Last week in Westminster Baroness Fiona Shackleton, one of the United Kingdom’s leading divorce lawyers, told her peers self-isolation and restricted movement brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic will result in a steep rise in marriages breaking down.
Her words made headlines across the world, including Australia where on Wednesday morning it piqued the interest of England cricketer Lauren Winfield, tucked away on Hamilton Island on the Great Barrier Reef, just off Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. She shared this information with her partner of four years, Courtney Hill, for a bit of light relief. “Ah, piss off!” came the reply.
As it happens, Winfield and Hill were on their honeymoon after a wedding in front of family and friends, including a number of Winfield’s England teammates who had reached the semi-finals of the Twenty20 World Cup out in Australia.
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
But after a week of bliss, the pair found themselves stranded, unable to return home to the UK as countries began closing their borders in a bid to limit the spread of coronavirus.
“I was supposed to fly home on Friday,” Winfield tells The Independent from Hamilton Island. “But my flight has been cancelled. Everything through Dubai, Emirates, has been cancelled for the next two weeks. They are reassessing in two weeks’ time. But rumours are it could be up to two to three months. At the minute I have a flight on the 8th (April), but I feel like that’s just going to come around and it’ll get pushed back and back.”
Some of Winfield’s family are still out in Australia, including her parents. Her England teammate, Amy Jones, is in a similar situation in Perth and the two have been in regular contact with updates from home via their friends and the England & Wales Cricket Board. They’ve made a pact not to leave the other behind.
Winfield and Hill remain upbeat and pragmatic, accepting that whether back home or not, the need to stay indoors regardless makes it “much of a muchness”. “We’ve just been staring at each other on the balcony for the most part,” laughs Winfield. “But I suppose that’s what we should be doing on our honeymoon.”
For now, the pair will soon fly to Brisbane and shack up with Hill’s parents who own a farm a five- or six-hour drive from the city. Their aim is to get away from the hustle and bustle of city-dwellers who continue to flout warnings on social distancing. Yet from getting married – it will be two weeks on Friday since they tied the knot – to now, they have maintained a sunny disposition. That seems to be their ilk as a couple: simple and relaxed. For example, it was 18 months into their relationship when they realised at no point had one “officially” asked the other out.
“It’s crazy to think that a week later and the wedding would have been cancelled,” muses Winfield. “It all kicked off a week after the wedding. It was absolutely fine getting people over here, before the really scary stuff and the lockdowns. In terms of the UK and Australia, they were both functioning as they were. Ten days on and it’s bloody mental!”
Their day-to-day living has been, well, like everyone else’s. They have each other of course, which is more than some. But that does come with its own trials.
“I mean, talk about being in each other’s pockets. They say the first year of marriage is the toughest. It’s hard, isn’t it?
“You’re used to getting in from work and saying, ‘How’s your day been? What have you been up to?’ And it’s like, well, you’ve literally been joined at the hip all day, Your conversation becomes different. I suppose it’s a reflection of how much things have changed everywhere in such a short space of time.”
They have been through enough as a couple to suggest they’ll be more than fine in each other’s pockets. Indeed, time together was elusive from the very beginning of a relationship struck during the 2016 Women’s Big Bash League when Winfield and Hill were teammates at the Brisbane Heat. Hill, a born-and-raised Queenslander, has been a permanent resident in England for the last two years meaning the first half of their relationship was long distance.
While Winfield was travelling the world as an international cricketer, Hill was turning out for Queensland Fire and the Heat while also working as a teacher. Breaks in the schedule and school holidays were spent either in Australia or England, though only for two or three weeks at a time.
Winfield reckons their longest time apart was “about four months” before Hill interjects in the background with matter-of-fact “five months and 19 days”. They did manage five months together when Hill took unpaid leave from her school to see if the England suited her before her permanent move.
Their individual struggles have been pronounced, too. Not long after meeting, Winfield suffered a blow when she was left out of England’s 15 for the T20 World Cup in 2016. She emerged from that stronger and made herself undroppable to bag an opener spot for the successful 2017 50-over World Cup. Further struggles with form and shifting down the order for the majority of the recent T20 World Cup brought further frustrations.
Likewise, Hill has had her sporting angst. Two unsuccessful ankle surgeries left Hill, a fast bowler, doubting if her body could handle the rigours of such a physically demanding suit. And upon arriving in England, strict visa laws meant she was unable to play cricket to a professional, paid level.
Her story has a happy, albeit surprising ending: that competitive itch is now scratched playing rugby league as captain of Leeds Rhinos’, an opportunity she first came across when the club announced on Instagram that they would be putting out a women’s team. Not many can pick up a sport they dropped as a 12-year old and then bag the Woman of Steel award – rugby league’s player of the year – as Hill did in 2019 after leading the Rhinos to the Women’s Super League title.
“She’s one of those annoying people who’s good at everything,” says Winfield. “It’s great going to watch a different sport on a Sunday. I mean, I could never play it. The physical smashing each other does not appeal to me whatsoever. And she’s that person who enjoys smashing people.”
Beyond the Ashes link of an Australian and English cricketer in union, those respective backgrounds give their relationship a unique glimpse into the way both countries approach LGBT athletes in women’s sport.
Australia lead the way when it comes to openness about sexuality and, by extension, acceptance. In England there remains a degree of uncertainty due to the country’s ingrained conservatism. While that has changed over the last couple of years, particularly in cricket when last year Winfield’s England teammates Katherine Brunt and Nat Sciver felt comfortable enough to come out publicly and announce their engagement, she noticed this difference early on in her relationship.
“When I first started dating Courtney she was so comfortable. She’d tell her friends, tell her teachers at school – like it wasn’t a big deal. I remember thinking, wow. When I came out to my friends and parents when I was 20 years old, it was an absolute ordeal.
“Even still, it’s only in the last year or two that I’ve become more comfortable about that. I don’t know if that ease is just Courtney or an Australian thing, but she was doing it with ease. It took me four years to build up the courage to be more open.”
It also came up before Winfield proposed to Hill on New Years Day 2019. A bag of nerves, she approached Hill’s parents to let them know of her intentions. “I went through it over and over in my head, what to say, how they’d react. Then they were like, ‘Ah shit yeah mate – go for it!’ I had three sleepless nights thinking about it and it was just so simple!”
“You know – just referring to ‘my partner’ Courtney or now ‘my wife’ Courtney. Or just being comfortable wearing an engagement ring. Prior to that, you’d 100% skirt around it, hide it on social media where people could interpret that you’re with somebody but they don’t know and you’re not being that definitive. But now I think if you can’t be honest after making such a bold commitment to each other, what are you doing it for?”
The ECB has played an important role in this regard. Help and guidance are offered but never insisted, and the players know they have access to sympathetic ears on any number of issues. That comfort with the backroom staff, in particular, is no coincidence in what has long been a family atmosphere. Winfield is particularly thankful to former head coach Mark Robinson for allowing her to feel comfortable enough to bring Hill into the inner circle by ensuring partners felt welcome in the wider team environment.
“We were playing against Pakistan at home in the 2016 summer when Courtney first came over. At the time you didn’t really know if partners could stay over or not. It was kind of the elephant in the room.
“There was a game in Taunton so I booked an Airbnb for Courtney near our hotel. She’d flown around the world to see me, we got to her apartment and I was like, ‘see ya!’ Robbo caught wind of it two days in and asked how she was and where she was staying. When I told him he was like, ‘What’s she doing there?! She’s staying here tonight, she’s not staying there anymore.’ He was so unbelievably welcoming to anybody’s partner, no matter what gender or sexuality.”
The stress of getting home is starting to escalate. The ECB have told Winfield she is best-placed to stay in Australia for the time being but evolving government advice has left her uncertain.
In terms of cricket, Winfield and her England teammates are technically on leave until 15 April so the sporting lockdown has not impinged on their schedule just yet despite the announcement that no professional cricket will take place before May 28.
A care-package has made its way to her from the ECB with dumbbells, kettlebells and protein bars along with a program to follow.
Long-term though, Winfield is anxious about what a summer of no cricket could mean for the women’s game, particularly her own. England will look to defend their World Cup title in New Zealand at the start of 2021 which will shift the onus onto the 50-over format. Though the Hundred has been the main focus for domestic cricket, a lack of match-practice and a lack of much-needed time at the crease for Winfield could leave her and the rest of her teammates cold.
“It’s really nerve-wracking times. Essentially you could be wasting a year of your career. The talks are obviously about The Hundred which is the money-maker, but from an England point of view, we need to play 50-over cricket. And for me I’ve been in and out of teams and not faced too many balls over the last few competitive months. We’re kind of all just floating along and it’s certainly not easy.”
Hill has been doing her bit to allay the fears of her partner. She has offered up a shed at the farm where they can work on tennis ball feeds and other drills Winfield would be doing in pre-season.
The support and empathy of any loved one in these times is invaluable. And for Winfield and Hill who have shared bumps and come out the other end in fine fettle, don’t count on them being victims of love in the time of coronavirus.