'I want to be the best left-arm spinner in the world'

Alex Hartley in action for Surrey Stars Getty Images

Alex Hartley is refreshingly honest about her England debut against Pakistan last June: "I bowled really badly."

"Most people go into their debut thinking 'This is going to be the best day of my life' - and it was the best day of my life. But I was so nervous and my routines all went out of the window." She finished the game wicketless and waywardly expensive to boot: "I thought my career was over before it had even started."

Coach Mark Robinson kept the faith and she eventually made the squad for England's tour of the Caribbean - but three months after her disastrous debut it all went wrong again, in one of the tour warm-up games.

"I had an even worse game than my debut. My first ball I got a wicket, but the ball bounced twice. My next ball was then four wides and then it was a no ball."

"I had a complete meltdown, out there on the pitch."

No doubt many cricketers experience something similar at some point in their careers. The incredible thing in this instance is that, four weeks after her "meltdown", Hartley was celebrating becoming England's leading wicket-taker in a bilateral series, having taken 13 wickets at an economy rate of 3.4. England won the ODI series 3-2.

Now, just a few months down the line, she will be taking part in her first Women's World Cup, tasked with winning England's first world trophy since 2009 at home. Her left-arm spin is likely to play a key role against the world's top sides.

It says something about the type of person Hartley is that the turnaround happened so quickly. "I've always been a bit of a fighter," she admits. She has had to be. Kicked out of the England Academy aged 15, told that her batting and fielding would never be good enough for international cricket, she has spent the last eight years clawing her way back into contention.

Along the way she has spent many hours driving to and fro along the M6 between her home in Clitheroe and North London, having joined Middlesex back in 2013 to ensure she could keep playing in Division 1 of the Women's County Championship. It has been a hard slog but the support she has received at Middlesex has made it all worth it: "I owe them my career," she admits.

Being accustomed to setbacks stood her in good stead out there in the West Indies. She can see, now, exactly what the problem was: "I just put too much pressure on myself. I want to be so good and want to do so well. Robbo [coach Mark Robinson] just said 'calm down. It's not going to define you as a person'. And at that moment it clicked. And I was like, you know what? Yeah. I've got nothing to lose. I'll go into the series and show what I can do."

She went off by herself for the day, bowled at a friend, generally dialled things down and took the pressure off. In the first match she took 3 for 27 and the rest, as they say, is history.

She seems now to be in a pretty good head space, but admits that it has been an "intense six months". Coping with the pressures of professionalism has been a new challenge - both physically and psychologically. In December she was awarded a two-year central England contract, and in April she took part in a training camp in Abu Dhabi with the rest of the squad. "I remember my first week as a professional cricketer," she laughs. "I thought: 'is this what I want to do?' I couldn't even get out of bed! It's tough, but it gets easier."

Psychologically she has protected herself since that first international outing by refusing to read about her performances. "I remember reading one comment about myself after my first game. Something like, 'this is why Alex Hartley has never played for England before'. And I thought that's it, I'm coming off Twitter."

"You just don't need to see stuff like that. Even positive stuff - your highs can get too high as well. I remember in the West Indies I really stayed off Twitter because I didn't want to get too big-headed or be like 'I've done really well here!'"

Big-headed is one thing she certainly isn't. Hartley knows she has got where she is through hard work and now is not the time to slack off. She has been working intensively on her batting and fielding (as well, of course, as her bowling) in the build-up to the World Cup and, as coach Robinson attests, is generally the last one to knock off at the end of a day's training. "I've made a big stride from this time last year to where I'm at now," she says. Her ambition for the future is clear: "I want to be the best left-arm spinner in the world."

In the short-term, she is looking forward to her first World Cup, confident that the squad have prepared well in the UAE and that captain Heather Knight - who sustained a metatarsal stress fracture in her left foot - will be fully fit come their first match against India on Saturday. On her own role she is equally confident: "I've bowled well for a few years now, so knowing that I can bowl well on English wickets and knowing that I can take wickets on English wickets is a real confidence booster."

One thing seems clear - last year's "meltdown" is behind her. When I remind her towards the end of our interview about her status as England's leading wicket-taker in a bilateral series ("I knew I'd broken a record but I couldn't tell you what I did!") her reaction is telling:

"That is good. I'll break it again though!" she grins.

It's hard not to believe her.