Ellyse Perry: ‘It’s the most exciting time in women’s cricket’

If you hadn’t seen it with your own eyes you wouldn’t have believed it. February 2013. Mumbai. Waiting to bound in off a long run stood an Australian fast bowler, grimacing not only because of the sapping heat or the fact that a World Cup final was on the line, but on account of a broken ankle.

That bowler, Ellyse Perry, remains as blasé about what followed as she was at the time, but after her first two delivery attempts – both aborted as the Australian came to grips with the stabs of pain shooting through her leg – what transpired was nothing less than heroic and also, you sensed, a moment in time that might one day be considered the emblematic feat of Perry’s life as a fast bowler.

In actual fact, she’d been in pain for weeks, missed the preliminary games leading up to the final against the West Indies and by rights, probably shouldn’t have played in it either. But always, in the back of her mind, Perry had known that her body and her heart were locked on for the prospect of that trophy. “We experimented with some local anaesthetic injections at training to see if that would ease the pain and make it OK for me to be able to bowl and it all went really well,” Perry, fresh from an early-morning training session, tells Guardian Australia.

Before she’d even had a chance to bowl in that final, there were the 25 priceless runs she’d hammered at better than a run-a-ball to ensure that Australia’s innings of 259 finished with a flurry. “I guess we really didn’t foresee that when I came out to bowl in that second innings that my ankle was going to fracture there and then,” she says. “I think, given that I’d had the injury for a number of weeks and even a bit before the World Cup started, I was kind of aware of it and able to deal with it.”

And deal with it she did, grabbing the ball in the 10th over and after that painful pair of withdrawals from her approach, slicing through the West Indies top three in an inspired, result-shaping spell. From 32-0 and cruising, the West Indians were soon 41-3 and gasping for air, disappearing into a four-over vortex of Perry’s sheer bloody-mindedness and never recovering. She finished with 3-19 from 10 of the bravest, most compelling overs an Australian has ever bowled. Australia were world champions.

The dual-international star is matter-of-fact when says she was “happy to push through whatever was happening to make sure that I finished the game”, and on a broader level, Perry and her colleagues in Australia’s national women’s cricket and football teams have been pushing through plenty of barriers of their own ever since.

The Ellyse Perry landmarks hardly need repeating at this point; Australian cricket’s youngest ever international when she debuted at the age of 16 in 2007; a Matildas footballer the same year; a world champion in one sport; a scorer of a World Cup finals goal in the other; and now a bona fide cricketing all-rounder whose batting has blossomed to the proficiency of a top-order specialist.

Perry started playing both sports at the age of six but unlike most athletes whose path through junior levels takes them to professional ranks, she has never given up on one to focus on the other. This makes her achievements remarkable, of course, but also laces them with an irony because in an ideal world, both sports would already be professionalized to the extent that being a jack of all trades never would have been possible in the first place.

Cricket has certainly made its strides. “The first year I was in the [Southern Stars] team there was no contracts,” Perry says, “and the year after I started playing was when the first contracts came in and they’ve grown exponentially across the eight years since then.” So too has the playing schedule. Australia’s best female cricketers play more games, travel away for a great number of tours and take part in more training camps than ever before. This, she admits, “does mean that playing two [sports]becomes harder and harder”.

A modest but landmark pay deal in 2013 made Perry and many of her cricketing colleagues full-timers, a status not yet afforded to Matildas footballers, though Perry says that in other senses the development of women’s football in Australia “mirrors the evolution of women’s cricket” and that the playing standards of both sports have improved at “a pretty comparable rate and a steady rate” in her time, so much so that she’s no longer an automatic selection in both sports.

“I think in a lot of ways Cricket Australia were ahead of the tide in that sense, when they brought that pay deal out and basically made a lot of us full-time professional cricketers, which was really awesome but also probably reflects in our performances in the last couple of years as well. Hopefully that continues to grow and I think there’s a lot of opportunity now… that will hopefully mean that those contracts keep going up.”

Perry’s non-selection in the Matildas squad that made such phenomenal strides in this year’s World Cup turns out not to be as difficult a topic to broach as I’d assumed. “Obviously as an athlete and someone who plays soccer, you’d always love to be there,” she admits cheerfully. “It’s certainly easier being there than watching at home but I think from a less selfish point of view, what they managed to do and I guess the attention that they captured back home here…Some of the performances like beating Brazil the way they did was just absolutely unbelievable for soccer but also for women’s sport in general.”

When Perry talks about the knock-on affect of that kind of national team success, she speaks not just as an athlete who stands to gain from increased exposure for her chosen profession, but as a passionate advocate of women’s sport. She talks specifics; the position of Matlidas stories in newspapers after they beat Brazil, the length, breadth and depth of highlight clips in TV news bulletins and the variety of discussion bubbling away on mainstream radio stations. “It would have been great to be involved but that’s OK too,” she says. “Things don’t always pan out.”

On the cricket field though things couldn’t have panned out any better in recent times. The Southern Stars now hold both limited overs world titles and, thanks in no small part to Perry’s marauding six-wicket haul in the second innings of the Canterbury Test, the Ashes as well. Which is not to say it came easily. For Perry to work her way through the England tail in that game, the Australians first had to break a slightly unnerving partnership between Lydia Greenway and Natalie Sciver.

“It was quite a frustrating few hours out in the middle,” she admits. “I think a lot of us thought, ‘gosh are we actually going to get a result here?’” Once Megan Schutt had removed Sciver and with Perry steaming in, a moment of luck when the all-rounder was bowling to Greenway sparked a lower-order collapse. “I guess when you manage to bowl someone off an attempted bouncer you probably think that things may be going in your favour a little bit,” Perry laughs when describing the England batter’s unfortunate dismissal.

Still only 25 years old but with nine years of international cricket under her belt, Perry is best described as a youthful veteran, but she says she feels as though she’s still new to the team for whom she made her ODI debut at Darwin in 2007 and her Test bow a year later in Bowral.

When she’s not running through international batting line-ups, Perry’s baggy green cap sits mostly unnoticed on a shelf in her bedroom but she still remembers the day she received it vividly. Hers was presented by former international Christina Matthews. “It was a really awesome day,” she recalls. “I’d grown up knowing all about Don Bradman and visited his museum in Bowral quite a few times and absolutely loved the place and then to go back there and receive my baggy green and play my first Test match there at the oval, and obviously my parents were there and a lot of family and friends, it was really cool.”

That day Matthews also issued caps to three others – Emma Sampson, Kirsten Pike and Leonie Coleman – which in itself highlights how infrequently Australia’s women play Tests. “Having had the opportunity to play in some and really loving the experience, I’d certainly love to play more,” Perry admits. “For me, growing up and watching Test cricket and absolutely loving it, that’s been the pinnacle for me with cricket. At the moment I think where women’s cricket sits, the limited overs formats have been a really great vehicle to drive the game and continue the development. I think most girls would say they’d love to play more Tests if it was possible.”

There’s now little doubt about that limited overs breakthrough either, the newest byproduct of which is the Women’s Big Bash League, to be played in concurrence with the men’s version and from which eight matches from the 59-game schedule will be be shown on free-to-air television. Featured within are not only Southern Stars regulars but a host of international stars too. This development is “really, really satisfying,” says Perry, who is turning out for the Sydney Sixers franchise. “It’s certainly the most exciting time since I’ve been involved in women’s cricket, definitely.”

For those wondering how this intermingling of Ashes and World Cup combatants will impact on the rivalries present at international level, the Ashes hero says that not much is likely to change, that English and South African internationals in particular remain “very much patriotic” and that in any case, the Women’s National Cricket League has already benefitted greatly from the involvement of overseas players.

“It [imports]kind of brings a new light into the team you’re playing in,” Perry says. “I’ve played for the [New South Wales] Breakers for nine or 10 years and have really enjoyed every season but when you get a new player – and especially when it’s someone of international standard – within the group it brings new experience and a different view on things from playing in a different country.”

“It’s been very much like that now with the Sixers. We’ve only been training for a week but just having different players in the team that girls aren’t used to playing with, aren’t used to being around every week at training, it just adds a new level of excitement. It’s almost like a new school year where you get a new teacher and classmates… I think it’s been awesome.”

At season’s end and depending on further details from the ECB, Perry might well escape the Australian winter to play her trade in the fledgling English Super League domestic Twenty20 tournament or failing that, train in Leicester where her Wallabies fiancé Matt Toomua will be embarking on a stint with the local club rugby side.

But for now, her continued evolution as a cricketer is plain to see. Perry’s player-of-the-series efforts in the multi-format Ashes brought 16 wickets at 13.43 but also, with a move into the top six of the batting line-up, 264 runs at 33, an upswing she attributes more to her increased run-scoring responsibilities than the unforeseen reduction in her football commitments, as has been suggested by some. “It’s pretty hard to pinpoint,” she says.

What won’t slacken is the performances of the young, organised and ever-improving Southern Stars side, among whom Perry, world No1 batter Meg Lanning, Jess Jonassen, Alyssa Healy, Megan Schutt and Holly Ferling are all 25 years or younger. “It’s been really wonderful over the last four or five years to have a really solid group of players – and young players – that have been able to progress together and develop our style of playing as a team together,” says Perry.

“We’re playing more and more. There’s more tours. There’s more opportunities for us to get together as a team. The fact that we’ve now got quite a young but experienced group of players is really exciting and I guess a really good opportunity to progress as a team as much as we want to.”

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