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Lisa Sthalekar, a pioneer in more ways than one

Inducted into the Hall of the Fame, the allrounder had an outstanding career on the field and is now hugely influential off it

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
Lisa Sthalekar and Jodie Fields wait for their turn to bat, Colombo, October 7, 2012

"Hopefully I've been a positive role model to all of them that you can make it in Australia; you can achieve what you want to if you keep your mind at it"  •  ICC via Getty

A persuasive case can be made for the fact that between the retirement of Shane Warne in 2007 and the rise of Nathan Lyon as an established member of the men's team after 2013, no spin bowler in Australia was in greater command of their craft than Lisa Sthalekar. Unquestionably, none was more influential.
The aggressive and inventive use of spin bowling in the women's game, primarily in T20 but also in other forms, can be traced largely back to Sthalekar's reinvention of spin as an attacking weapon for New South Wales, who she captained to multiple domestic titles, and then Australia on the world stage. This after decades in which they had been seen largely as run-stoppers while the seam and swing bowlers rested.
Seldom can a cricketer have enjoyed a more triumphant career conclusion either, as Sthalekar twirled her way through opponents at the 2013 ODI World Cup in India, playing a major role in helping Australia to wrest back the crown they had lost on home soil four years previously, and bowling distinctively in her gold and green cap. As a person of colour, Sthalekar is a pioneering member of the Hall of Fame for other and equally significant reasons, as part of a personal story that intertwines so closely with the quantum leap made by the women's game.
"That's something certainly that I'm proud of. I see myself first and foremost as an Australian cricketer and as I've gone on this journey I've realised that I've been seen as a role model for those of south Asian descent, an immigrant as well," Sthalekar said. "Hopefully I've been a positive role model to all of them that you can make it in Australia; you can achieve what you want to if you keep your mind at it and (are) willing to work hard - anything is possible."
Unlike Warne and Lyon, of course, Sthalekar made her start in the game at a time when it was not exactly clear whether it was a game for her, with no women's teams to speak of in the vicinity of her childhood home in Sydney's west. "I didn't even know women's cricket existed," Sthalekar recalled. "I remember speaking to my father and saying I wanted to play cricket and he said 'I don't think girls can play, because they're all boys that play on Saturday mornings'."
In time, Sthalekar's father went to West Pennant Hills Cherrybrook and got her a trial, before they discovered the existence of women's teams more or less through happenstance.
"I went down to my first trial and it was all boys there, certainly didn't want to step out of the car, but my father insisted and I'm glad he did," she said. "I was fortunate to be able to play with three guys all the way through to Under-16s and the penny only dropped because one of the senior players was actually dating a female cricketer at the time and said 'there's the Gordon Women's Club', so at the age of 13 I realised women's cricket existed and joined - played boys' cricket in the morning and women's in the afternoon."
The development of spin bowling as Sthalekar's chosen skill was a largely self-taught affair, as she spent one whole summer learning how to deliver an effective offbreak, and can now admit that it was only in the later days of her long career for Australia that she was able to benefit from specific and directed advice as to how to develop further. Since retirement, she has enjoyed watching the rising stocks of left-arm spinners in particular, and hoped they all got greater chances to apply themselves in Test matches.
"I still remember learning how to turn the ball, you know how they say get your seam to fine leg, that's how you're going to get your drop and drift and I couldn't figure it out until I spent a whole summer in the nets by myself mucking around with different grips and techniques," she said. "So a lot of it was self-taught, there weren't a lot of spin bowling coaches going around. I got private coaching from a batting perspective from Wayne Seabrook, so spent a bit of time with him growing up, but when I came into the NSW side, I think offspinners were seen as very economical.
"Just tie down one end for us, the rest will come at the other end. It probably changed when I took over the captaincy of the NSW side, I felt I could have the fields that I wanted, I started to bowl a little more aggressively and toss the ball up a little bit more old school spin bowling from that point of view.
"Then, from a coaching perspective, the first time a coach really gave me a lot of feedback in a match situation was Stuart Law, he was assistant coach of us in the 2012 T20 World Cup in Sri Lanka, and he ran on a message in the final that I needed to slow it up because the pitch was quite difficult and I was getting the ball to bite. He provided feedback and then John Davison was part of our 2013 World Cup campaign, so right at the back of my career I got probably the biggest mentorship from a former spinner and a revered international coach."
That final campaign in 2013 still brings a twinkle to Sthalekar's eye, with her part in the final victory over West Indies remembered as much for a spectacular catch to close out the game as for the spell of 2 for 20 that showcased all that was great about her flight, drift, dip and spin, and the critical wicket of Deandra Dottin.
"I didn't tell too many people, I think I just told my family and four friends, didn't tell any of my team-mates," she said of her retirement plans. "I pushed myself to finish off that six months, prior to that I wasn't necessarily enjoying my cricket, I wasn't quite sure where it was going, and I'm glad I did that and I can probably thank Shelley Nitschke and Sarah Andrews, two of my team-mates at the time and one obviously in Sarah had already retired, but Shelley was still heavily involved in the game and they kept pushing me to keep going.
"So I'm glad I did, because most female cricketers back then would play a World Cup, play the Ashes and then after the Ashes everyone retired. But within our side we had Megan Schutt playing for the first time, Alyssa Healy was on the sidelines, Meg Lanning had just come in, I was seeing that next generation and we had just won the T20 World Cup, we'd won the Ashes back in 2011 and then we'd finished with the 2013 World Cup.
"I thought 'right, we're No. 1 in every format, it's time to go' and given the fact I came in when Australia were really strong and dominant, it was nice to leave the team in that situation and then allowing the next generation a chance."
Since then, Sthalekar's influence has been huge, across her involvement with the Australian Cricketers' Association and also some prolific work as a commentator, a job that presently has her in Abu Dhabi for the ongoing T10 tournament. She is outspoken about the fact that administrators cannot afford to let Covid-19 cruel the strides made by the women's game up to and including last year's T20 World Cup, and must continue to invest for the long-term.
"I understand that women's cricket was building up really nicely and the T20 World Cup played at the MCG on March 8 showed what you can do if you invest heavily and market it properly, and I felt like women's cricket was just about to kick off because of that, and then a week later the whole world shut down," she said. "What that showed me was national boards and everyone went back to automatic pilot - 'what's going to give us revenue, it's the men's game, we've got to get that up and running'.
"I understand you've got to pay bills and money's got to come in, absolutely, but if you can find a way to get men's cricket up and running in a bio-secure bubble, then surely you can do that for the women's game. I look at India and they are a prime example. The last time they played as a country was March 8, and we're nearly coming up to a year. Some countries have done really well, Pakistan women's side have a couple of series locked in and they're playing South Africa at the moment, Australia leading the way as well and New Zealand and we're in that same bio-bubble.
"But I urge national boards and the ICC to make sure the women's game grows globally and goes off the back of that T20 World Cup - I hope that 80,000 at the MCG becomes a common occurrence."
Given how far the women's game has come since Sthaleker attended that first trial session for a boys' team, such a vision should be well within reach.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig