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Freya Davies treads her own path to England recognition

Freya Davies has enjoyed success in the KSL with Western Storm Getty Images

Freya Davies can remember her first wicket in senior county cricket like it was yesterday. "I was 14. I got Charlotte Edwards out! Caught by Sarah Taylor! That one doesn't leave the memory."

Davies' team, Sussex, lost the match by nine wickets, but they emerged triumphant as County Champions in that 2010 season, and Davies had acquired a taste for success. By 2014 she was not just opening the bowling for her county but touring with the ECB's Academy squad. Somewhere along the way, representing England became a hard-and-fast ambition.

Over the next few weeks that dream is likely to become a reality, after England announced that 23-year-old pace bowler Davies would feature in their squads for tours of India and Sri Lanka; and more pertinently, that she had earned a spot as the only addition to the list of fully contracted players. On the verge of fulfilling her long-cherished dream Davies is still in a daze, trying to take it all in.

"It's crazy. Mad. Surreal," she says. "But very, very exciting, and something I've wanted to do forever. It'll be nice to get the first one under my belt, and hopefully carry on going."

It would be incorrect, though, to imply that it has all been smooth sailing up to now. Indeed the experience of England's latest recruit is a useful reminder of the difficulties which still beset a female cricketer trying to make it as a pro in today's era of central contracts.

From 18, the choices come thick and fast: prioritise study, or prioritise cricket? For Davies, the choice was starker than for most. The ECB's elite women's set-up is based on campus at Loughborough University; it follows that almost all current England players are Loughborough graduates or students (captain Heather Knight the notable exception to the rule). Davies took a different path.

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"I was always keen that at university I was there to get my degree, and that was my priority," she says. "Exeter was the best for what I wanted to do for my degree, so that's where I went."

For two years, she successfully juggled her studies with training sessions at Loughborough every other weekend. But the journey between the two cities - an eight-hour round trip behind the wheel - began to take its toll. By the third year, she had had enough, opting out of cricket entirely. It was a huge risk, taken in the knowledge that she might well turn around at the end of it all and find that her place in the England Academy squad was no longer waiting for her.

"When you go away, you never know if you're going to get back in. But it was something I felt I needed to do. I was at university to get my degree and I didn't want to sacrifice that."

The break paid off: she eventually graduated in July 2017 with upper second-class honours. She was also able to recapture the attention of the England selectors in that season's Kia Super League, helping her side Western Storm to their maiden title. Soon afterwards came the news that she was being awarded a "rookie" contract, a halfway house to professionalism designed to ensure she could train full-time without having to take up other employment.

Even so, the path to international cricket was not straightforward. Rookie contracts do not provide anything like a living wage: Davies has relied on the financial support of her parents in order to stay in cricket, and has been living back at home with them since she graduated. Players with rookie contracts effectively train as hard as those with full contracts, but get few of the rewards. The dilemma, given the small number of full-time contracts on offer (currently 17), is how long to persist when you are consistently missing out on selection.

For Davies, who had the option of a lucrative career as a lawyer dangling in front of her, the dilemma was particularly acute. "You've got to put in a lot of hard work. It's been frustrating at times," she says. "There's always moments when you think about giving up. It's a conversation that I've had with Robbo [England coach Mark Robinson]. It's always a bit tougher when I've got a career that I want to do.

"But also there's no time limit on that career, whereas this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I've wanted to do this forever so it wasn't something I was going to give up on easily."

"She's somebody who can swing the new ball, she's got a good back-of-the-hand slower ball. She's bowled at pressure moments for Western Storm" England coach Mark Robinson

Her cricketing journey started over 15 years ago, courtesy of her dad and her older brother Jack. "They both played and I was stuck watching - I decided that wasn't as fun as playing. I was 8 when I played my first hard-ball game with my brother's under-11 team." Fast bowling came naturally to her: "I've always been quite tall for my age so that helped when I was 10, 11. But I was just competitive as a kid and that seemed like the most fun."

The past year has been spent working hard on tweaking her action with bowling coach Steve Oldham. "My load-up arm was getting a bit across my body before. We went through a long process last winter - I'd been doing it wrong for years - but everything works more in a straight line now."

Should she make her debut in India or Sri Lanka, all the hard work will all have been worth it for Davies. But her experience does seem to highlight the flaws in the current women's contract system, which creates an artificial divide between "rookies" and fully contracted players. Currently, there are no county contracts to fall back on for those who choose to prioritise cricket but are then unlucky enough not to make the cut.

For England, the big question is whether Davies can provide some kind of answer to the elusive question of who exactly will step into Katherine Brunt's shoes when she retires - a moment which cannot be far off for the 33-year-old. "It is difficult trying to find seamers," Robinson said at the squad announcement. "Every country in the world is desperate for them. There aren't that many when you look around, because everyone wants pace off the ball."

Twelve months ago he labelled 19-year-old left-armer Katie George a "junior Brunt", but her returns in international cricket have been unspectacular thus far, and she is currently sitting out with a back injury. In her stead Davies now has the opportunity to show she has what it takes.

For a fast bowler, she has several key asserts. She is tall - 5ft 9in - and offers good variation.

"She's somebody who can swing the new ball, which would be a wicket-taking threat," Robinson says. "She's got a good back-of-the-hand slower ball. Heather speaks highly of her from the Super League. She's bowled at pressure moments for Western Storm - she takes a lot of responsibility for the team, to bowl in the Powerplay and at the end."

"We've just got to let her grow and have that chance now," he concludes. If anyone has earned the chance, it's Davies.