also retained by Welsh Fire, having become one of Wales' first full-time professional female cricketers earlier this year after signing a contract with Western Storm - the elite regional programme that covers Wales and the west of England.
When the Hundred was postponed last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Griffiths was naturally disappointed but is now delighted to be given a second opportunity to make her mark in the tournament.
"I still can't believe I'm getting the opportunity to play and train with these players, the best in the world," said all-rounder Griffiths.
"It's so exciting to get the go ahead now and it's set up to be a great summer for us in Cardiff."
Lanning herself recently told the BBC that she hopes the Hundred will develop the women's game in the UK - and the development of Wales' young talent was highlighted further recently when three players were selected for the Western Storm Academy.
Selected alongside Smale were leg-spinner Sara Phillips and wicketkeeper-batsman Bethan Gammon.
Gammon, currently a second-year student at Nottingham Trent University, believes having a Hundred franchise in Wales is already giving women and girls' cricket a much bigger platform.
"It's huge for us just looking at the way the men's and women's squads are being announced and promoted at the same time and on the same level," said former Rougemont school pupil Gammon.
"That sends a really strong message and having a franchise in Cardiff can only encourage more girls to get involved."
Gammon also believes that her selection into the Storm Academy at the age of 19 reflects the increasing opportunities that are available for female players.
"There can be a bit of a trend where if you haven't made it into an academy or pathway by the age of 15 or 16, you never will," she said.
"I trialled for Storm for the past two years or so and didn't make it, so I'm really relieved and happy to have got in.
"It just shows that there's no age limit now on when you can get picked for squads because there are so many more options available."
For both Gammon and Smale, playing the sport they love as a job has become a much more realistic ambition.
"It's really exciting, and I just hope signing a professional contract is not too far away," said Smale.
"It's a good thing that it's possible to do it as a job now, because there is literally nothing else I can see myself doing!"
As a university student, Gammon's situation is slightly different but she welcomes the fact that she has more options in her future.
"I feel like I am in a really strong position because I can get my degree, and further my cricketing ambitions too by having more frequent training with Storm," explained Gammon.
"I have more of a choice now - so do all young players. It's no longer about choosing between getting a job and playing cricket. They can be the same thing."
Aimee Rees, who coaches Wales Women's senior side and works as the head of the women and girls' pathway, says that increased financial investment and having a dedicated pathway for young female players to follow has been instrumental in the players' development.
"It's developed so much recently thanks to the investment from Cricket Wales and now Glamorgan," said former batter Rees.
"We've been able to get more access to facilities, get more coaches on board and go on some overseas tours. I'm really proud to see the girls' hard work paying off."
She also emphasises the importance of Wales' relationship with Western Storm, adding that with two organisations working closely together, the standard of cricket in Wales is only going to get stronger.
"We have to make sure that our young players can get as many opportunities as possible and that means they have use of the best facilities, the best coaches and playing with and against the best players in the region."
The presence of world-class players in Cardiff will also have a big part to play in growing the profile of women's cricket.
"Having world-leading players like Meg Lanning playing in our own backyard is the pinnacle for us," says Rees.
"I don't think there's a better advert for Welsh women's cricket than that - to have international stars playing against our local talent.
"With the games being double-headers with the men's teams as well, I hope it can also appeal women's cricket to a wider audience, as well as the young girls we hope to inspire."
Whether full crowds will be allowed into venues is yet to be confirmed, but there is no doubt that women's cricket in Wales is heading for its biggest summer yet.