February 4, 2008

Pommie among the enemy

An Englishwoman signs up to play for the same club side as Karen Rolton and Emma Sampson and lives to tell the tale



Fig trees and all: Thompson bowls for Port Adelaide © Daniel Roesler

In the early nineties, if you were to ask the average British female teenager what the big mysteries of Australia were, she would probably have two questions. Why are the houses so big in Neighbours, and why aren't the beaches in Home and Away rammed with burned sunbathers?

I, transfixed by some other small-screen Australiana, had an additional mystery. I'd seen Merv's swerve, Border's batting, and pink zinc cream, and I wondered: why are the Aussies so damned good at cricket?

Fast forward a decade or so to October last year, and with Australia more dominant than ever, finally I had my chance to find out, following a transfer to Adelaide. Having played plenty of club cricket in England for both men's and women's teams, I decided that the grassroots game may have the answer. So I headed three miles down the road to my nearest club, Port Adelaide, to join in.

As a Pom with a point to prove (i.e. that Poms aren't soft), before I'd even got there I was understandably nervous (but determined to hide it, because Poms aren't soft). These nerves became even more trembly when I learned that, by sheer coincidence, my club captain was Australia's captain Karen Rolton and in our team was one of the world's fastest bowlers, Emma Sampson, who can reach 75mph.

Then instant relief. Better, of course, to have these girls on my side ... if I was in the side at all.

In England you're guaranteed a spot in a women's club, as there is only one side - if you're lucky and it hasn't, like a few I was in, folded. In women's club cricket in Australia, there are usually three women's teams per club, known in my league as A, B and C grade. As with the men, good performances in A grade can lead instantly to state games, and the transition is smoothed as the South Australian Cricket Association (SACA) runs the league.

I was just focused on getting a spot. Instant competition for a place should therefore up my game - I'd even heard rumours from other English mates who'd headed to other states that if you didn't make practice during the week, you weren't considered for the weekend. That happens in some men's clubs in the UK but never in the women's: there's not enough interest.

Here it's a different story. The Australians are mad for their sport, plus they have the time, the space, the weather, everything in their favour but most important is their psyche: their need, almost, to express themselves through sport. While English players are largely apologetic for their success - sorry, we built a global empire; we couldn't possibly beat you at sport as well - Australians, with a historical point to prove, take it as a right.

A simplification, of course, but at least knowing the Aussies are so good at all sports, I was worried. I steeled myself for my first practice, drinking litres of water beforehand and undertaking cardio work for weeks before I even dared show up. They were bound to take practice seriously and have a host of inventive drills, weren't they?

Apparently not. Coach and A-team player Jatz oversaw nets on Wednesday and fielding practice on Thursday - "Catch that one, Pommie" - but I didn't find anything too different in my first few practices, save for the alarming dehydration warning leaflets: you don't get those in England. Practising twice a week obviously helps, with super-keen team-mate Jano organising extra practices for us on Mondays and sometimes Fridays. At least the Aussie pair weren't at either of my first two practices, so I could concentrate on my own game.

On the basis of my bowling, Jatz selected me in the A team and I felt pretty chuffed. I've never been chuffed to be in a club team before; it's just been a right. But now I had pride, bound up in selection and in seeing my club flag on display at the Adelaide Oval, where all the men's grade clubs have theirs up. Junior teams (boys and girls) are made to play for pride, too. With so much land available, most clubs own three or four ovals in different locations. Only the top seniors ever play on the main square and that becomes something to aspire to. Club cricket also ploughs all of its money into match fees, umpires, coaches, facilities - we have four grass nets and a bowling machine - whereas, as some of my Australian friends who've headed the opposite way have observed, in the UK money tends to go on pretty pavilions and grounds.

 
 
The Australians are mad for their sport. Plus they have the time, the space, the weather, everything in their favour. Most important, though, is their psyche; their need, almost, to express themselves through sport. While English players are largely apologetic for their success - sorry, we built a global empire; we couldn't possibly beat you at sport as well - Australians, with a historical point to prove, take it as a right
 

School participation is a large factor, too: many of my team-mates have taken up the sport through school. Cricket is the number one game in the country, and unlike England it has no elitist heritage to shake off. Backyard and beach cricket are rites of passage, and so the pool of natural talent is much wider. Indoor cricket, too, is very competitive and ensures the skills are practised all year round.

Such thoughts were echoing through my head as match day rolled around. I was still a-tremble. I still hadn't met Rolton, and suddenly there she was, warm, welcoming, and quietly directing me to be first change for the equally friendly Sampson, whose action I had been admiring from mid-off. Their friendliness couldn't help and the unfamiliar fig trees swaying in the background, plus the brightly coloured galahs circling above certainly didn't. As I was scratching out my run-up - on Adelaide Oval 2, by the way - all I was thinking was: "I'm finally playing in Australia, against Australians. I'm bowling to Australians." Without any pace of which to speak, accuracy is what I usually rely on, but I couldn't land the ball on a decent length. I'd mentally disintegrated myself. Silly, of course, but still.

Eventually I pulled myself together and took two wickets, but despite having two of the country's premier players, and a host of highly skilled others in our side, we still lost. You see, all Aussies - our opposition therefore included - back themselves to the hilt. As they should.

I braced myself for some sledging, but none came. Slightly disappointing, but with only four club teams, everyone knows each other pretty well, and some are state mates. And, as already mentioned, it's straightforward: the ECB's slogan may be "Cricket from playground to Test arena", but the pathway isn't so clear, with dead-ends and players of mixed ability aplenty facing each other up and down the leagues. Australia, however, keep the cream firmly at the top and so it's no wonder the standard is so consistently good. Those who shine at their own level get pushed up to the next. Simple but effective, just as - like, I've learned - it should be.

These are early days in Australia and in my investigations, but I've already had a glimpse of what makes the Aussies so good.

Jenny Thompson is an assistant editor at Cricinfo