The stands of Alex Blackwell
During her playing career and after, the former Australia vice-captain has been passionate about campaigning for change
Alex Blackwell uses complex medical terms. "Genome sequencing", "pre-natal screening", "pretest probability" trip off her tongue on the phone, her five years of medical study peeking out from under her 15-year-long international career in cricket.
"I absolutely loved what I was studying," Blackwell says from the UK, where she recently completed her debut coaching assignment, with Lancashire Thunder in the Kia Super League. "But I didn't sort of see myself as a doctor and an international cricketer at the same time, so I left the course in 2007. I was certain I wanted to follow my passion of being an Australian cricketer."
Cricket in Australia wasn't professional then, so when she took up medicine, becoming a qualified genetic counsellor (a medical professional who advises prospective parents about the risks of genetic disorders in a child) seemed the best way to mitigate the financial hardships that a commitment to sport would potentially bring. The decision, Blackwell says, "worked out well". Her Australia debut at 19, her 251 caps international caps - the most by any female cricketer in the country - her five world titles and 5250 runs across formats leave little room to contest the claim.
Having retired from international and state cricket in February, though, Blackwell refuses to attach much currency to the milestones or to her image as a path-breaker over the years. Nor to being elected as Cricket NSW's first female director in 159 years.
"I don't think much about what I'm doing right now, but I think my being who I am is purely because of having the guts to truly be myself. As a person, I respect the opportunities that are and have been around me, and those who make those opportunities possible - cricketers, curators, umpires, groundsmen, and even outside of cricket." And it affected her when she saw those opportunities were not equally available to everybody in the world.
To Blackwell, being vocal about equality and inclusion have become second nature. During the 2017 World Cup, amid the escalating pay dispute between Cricket Australia and the Australian Cricketers' Association, she called on the board to have the same baggy green for both sexes.
"If you're wearing a baggy green for Australia, it should be the same baggy green, no matter what your gender is," she said to the Daily Telegraph at the time, referring to the red stitching around the gold ribbon under the coat of arms on the women's cap, which is unlike the men's, where the colours are reversed.
In 2013, Blackwell became only the second international cricketer - two years after English wicketkeeper Steven Davies - to come out publicly during their playing career. Two years later she sported the national team's uniform at the 2015 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Elyse Villani, an Australia team-mate, kept her company on the anti-homophobia float, and soon realised how "significant [a] step [it was] that we were both a part of that". Villani went public about her sexuality soon after.
During her stay in the UK in May that year, Blackwell witnessed another watershed moment for the global LGBTI movement, when Ireland became the first country to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote. Four months later, following a victorious Ashes campaign, Blackwell tied the knot with long-time partner Lynsey Askew, the former England allrounder. Their union stood annulled in Australia, though.
That changed in December 2017, after 13 years and 22 unsuccessful attempts in the federal parliament since the time the John Howard government had same-sex unions banned in 2004. The breakthrough in legalising same-sex marriage came via a postal survey: in November last year, Australia voted 61.6% in favour of marriage equality - a verdict prime minister Malcolm Turnbull described as an "unequivocal, overwhelming" yes "for fairness, yes for commitment, yes for love".
Either side of the enactment of the law, Blackwell's Australia team-mates Megan Schutt and Jess Jonassen vowed to wed their respective partners. In the divisive three-month campaign leading up the survey, Blackwell was among the many Australian sports stars who rallied for the cause. This while she was training to "give nothing short of [her] best" in the multi-format Ashes - Australia's first international assignment since their World Cup semi-final exit.
"I guess it comes down to the human-rights issue," Blackwell says. "I don't accept that I'm any less than my neighbours in Australia, or anywhere else in the world, or accept being told I'm not good enough because of my sexuality.
"I don't accept people with disability being discriminated against, or those from other religions or races. So it's not isolated to sexuality. It comes down to equal respect and being treated with dignity."
It was the collective show of solidarity from voices that matter that made a difference to the campaign, Blackwell says. "It wasn't just up to the same-sex couples - many allies stood up at the time, many of whom were in my team. It was heartening to see two very famous couples in the cricket world - Alyssa Healy Starc and Mitch Starc, and Lee and Shane Watson - standing up to say, "We want equal rights for our friends and all Australians around marriage." That was, to me, immensely powerful."
It wasn't the first time that Blackwell had urged others to join the chorus around the cause, or made herself heard. Ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, she teamed up with several NFL, AFL and Wallabies athletes and former World No. 1 tennis player Andy Roddick in opposing the Russian government's treatment of homosexuals. She thought the International Olympic Committee's commitment "to deal with Principle Six of the Olympic charter - which covers discrimination" was inadequate.
On the field of play Blackwell stood out with characteristic decisions. In a 2017 WBBL Sydney game she had Sara McGlashan stumped, but realising she had inadvertently come in her way, Blackwell immediately signalled to the umpire that McGlashan not be given out.
A few months later, in the 2017 Ashes opener ODI, she secured the first points for Australia with a dogged 67 not out, having come in to bat at No. 6. Two games following that knock, an NSW team-mate she "took in as a young player", who would hoist Blackwell on her shoulders in her state captain's farewell game, was the headliner in Blackwell's swansong: Ellyse Perry's maiden international hundred swelled into an epochal 213 not out in the Sydney Test.
"The two-year lead-in [to retirement], working with a new coach [Mark McInnes, her personal batting coach, who also works with Sydney Thunder], trying out new things ahead of the World Cup, I wanted to be at my best, and most prepared when the team needed me. I didn't just want to be a 360-degree player; I wanted to be a 720-degree player. I wanted to hit the ball all around the park and in the air. I had these visions from my game at the time."
In the last 24 months of her international career, Blackwell's ODI average and strike rate peaked to a shade shy of 50 and 90 respectively. Until late 2015, those figures had been 33 and 61. In T20Is, too, she averaged better, remaining unbeaten in nine of her 19 innings in her final two years in the format. She also became the 2015 Belinda Clark medalist and the first captain to win a WBBL title, and finished among the top two run-makers for Sydney Thunder in the first three seasons.
The period brought unprecedented individual distinction for Blackwell but it coincided with Australia losing both their limited-overs world titles. Within 15 months, West Indies foiled their bid for a fourth straight World T20 title, and India dealt them a knockout punch in the 2017 World Cup semi-final.
In that epic encounter, which her opposite number, India ODI vice-captain Harmanpreet Kaur dominated with 171 not out, Blackwell's 56-ball 90 was an exhibition of trademark Australian resilience. "I've never played better than that 90," Blackwell says of the innings. "In that moment of the tournament, you are under massive pressure, it's a World Cup semi-final, and we were staring down the barrel, so to say. For me to play my best cricket under those circumstances, I'm proud of that. That's the greatest I've ever played."
If Harmanpreet were to walk into immortality by dint of her 171, it is hard to imagine that innings would be as storied without the context of Blackwell's 90 to underline its value. "I knew if anyone could take that game away, it had to be her," Harmanpreet says of Blackwell, who captains her at Sydney Thunder and coached her at Lancashire Thunder. "It doesn't feel odd to think we won by 36 runs, and not, say, 50-60 runs. Those 20-30 runs belong to her. And the jersey too [laughs]… But I think that's how Alex Blackwell is: she likes giving joy to others."
Staring at the prospect of unemployment back home amid the stalemate around the pay dispute, Australia left the field that evening following what Blackwell calls "an extraordinary effort from Kristen Beams." In a chase that refused to die an inglorious death, Blackwell's last-ditch effort with the No. 11 ballooned into a world-record stand for the last wicket.
"The never-say-die attitude in that partnership is what I'm most proud of," Blackwell says. "Aussies don't just roll over and give up - that's what we're proud of. We didn't make the final, but I hope that effort from Kristen and I inspires the team and the Australians back home in the future."
In a year where there have been seismic changes in Australian cricket, Blackwell believes greater accountability - at the individual and organisational level - will determine much of the country's growth as an inclusive sporting superpower.
"It's just about being very clear about your messaging and leadership from the very top of the sport. You can't anticipate every possible hiccup that may happen. There may be racism happening in the stands, within your sport. It's very hard to stop that, but it's about how as an organisation you deal with it and your employee - or the athlete who represents you."
Her views have gathered topicality even outside cricket, in light of Rugby Australia's decision earlier this year to not sanction Wallabies fullback Israel Folau's Instagram comment about gay people heading "to hell unless they repent for their sins and turn to God". This despite the organisation claiming they support "all forms of inclusion", their major sponsor Qantas labelling Folau's opinions as "very disappointing", and the Wallabies captain and coach meeting with politicians last year to throw their weight behind the marriage-equality postal-vote campaign.
"He has some strong views and he's entitled to those views," Blackwell says. "However, that he continues to be vocal about it is perhaps harmful, perhaps even to many of his fans. Perhaps Izzy needed to consider if he could continue to participate in a sport that he felt he had such different views to. At the end of the day, the sport sees fans and inclusion as very, very important, and something they need to be strong on and consistent with. "
Through her playing career alone, Blackwell has been a part of nearly a dozen dressing rooms in three countries. From NSW Breakers to Otago women and Sydney Thunder to Yorkshire Diamonds, each has, she says, "always been a safe place for people of diverse sexuality".
"That's because it's not an issue when you play sport. It's not an important part of you as an athlete but [more] when you sort of move more broadly into society. The fact that cricket has been trying to be a sport for all Australians, the inclusion of LGBTI people as athletes, administrators and fans is an important part of achieving that vision."
Cricket Australia, she says, are inclusive. Whether in signing the Anti-Homophobia and Inclusion Framework in 2014 or, a year later, commissioning the first-of-its-kind Out on the Fields study to take an international look at homophobia in sport, or more recently, in supporting marriage equality, Blackwell believes the board's attempts to stamp out bias have been significant.
"When CA signed on to be an inclusive sport along with other sports in Australia, also showing their support for same-sex marriage, they had a big impact on me as a practitioner of the sport. That made me feel welcome and visible because it's important to acknowledge gay people exist in the world - about 10% of the population, which is a huge part."
But it's not just for LGBTI athletes, or in cricket alone, that Blackwell demands more inclusion. "Understanding the biology of gender", she says, has been vital to her being able to question the prejudiced parameters that undermine inclusive treatment in sport.
"What is female and not female? Is Caster [Semenya, the Olympic middle-distance runner] woman enough to participate in elite sport? Why be so hypercritical about her appearance?" Blackwell asks. "Gender is not black and white, and I fully endorse the inclusion of Caster, and intersex athletes in general."
Online too, Blackwell has long been a voice, putting her weight behind the causes of inclusiveness and diversity. "Social media is a powerful tool; it connects people, shapes ideas," she explains.
She puts her free-thinking attitude down to growing up with her twin sister Kate on a Yenda vineyard in the Riverina district of NSW. Their mother was a teacher and father an agriculture engineer with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.
"My dad, in particular, would put a lot of faith in Kate and I doing jobs as young people on the farm. I think that was a big influence, because when someone shows faith in you like that, especially your parents, that has a big influence on you as a kid."
What was she like as a child?
"Adventurous," Blackwell says, "Riding motorbikes, climbing trees, building rafts, floating down the irrigation canal with Kate. I think I've established a real sense of an 'I can' attitude because of that curiosity to explore things, building stuff, figuring things out, making my own fun alongside Kate."
Kate, an attacking middle-order batsman, last played for Australia in 2008 and retired from the game six years later. Being a twin, Blackwell says, has been the strongest shaping force in her life. The two girls grew up looking up to the Waugh brothers, debuted within nearly two years of each other, in 2004 became the first set of identical twins to play cricket for Australia, and won the 2005 World Cup in the presence of "childhood hero Belinda Clark".
Blackwell talks about the picture on the invite to the party for the twins' 30th birthday, in which the faces of the two sisters are superimposed on Frida Kahlo's iconic Two Fridas self-portrait. She speaks of how she and Kate "have always been each other's major supporter".
"I think I've become a considerably considerate, thoughtful and mindful person because I've lived a major part of my life side by side with my identical twin sister. We now live independent lives, but as a young person, whether in cricket or in life, you go through the ups and downs together.
"My ability to talk things through with Kate, and for her to guide my perspective the right way around, that has been amazing. [She has been] a great source of wisdom, in my recent years - I think I became a better player in the last few years of my international career."
Kate now works as a clinical-support physiotherapist for spinal-surgery patients, while Blackwell's post-retirement globetrotting for her pet cause has taken her to, among other places, Mongolia as a Cricket Australia ambassador and to the UK for a gender-equality charity match. She returns to Australia later this month and will start to gear up for the fourth edition of the WBBL, where she continues to lead Sydney Thunder.
Adjusting to her new roles has been a bit of a "challenge", she admits, but that can-do attitude, she believes, has equipped her well to push the envelope further, as has a favourite pastime of hers.
"Fishing is like cricket. Even when you're not catching much, you're always in with a chance. You've your line in the water, the bait on the hook, and you might end up getting absolutely nothing. But on the third or fourth day, you may end up catching the most magnificent fish. It tests your patience but rewards you as much, just like cricket does. You just have to keep at it."
Annesha Ghosh is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo