There are ways of measuring competitiveness in sportspeople. The most effective is getting them to play a sport that is not their vocation. For the England cricketer Jenny Gunn, that sport is football.
She played for Notts County and was even called for England trials, only for cricket to put a fork in both at the age of 17. She has ambitions to play Sunday league when she calls time on a career that, so far, has given her 13 years at international level. When Mark Robinson took over as England head coach at the end of 2015, he reinstated football to the warm-ups. The squad, multi-sported, were thrilled. Not Gunn.
“Oh, it was ridiculous,” she shouts. “There’s a no tackling rule. How are we supposed to get the ball? You end up backing off and allowing them time and space. You know what – I’d rather not play. My dad taught me: ‘You go hard or go home.’ That’s what his coach taught him. Go into every tackle like you meant it.”
Her father, by the way, is Bryn Gunn, a retired professional footballer who played more than 100 times for Nottingham Forest, winning the 1980 European Cup. That coach? Brian Clough. She spends the next 10-minutes doing her best Cloughie impression: laying into referees and mourning the modern game.
It’s a passion at odds with Gunn’s humble demeanour: one that forms the foundation of 132 ODI, 95 T20I and 11 Test caps. She sneaked to the top of the English one-day international wicket-takers list with 123 at an average 27. All with little fanfare. Typically, she wants nothing to do with it: “Oh, don’t pay too much attention to that,” she says. “Katherine Brunt’s only four away from beating me. She deserves it.” The former England coach Mark Lane put it best on Gunn, a low-maintenance, uncomplicated individual: “She has her tea at teatime”.
Yet Lane also marked Gunn as his “luxury player”: a bowler of yorkers, a batter with a breezy cameo in the chamber and a gifted fielder. During Lane’s tenure, one of English cricket’s most successful, Gunn was his vice-captain. In 2014, she was appointed MBE for services to cricket. That she is preparing for her fourth World Cup, aged 31, is a testament to the wedding of natural aptitude and grit that doesn’t lie far from the surface.
Over the last year, she has lost long-term team-mates in Charlotte Edwards and Lydia Greenway. Surely Gunn was worried she was next? “Oh yeah, there’s always going to be that thought when a new coach comes in,” she acknowledges. “Especially coming in from the men’s game. You don’t really know what his views are. But we sat down as a team early on and Robbo put my mind at ease with something he said: ‘I’ve got nothing about age. If you can do it, you’re old or young enough.’ That relaxes you a bit. And on top of other changes, you realise you belong and you can challenge yourself to get better.”
Now she is craftier with the ball, variations plentiful and execution of slower balls at such a level that Robinson calls her a “world-class spinner”. Tongue in cheek, sure, but a clear sign of endearment.
She laughs it off – “People seem to love telling me how slow I am” – but appreciates the sentiment. She has been called worse.
At the end of her England debut in 2004, in South Africa, Gunn was called into the umpire’s office. “You chuck it,” said one of the officials. Five years later, she was called while playing in Perth and banned from bowling in domestic cricket.
It is the timing of that call, months before the 2009 World Cup in Australia, in which the hosts’ biggest rivals were England, that Gunn finds suspicious: “I think they were doing it to unsettle me. And us as a side. I really believe that.”
She was allowed to bowl in the World Cup, provided she was not called while playing for England in the warm-ups. As fate would have it, the same umpire that called Gunn was standing for their final game before the tournament. As a result, she did not bowl that day and went on to take five wickets at an economy rate of 3.82 in England’s successful campaign.
When Gunn became the first woman accepted into the Nottinghamshire academy (she now plays for Warwickshire) most of her time off the field was spent as a lab rat. To correct a quirk where her right arm comes out before coming past her ear – rather than the conventional “wheel-like” motion of most bowlers – she was ordered by coaches to run through the academy corridors and simulate bowling while pressed up against the wall. This, they believe, would stop her arm from moving out. It did not work. “It was the stupidest thing,” she says. “In a normal situation, the wall’s obviously not there, is it? Great idea that was.”
When she was called in 2012 (then cleared within two months) she underwent tests at Loughborough and the University of Western Australia – an institution that has saved the careers of many, including Muttiah Muralitharan – carried out alongside match footage to ensure she was bowling “completely”. It found that Gunn’s right-arm hyper-extended by 14 degrees. Coupled with her initial outward movement, it gave the illusion of chucking. The greatest “flex” in her action – when she bowls a rare bouncer – is 10 degrees, comfortably below the ICC’s limit of 15.
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“At first it really gets to you,” she freely concedes. “I mean, I couldn’t change. But after being tested I know I’m nowhere near. The footage of me bowling in super slow-mo, it makes me sick when I see my arm go back.
“It doesn’t bother me at all now, even when the crowd shout ‘no ball’. Sarah Taylor always calls me Chucky. Danielle Hazell has a go at me for wearing long sleeves, saying: ‘All chuckers wear them.’”
Gunn accepts she will hear it more this summer from opposition fans and pundits alike. You would think this down-to-earth, retiring type would be bothered. She’s not. “It just makes me laugh, though. If they’re doing that, I know I’m one up on them.”