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The girl who can do it all

The 21-year-old Ellyse Perry is already women's cricket's poster girl. But with her continuing success, she could soon cross the gender divide and be just a cricket hero

Nagraj Gollapudi
Ellyse Perry bowled with pace and accuracy to help restrict India,  Australia Women v India Women, ICC Women's World Twenty20, 1st Semi-Final, St Lucia, May 13, 2010

What I love about sport is the just the continued challenge about it - you're never as good as you can be. And that is what really motivates me and excites me about playing"  •  AFP

A day after she took five wickets in a massive victory for Australia over India in a virtually empty Wankhede Stadium, Australian fast bowler Ellyse Perry found herself surrounded by a group of young girls, mostly net bowlers, wanting to take pictures with her. Perry spent the next five minutes posing for photos with each girl and then thanked them by folding her hands and bowing at them. No other Australian player got requests for photos, but the girls had patiently waited till Perry finished her training.
It's easy to see why Perry's appeal is universal. She is a double-international, representing Australia in cricket and football, and has played crucial roles in World Cups of both sports.
In the 2010 World Twenty20 final Perry bowled the final over against New Zealand. The Australians were defending a small target of 106 but the momentum kept shifting. New Zealand needed 14 when the ball was handed to Perry for the last over. In each of her previous three overs, she had taken a wicket.
"I was in a fantastic position of having the opportunity to bowl that last over. It was actually more calming and settling for me because I had the ball in hand and I knew I had a job to do rather than standing in the field and not knowing whether or not the ball was come to you and what was going to happen."
The first ball went for a single; Sophie Devine picked twos off the next four deliveries. Five runs from the final delivery, then. Devine hit hard and straight and it looked like the game would be tied. But the footballer in Perry kicked in to intercept the shot. Lisa Sthalekar, Perry's senior team-mate, remembers the incident. "No one can forget the last ball when she stuck her big hoof out and it deflected to me at mid-on, which ultimately ensured our three-run victory," Sthalekar says. For Perry, that win was instrumental for the team's confidence. "As a team the Twenty20 World Cup is ahead of everything because that sort of created a belief in us that we were capable of being the best team in the world again."
A year later she used her left foot to boot a screamer into the top-left corner of the goalpost against Sweden in the women's football World Cup.
Perry, who, at 16, was the youngest Australian cricketer to play an international match, has also helped her side regain the Ashes and flatten New Zealand to lift the Rose Bowl Trophy.
And recently she raised eyebrows when she became the first woman to play for a men's side in the highly competitive environment of Sydney grade cricket. Perry took two wickets for the Sydney Under-21 side in the Poidevin-Gray Shield Twenty20 against Blacktown and was at the non-striker's end when the winning runs were scored.
"One of the main things I take away is just the way the boys approach the game and carry on. You are in the dressing room and it is very much just about getting in and doing as well as you can, putting everything you can and having fun. There is no underlying context to it other than just playing the game."
Perry laughs and says the Australian women's dressing room is much quieter. "I have never heard a bunch of boys carry on with so much rubbish. There is a lot of bravado. The boys really embrace the sense of fun and mateship. They are willing to give each other a bit of stick but they are also willing to take it and that transfers on-field quite nicely."
Today, at 21, she is already a hero to many young girls who talk about how much she motivates and inspires them in everyday life. Though proud of her achievements, Perry remains unsure about her influence. "To me sport and physical activity have been a huge and beneficial part of life and have given me a lot of joy. In that respect, if I encourage young kids to become involved in sport that is something I would feel quite glad about. Sport is something I am passionate about and it does make a difference in people's lives."
"To play a Test match is a pinnacle, I dare say, for all of us. I have only played 12 days of Test cricket in my life but I could recount every day. They certainly mean a lot"
When Perry was growing up, her sporting hero was Ian Thorpe, the Australian swimmer. "What I admire most about people is the way they approach whatever it is they do, and the passionate enthusiasm for what is they do and for life in general. Someone else who I admire in that sense is Roger Federer, because of the way he carries himself on and off the tennis court is incredible."
Though she hasn't met either, Perry was present for another thrilling moment in Australian sporting history. On January 3, 2003 she was a flagbearer at the SCG, on the day Steve Waugh equalled Don Bradman's 29 Test centuries. "It is a very strong memory for me because I was holding the Australian flag and it was huge thrill for a young girl like me to see players like Steve Waugh, Adam Gilchrist, Glenn McGrath, Ricky Ponting and Shane Warne run past you." A few years later she was making history herself at the World T20 final.
In person, Perry is impressive as much for her calm persona as for her articulate speech. But on the field the aggression takes over. Even while training in Mumbai, she slapped her leg, frustrated after feeding a half-volley to the batsman. When asked about the incident, Perry said she was "embarrassed" someone had watched her lose her cool. . "What I love about sport is the just the continued challenge about it - you're never as good as you can be. And that is what really motivates me and excites me about playing. The good thing is you can always come back, the next ball, the next day. You can keep working on things. I do enjoy the challenge of trying to get better and I do get competitive."
That probably explains why she was such a hit on the Australian radio station Triple J, in a segment called Perry Good at Sports, where listeners challenged her in certain skills, often "quite funny", like holding her breath underwater for a minute and nine seconds.
There are many famous and successful players in women's cricket, like England captain Charlotte Edwards and Australian warhorse Sthalekar, but Perry could become the sport's most valuable player. But she says she is still cutting her teeth at the sport. "There are some incredibly talented and successful players in women's cricket. Lisa has played over 100 matches for Australia and is the best allrounder and best bowler in the world currently. I really look up to her. She is the most valuable player in our team, if you want to put such tag."
While the men have more advantages and help in improving their games, the women seem more passionate, despite negligible contracts. Perry agrees, but says it is a privilege to play cricket for the country. "It is a good point. I don't really like getting money into it but none of us play for our welfare or for a career. It is because we really love it. A lot of girls make sacrifices and they actually play for pure love and passion for cricket. It provides a lot of balance to our lives because we have something outside of sport to pursue and experience.
Perry and other women cricketers around the world wear their coat of achievements lightly. But you realise that for them, more than for men, Test cricket matters so much, especially since they barely play any. "Test cricket is something we really cherish. To play a Test match is a pinnacle, I dare say, for all of us. I have only played 12 days of Test cricket in my life but I could recount every day. They certainly mean a lot."
Unlike the men who continue to be around the game and continue being remembered even after they retire, many international women cricketers recede from the memory as the years go by. But Perry, you can be pretty certain, will stay in the headlines and in fans' hearts for a long time.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo