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Feature

How 'chronic overthinker' Tahlia McGrath learned to keep calm and be world-class

She's been one of the world's best allrounders since her return from long-term injury, and she's now embracing a leadership role in the Australia side

S Sudarshanan
S Sudarshanan
07-Dec-2022
Tahlia McGrath is your quintessential fast-bowling allrounder. The one you would want to be as an aspiring cricketer. The one you would love for your favourite team to have. She is tall, and can hit the deck hard as well as get the ball to swerve. And she can bat in the top or middle order. Allrounder in the truest sense of the word.
But Australia Women have had even better. Ellyse Perry needs very little introduction; T20 World Cups, 50-over World Cups, Women's Ashes - she's stamped her mark everywhere and has won it all. She's done it with the bat, the ball, and even with the skills that made her a football international. All in a career longer than you would dream of.
Most teams would be content at having one such player and Australia have flaunted two. Having gotten an ODI cap in 2016 and a Test debut a year later, McGrath was in the mix before stress fractures of the back kept her out of the national side. The way back was arduous. And finally, after Australia won the Women's T20 World Cup at home in 2020, she was handed her first full-time national contract. She was already seen to be a future leader and McGrath is now in India for a five-match T20I series as vice-captain of Australia, ready to "have a crack at it with Midge [captain Alyssa Healy]".
"In my early stages of cricket it was not something… I was sort of a shy kid that never had leadership on my radar," McGrath tells ESPNcricinfo in Mumbai. "My coaches saw the quality I didn't see in myself. [I] had a little early taste of it, worked with Belinda Clark and did some leadership mentoring stuff. We engaged on a lot of Zoom calls where we chatted all things leadership. We talked through scenarios and [I] got some homework tasks. What took my leadership to another level was working with her.
"The way she puts things is so simple. She'd often set me tasks, things to do, and I'd be so daunted, so nervous about doing them and then when I actually got around to doing them… 'ah it's not too bad!' and it sort of became second nature. That was definitely the turning point for me.
"I have absolutely loved every bit of leadership opportunity I get. It's made me get out of my comfort zone and do a lot of things I've not necessarily thought I would have done."
One of the biggest signs of McGrath taking centre stage was at the Commonwealth Games earlier this year. She scored 128 runs - second-most for Australia behind Beth Mooney - at an average of 42.66 and a strike rate of 148.83, and picked up eight wickets - joint second-most in the competition - at an average of 12.12 and an economy rate a shade under seven. All this while keeping Perry out of the XI throughout the tournament.
That McGrath had an early taste of international cricket - at 21 - meant she was hungry for more of it. And since that second chance came, last year at home against India, there has been no looking back.
"[Time outside the national side] made me pretty hungry to get back and work pretty hard on the sidelines on my game, understanding what my strengths are," McGrath, now 27, says. "When I got my second opportunity it was about enjoying it and making the most of it. I made everything as simple as possible and just really wanted to enjoy it. That's pretty much been the secret to my success.
"I love every chance to put my Aussie shirt on and never take that for granted."
Since McGrath's T20I debut in October 2021, no batter has a better average than her 93.75, and only Chloe Tryon has a strike rate better than McGrath's 153.68 among batters with at least 100 runs. In eight T20I innings so far, she has scored 375 runs and has been not out four times. A key aspect to her run-making has been her ability to pick line and length early irrespective of the stage of the match.
"A trap that I fell into earlier in my career was I tried to over-complicate things," she says. "There was a lot going through my mind about what shot I was to play, what was going on… there was so much going on in my mind.
"I just basically tried to - it sounds very simple but it was really hard for me to do - think about nothing when the bowler is running in and when the bowler is bowling. [It was about] being calm and relaxed and go from there. When I am in that state, and I am keeping things simple, I pick up the line and length a lot easier. I was a chronic overthinker and overcomplicater. It sounds really simple but stripping everything back has worked best for me."
McGrath's run this year has included, apart from the gold-medal finish at the Commonwealth Games, the Women's World Cup win and victory in the Women's Ashes. She also led Adelaide Strikers to their maiden WBBL title last month after they had finished runners-up twice in the last three seasons. However, in a bid to manage her workload, she only bowled 14 overs in the tournament. She admits to working harder to get to a stage where she can bowl more regularly.
"I love the bowling aspect of it. Any time I am not bowling - there's been a few times with injuries, niggles - I miss it so much," she says. "I started as a bowling allrounder and I flipped that now into a batting allrounder. But I'd love to get to a stage where it's 50-50 and I can basically contribute as much with the bat as I can with the ball."
With Australia's defence of the Women's T20 World Cup nearing, McGrath is clear about wanting to be in South Africa and experiencing it all.
"I have never been part of a T20 World Cup, I have never travelled to South Africa," she says. "World Cups are the events you want to be a part of. This one's been on our radar for a while. Everyone's really excited about it. A very heavy T20 focus until then and this is a first step for that.
"India are a world-class opposition and they are coming hard for us. This will give us a very good test to see where we are at and will give us confidence leading into a crucial World Cup."
From the cool climes of Adelaide to hot and humid Mumbai, McGrath will have to adapt quickly. And while she does that, you can be assured that she'll inspire a few more to follow her path.

S Sudarshanan is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo