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June 19, 2009
It wasn't quite the way she would have imagined going, but Karen Rolton has played her last match as Australia captain, bowing out in the semi-finals of the World Twenty20 against England. "I would have loved to have finished my time [as captain] playing in the final at Lord's but we weren't quite good enough," said Rolton immediately after the match.
While nobody would pretend that her tenure has always been an easy one - she presided over Australia's worst World Cup finish at home in March - Rolton's record speaks for itself.
Rolton, arguably Australia's most accomplished batsman of all time and the world's most consistent player, decided in May to hand over the captaincy she has held since 2006 to help the new generation. To this end, she will stay in the team to ensure a smooth transition for the new leader, Jodie Fields, enabling them to access her wealth of knowledge.
For many an international captain, resigning as skipper can be an emotional experience; fellow Australian Kim Hughes springs instantly to mind. But Rolton refuses to cry. "It was a big decision," she says simply. "But I think the timing's right.
"There's not a lot of women's games between now and the next World Cup. The longer I do it, the less time to get into the role. I think Jodie's going to do a fantastic job."
Was there extra pressure in wanting to do well in the World Twenty20 knowing it was the last time she would lead Australia? "I hadn't even really thought about it. When someone mentions it you think about it but I just want to do well for the team."
But don't mistake Rolton's matter-of-fact demeanour for ambivalence. The quietly spoken captain - who hides a wicked sense of humour - merely wants the best for a country which she has served admirably. Rolton would play for Australia on her deathbed if she could.
Since her debut in 1995 aged 20, Rolton has amassed an Australian-record 971 Test runs from 13 matches at 60.68, including an unbeaten double ton against England in 2001. With 130 more ODI runs - highly likely in the forthcoming England series - she could eclipse Belinda Clark as the all-time leading runscorer in ODIs (Rolton has 4715 runs). She was the first ICC Female Cricketer of the Year in 2006 but personal accolades come a clear second to team success.
She even gave her knees for Australia. Before surgery on ligaments damaged through cricket, Rolton was one of the world's premier allrounders with her medium-pacers, but these days she does not bowl. It has been Australia's loss.
The captaincy, naturally, has been a huge honour. She took over the reins following the departure of Clark and Lisa Keightley when there was little experience among the players apart from Lisa Sthalekar.
Although unanimously regarded as the best person for the job from the start and with no doubting her playing credentials, current coach Richard McInnes says Rolton took her time to find her own captaincy groove.
"She's a quiet person," says McInnes. "She doesn't command the stage as some natural leaders do. She's getting better and better all the time and really taking charge of the team."
Of course, England captain Mike Brearley was one such quiet person and he had the massive respect of his team through tactical brilliancy. Rolton, an astute thinker herself, has had the extra benefit of also being a role model in playing excellence which has won her fans among all international players, not just her own team.
"She's pretty unflappable and she gets on with the job," says McInnes. "She understands the game and how people feel. She gives nothing away [about the team] and she doesn't get fazed by anything."
He's right. Ask Rolton how she feels playing in front of huge crowds, a rarity in the women's game but something she experienced in the 1997-98 World Cup final aged 22, and she says simply, "You just have to enjoy the moment."
|Though she has won the World Cup three times as a player - including a brilliant hundred in the 2005 final in South Africa - the title will ever elude her as a captain. The pain is not just for herself, however, but for everyone, not that she talks much about it.|
Not even scathing, unmerited tabloid criticism of her captaincy after this year's doomed World Cup had much effect. "It's done and dusted now… wasn't one of our better ones. We didn't play well. Whether it was pressure or we were playing at home, I'm not really sure."
Rolton wasn't helped by the team chopping and changing before the tournament, but she will never say a bad word about any of her players or the choices of the selection committee. It is an admirable silence. In any other sports star you could easily believe this was media training in over-drive. But at 34, Rolton has seen everything, done everything and got the trophies.
Though she has won the World Cup three times as a player - including a brilliant hundred in the 2005 final in South Africa - the title will ever elude her as a captain. The pain is not just for herself, however, but for everyone, not that she talks much about it. "To not make the final in your home country is disappointing," she says. "But you can't really change that now."
Although she captained during a period of changing sides and coaches, under her leadership Australia have won six ODI series, with two draws. Only the World Cup fourth place blotted the copy book.
Australia won the first Test under her command, Rolton's fifty helping to force India to follow on in 2006-07. They lost the other Test she led, although not owning the Ashes at the time meant her side had to go all out against England in the four days of the 2007-08 series that were ever available.
Though you could spend a long time trying to puzzle out her inner complexities, the truth is deceptively straightforward - Rolton is not, in fact, a complicated character and has a vast array of knowledge and experience upon which she calls clearheadedly, without fuss. As McInnes says: "It's a pretty simple game and she keeps it pretty simple." She demonstrates the same with her breathtaking batting.
Rolton fans will be pleased to learn that surrendering the captaincy does not mean surrendering her career just yet. "I am not retiring!" says Rolton, who will stay on in England for the Ashes and ODIs. In fact, after intensive training in Brisbane, Rolton is fitter than she has been for a few years and in great form with the bat.
There will be no envy nor regrets when she sees Fields leading the side, given she just wants the best for Australia. In typical fashion, Rolton smiles and says selflessly: "I hadn't really thought about it."
And you know she is telling the truth.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Plays of the day from the IPL match between Chennai Super Kings and Kings XI Punjab in Abu Dhabi