Phoebe Graham will start 2021 with a new job.
Not only a new job, but a new career. At 29, she is leaving her post as a marketing lead at Sky to become a professional cricketer.
“At my age, perhaps the socially acceptable thing to be doing is buying a house and settling down, maybe even having children,” says the fast bowler with a warm Yorkshire accent.
“The decision I’ve made was bigger than just deciding to play cricket, because when you look around, social media is full of comparisons. I’m taking a completely different route to what a lot of others are taking.
“But there is some sort of fire in me that wants to keep playing cricket and I can’t fight that. Now is the time to explore cricket, to see where it can take me. In a few years’ time, the business world will still be there.”
Graham is one of 41 women below the England team to have been handed a full-time professional contract by the England and Wales Cricket Board.
Bar 34-year-old Jenny Gunn, who ended a 15-year international career in 2019, Graham is the eldest of the group. In that sense, she is bucking a trend that sees many women drift away from professional sport if they have not made the grade by the time they hit their early 20s.
The last player to make an England debut past the age of 24 was Rebecca Grundy five years ago.
As well as growing the depth of talent in the English game, the new structure of professionalism means cricket can still be a career for those who have not reached international level by the time they would ordinarily be going into full-time work.
“Before, it felt if you weren’t in the England academy at 19 or 20, your chance was gone,” says Graham. “If you got to 21 and didn’t have an England contract, there was a chance you were going to drop off. I’m hoping the new structure makes people think differently.”
That certainly could have been the case for Graham, who at 18 decided the path of professional cricket was too narrow, so opted to play alongside studying at Exeter University.
Club, county and university cricket may have been the extent of her career until she had a trial for Northern Diamonds and landed a spot in the squad for the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy in the 2020 summer.
It meant juggling her cricketing dream with working responsibilities.
“There were one or two occasions when I had the laptop in the dressing room,” she says.
“I hated it. You’re in a meeting, then you arrive at training, but you’re still thinking about your to-do list. That is one of the hardest parts.”
There have been occasions in Graham’s working life when her cricketing team-mates have all been teenagers, but the maturity that comes with holding down a job in the ‘real world’ does not necessarily help with the problems that arise in serious sport.
Graham admits to being “close to tears” when she was told she was going to be left out of the Diamonds’ opening game of the season, even if that was only because England’s all-time leading wicket-taker Katherine Brunt was available.
Then there were the times when the different parts of Graham’s world collided. Not only did she have her own blog on the Sky website, but she also played in the televised final of the Heyhoe Flint Trophy, “quivering” with nerves when she revealed to her work colleagues that they could watch her on Sky.
Soon, the TV may be the only place that some of those work-mates will be able to see Graham, whose move into professional cricket comes only three years after she returned to the game, following a hiatus that began with a personal tragedy.
“I took a break from the game after my dad passed away in 2015,” says Graham. “He was a hugely influential figure for me.
“In the last few years of his life, I didn’t know if I was playing for him or me, because I knew how much enjoyment he got from seeing me play.”
Peter Graham, or ‘PC’ as he was known, was a legendary figure in Yorkshire cricket. An opening bowler, he took more than 1,000 wickets in the notoriously competitive Bradford League and ran his own cricket shop.
He also played for Northumberland and the combined Minor Counties team, both in knockout matches against first-class counties and on one occasion against the touring South Africans. Proteas skipper Kepler Wessels was one of his four victims.
After Peter’s death from cancer at the age of 60, cricket became “heavy” for his daughter. She was dragged back by an invitation to the 2017 World Cup final by friend and England batter Lauren Winfield-Hill.
“I watched that and thought ‘my god, I have missed this’. The game had developed so much in such a short space of time,” she says.
Graham played in a charity match the following week then spent the winter training with Berkshire, lining up for the county alongside England captain Heather Knight in the summer of 2018.
As she has made her way back into the game, through the ranks to the point where she will soon be able to call herself a full-time professional, Graham has also taken to time out to raise money for the Macmillan cancer charity by cycling from Ascot to Italy and setting up her own website, TipnFlip, aimed at improving perceptions of women’s sport.
At the beginning of her professional adventure, Graham has not reached the limit of her ambitions. There are spots in the women’s Hundred up for grabs and players who perform in the new competition will be putting themselves in the shop window for international honours.
“You have to dream big,” she says.
For now, though, the focus is the end of one chapter of her life and the start of another.
“My dad always said ‘do what makes you happy’ and I think I’ve made the decision that will make me happy,” she says.
“I might be a mug in the long run, but over the past year Covid-19 has shown you have to do what makes you happy.
“I think my dad would be very proud.”