How 'small' Alyssa Healy came to be a keeper
Playing the role of a second wicketkeeper in the squad can be quite hard. Alyssa Healy will vouch for it. For the better part of her first four years in international cricket since her debut in 2010, she was an understudy to Jodie Fields, who was also the captain when Australia Women were winning titles for fun. They won the World T20 in 2010 and 2012. Then came the ultimate crowning glory - a 50-over World Cup win.
Alyssa, niece of Ian Healy, was on the fringes, not quite sure how she was going to break into the playing XI. Fortunately or unfortunately, Fields abruptly called time on her career ahead of the World T20 in 2014 in Bangladesh due to a combination of injuries and poor form. A spot opened up, and Healy grabbed it with both hands to establish herself as the first-choice wicketkeeper across formats.
"I took a while to find my bearings," she says. Scores of 41, 0, 9 and 20 as an opener at the World T20 in 2014 didn't inspire too much confidence. In the semi-final against West Indies, she was demoted to No. 7. If Healy was hurt, she didn't show it. A crucial unbeaten 21-ball 30 was instrumental in Australia's win; they squeezed home by eight runs. Australia went on to beat arch-rivals England to make it a hat-trick of Women's World T20 wins. "The knock infused self-belief."
For a petite cricketer to have the kind of reach she has, Healy has had to work extremely hard on her wicketkeeping skills. It's natural to assume her illustrious uncle had a part to play in her decision to keep wicket. As it turns out, it wasn't so.
"I'm really fortunate to have a couple of family members who have played cricket at the highest level, but that they didn't have too much influence early on," she says. "I think I sort of fell into the game. Once I started to enjoy it, and saw some natural talent, I jumped in and got involved. Uncle Ian is really good. He helps me out whenever he can and whenever we're in the same country."
Interestingly, fast bowling was Healy's first love. She started playing at the age of 10 at the Carlingford Waratahs Club in New South Wales. "You will see me bowling in the nets whenever I can. I always wanted to be a fast bowler but never grew and unfortunately fell into the wicketkeepeing role. But I love it nonetheless," she laughs. "Unfortunately, I am a frustrated fast bowler. I wanted to be a bowler, but wasn't too good, so the boys gave me the gloves and said this is your best place. I had no choice but to keep, else I couldn't play."
She was given the gloves on rotation. In a club game, it was her turn, and she did something right to catch the eye of Christina Matthews, the former Australia wicketkeeper, who was a New South Wales selector at the time. "At that stage, I needed guidance, and Christina took me under her wings at the age of 12 at New South Wales," she says. "She has been my mentor and someone who has shaped my career to where it is today."
Along the way, Healy has had to work "that much harder to have a future", but the pressure of knowing she had to keep up her marks all the time brought focus; while Australia Women - or the Southern Stars as they are popularly known - were given annual retainers in 2014 to move on from a semi-professional structure, Healy doesn't want to miss out on her academics. She juggles with her assignments and online lectures even today to complete her bachelors' degree in Marine Biology.
While she admits things can get tough at times, the niggling worries are gone because of Cricket Australia's efforts to bring parity to the women's game in the country.
Cricket Australia's centrally contracted players are paid retainers between AUS $50,000 [US $38,000 approx] to 78,000 [US $59,000 approx] a year, apart from match fees and tour allowances to make them the best paid women cricketers in the world. In addition, the introduction of contracts for state players and advent of the Women's Big Bash League has brought about another avenue to not just play more matches, but to top up finances as well.
"From the short time I've been involved playing international cricket, I can say that the sport has grown exponentially," she says. "With the start of all these leagues around the world, it's changing. The Women's Big Bash in Australia was a major success and the advent of Women's Super league [in England] - there's potential for girls to earn more money playing cricket and have it as a career full time.
"Most of the countries now are contracting the players and making them full-time athletes, which is very encouraging. The opportunities are endless, and it is only going to keep growing. We're really fortunate that Cricket Australia have made giant strides in the last few years at cutting down this gender inequality. In the last 12 months, especially, we've been treated equal with men in every aspect of the game. So we're very lucky."
With her career in fine shape, Healy lives her "fast-bowling dream" through her fiancé, Mitchell Starc. "We grew up playing together. We actually used to share wicketkeeping when we first started playing cricket," she says. "But obviously, he grew and became 6ft 5in while I stayed small. He had to stop keeping and start fast bowling. I have jumped into the nets a few times for him when he has come back from injury but not when he is at his full pace. It's a bit scary for me, even though I'm living my fast-bowling dream through him."
Is it cricket all the time at home then? "Nah, not at all," she says. "There's not too much cricket that is spoken at home. But we are in a lucky position where we both know what one another is going through, so if you have had a hard day, then you know exactly what has happened."
Not even a little talk about playing in India, a country where Starc has more experience playing in through the IPL? "I have had a few discussions with him about different grounds over here and what is it to play like [in India], before coming here," she says. "It's nice to swap notes, but he has only had a little bit of experience over here. But it is nice coming from a bowler's point of view, to see where they might target."
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo