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Couch Talk

'You learn from cricket because there are more bad days than good'

Former New Zealand allrounder and "tree shaker" Nicola Browne talks about what being a professional cricketer taught her

Subash Jayaraman: New Zealand is a rugby country. What motivated you to choose cricket?
Nicola Browne: I grew up in a small country town. As is with many other New Zealanders from rural backgrounds, you play every sport because there are only so many kids in the schools. I played rugby, cricket, netball, tennis, football. Because of the numbers in the school, you were in every team. I always played cricket but never in an organised fashion. Pat Malcolm from Northern Districts [Cricket Association] saw me playing for my school and college and basically selected me. By the end of college, I was in the national team. So that caught me a little off guard.
SJ: Does that explain you becoming an allrounder too?
NB: I started as a bowler, as you can envision, grabbing the ball and having a bowl was more of a simpler task than the range of different cricket strokes that you need to master. However, after the first few games, waiting three hours on the sidelines I got bored. So I was like, "I think I need to learn to bat as well." That is how the allrounder thing developed.
SJ: In 2013, New Zealand announced the first set of professional contracts for women cricketers and the number has now expanded. How have you seen the maturing of women's cricket in New Zealand?
NB: When I first came into the team, I had the likes of Debbie Hockley and Emily Drumm and they were some of the most professional athletes I have come across. Players like Drumm were completely dedicated to cricket and had set very high standards for themselves. The other thing that impacted the game was T20 cricket. It probably appealed to the New Zealand female athletes, and has brought a lot of natural sportswomen through, and that has been the biggest impact on the game, attracting and maintaining the likes of Suzie Bates and Sophie Devine, who could quite easily have pursued their other sporting codes.
In terms of the contracts side of things, it is not enough to make a significant difference. The school level is not going to improve, but the consistency is. The difference between a good and a great player is someone taking the highest level of natural talent and learning the skill sets to consistently play at it. Like Brendon McCullum playing consistently at that level. Consistency is what is going to be gained from these contracts.
SJ: The men's domestic game has a sizeable following. But we never really hear about women's domestic cricket. Could you tell us a bit more about the women's game?
NB: The domestic women's competition is well supported. Domestic players do not have to pay to play. That is really a great pulling point. The biggest one is the numbers attracted to the game. For women the national game is netball, and for men it is rugby. There is not a huge number of young girls playing cricket. That is going to increase, as always. It is generally true that the game becomes more attractive with contracts and the like.
There is still such a vast drop off. There are girls that make it to the team when they are 13-15 years old, and then you have 31- and 32-year-olds. To have a quality competition, it still hasn't got that stature yet, but with the big names stepping up and producing results, it could happen.
The top players can afford to make mistakes and get away with it at domestic level, because you are playing against weaker opposition. When you step up to the international level, what was working at domestic level is suddenly not working at international level because you don't get loose balls and second chances.
SJ: A lot of Indian women players have day jobs with government departments, like the Indian Railways. Does that exist for domestic cricketers in New Zealand too?
NB: No. I really liked this set-up when I heard about it from Amita Sharma and Jhulan Goswami, whom I played my whole international career with. We do have scholarships to universities. Often girls will start playing around 15-16. The average age of a White Fern is 18-19. At that stage, they go to university. For the first three to five years of their cricketing career, they are studying. That gives them the flexibility you talked about. After that, we struggle. Girls can often get [job] roles, often full-time roles, and the game fades away.
"I learnt the resilience to get back up every day and keep the passion to be the best you can, despite the results. I also learnt to completely let go, and trust, and not overthink"
SJ: Can that be corrected?
NB: I started a charity with the intention of connecting and making businesses more aware of the athletes that are out there and what they need - like part-time, flexible roles. We had to think more strategically - how they could integrate an elite amateur athlete into their business, which would require quite a degree of flexibility and probably a lot of teaching on their behalf. In the end, they will be able to help them with the transition later in the athlete's life. It is something that I would like to revisit in future. What you need is to find a business person who is passionate about the sport and understands high performance and is willing to have [sportspersons] as a part of their business. However, New Zealand has a lot of small and medium-sized business owners, so that is not always an option.
SJ: There is going to be a women's equivalent of the Big Bash League starting in the 2015-16 season in Australia. How do you see that developing women's cricket?
NB: Australia has got the first jump on it, and there is a strategic focus of making cricket as the No. 1 women's summer sport. You can see their investment in the game and the uptick of numbers. What they are creating over there is really exciting.
Going in line with the men's team has both positive and negative sides. One, obviously, is to capture the brand and the excitement the following has already created. But sometimes the thing that you love the most - which is playing the game - can be affected. Like, if you are playing a double header, all of a sudden your game can finish early or not even happen because the men's game is not ready. That has happened on a few occasions. That is going to be a positive step, though. Australia might lose out on a couple of things because their domestic competition is going to have to change.
SJ: I guess they would have to spread the talent around the eight different franchises. That too is good, and bad.
NB: Correct. Teams, as we know them, have to change. It will be interesting to see how New Zealand reacts to it.
The injection of English players last year in the competition - I think we will see a lot more of them. Australia, England, New Zealand, and to an extent West Indies, have most of the top players. This is becoming a bit of a super league with the top players from around the world. It will be exciting to see how the first season goes and see what changes they make for the second.
SJ: You were the Player of the Tournament in the 2010 World T20 in the West Indies. Your memories of that final?
NB: It was quite a pivotal game for me. In such pressure games, you must know how to play finals. That was the third final we'd been in. We had taken great lessons from the previous finals. The one thing that sticks to my mind is that it took a while for me to crack on. In the chase, in staying with the score, there was a period of time that the boundaries were bigger and the previous games were played in places where you could just hit out. There was a bit of risk in hitting out. Rather than backing myself, I just worked it around, and then Sophie [Devine].... We both knew we had the power, but we waited too long.
Definitely, it still hurts. Maybe people have to learn certain lessons, and sometimes it might take ages to learn those lessons [laughs].
There are two things that I learnt. One was resilience, especially in the latter half of my career, when the White Ferns tended to lose more than we won. Certainly in my domestic cricket that was the case. I learnt the resilience to get back up every day and keep the passion to be the best you can, despite the results. I also learnt - probably still need to learn - to completely let go, and trust, and not overthink and completely listen to your gut.
SJ: People prefer men's T20 because they say "it is more fun". But there is a lot to understand and enjoy in the women's game as well. In terms of strategy, how does it work in the women's game with respect to the men's?
NB: It is probably male counterparts, commentators or journalists, describing to the public that this is the difference between the games, and we can liken it very much to women's tennis. Men's tennis game is about aces, and power. There could be a whole set where a rally in women's tennis could go on for a long time. There is the finer detail we have to showcase and describe to the less-knowledgeable cricket viewer.
That is the thing that captures you, about cricket. I learned to love cricket. The more I knew about cricket, the more I loved it, because of all the intricacies with the different elements. It is almost like all sports wrapped up into one. There are so many different things. When you used to write out skills that you wanted to work on in each of the different disciplines, it is so meaningful to work on. That is the magical part about the game. The females have to dive a little deeper into that and have a more 360-degree game and create pace on the ball.
Women cricketers, with this period where the girls can train for longer [due to professional contracts], they are going to get timing and rhythm, and collectively, with bowling rhythm and batting timing, you will see dynamic shot-making. We will have elements of both, and can get the long-term patrons of the game who eventually come to watch the women's game go, "Ah, I didn't know they played like that. That was enjoyable!"
"I started a charity with the intention of connecting and making businesses more aware of the athletes that are out there and what they need - like part-time, flexible roles"
SJ: You retired when you were 30, and you played more than 180 games for New Zealand. Are there any fond on-field memories that still stay with you?
NB: It is probably three parts that come to mind. One, early in my career, when we came on the back of the World Cup-winning team in 2001. There were a lot of players playing at a very high level. They set the standard for my career. They won a lot of games in their career, and we won a lot of games in that time.
The second part is the period between 2008 and 2010. As with all players that experience the highs of their career, they finally work it out before the opposition can work them out. That is when you see yourself playing at your best and all the hard work pays off. It is such an exciting time as you are learning and discovering and finally putting it all together.
In the last phase of my career I did something different. There were magic moments, moments that you can't train for. I talked about the lesson I had to learn about letting go, after the 2010 final. There were two occasions where I completely let go. One was this catch in the 2013 World Cup versus England, where I took this catch running in from the boundary. It shouldn't have been a catch. I had a sort of out-of-body experience, where I saw myself running in and catching it from a distance, and that was the most incredible feeling I have experienced - of complete freedom.
Another highlight I remember was: often we found ourselves in situations against Australia where we needed a lot off not many. That may have been due to my inability to keep up with the score! We needed a lot of runs. We needed 36 in two overs. I completed that in eight [balls]. That was a surreal feeling, when I hit six after six and they moved the field and I placed it for four, and then hit a six to win. That was probably a healing thing from the [loss in the] World Cup game - I finally chased down one of those unattainable scores.
SJ: You retired this January, but you had retired previously as well, because of a medical condition, and made a comeback. Could you talk about that?
NB: That was shortly after the 2010 World T20. I had achieved a lot over that period and I came away really tired. I felt that I would talk to a few people about when it would be a nice time to retire, and they said, you've probably lost the motivation to train at the level you once did. That was when I gave myself nine months to come around, but I never picked up the energy to train. So I made the call to retire.
Two weeks later I was diagnosed with celiac disease, which is an intolerance to gluten, a reaction to gluten that does not allow you to absorb nutrients from food, and hence the tiredness. Once I was on a gluten-free diet, I sprang back to life and loved life more than I had in a very long time. I thought it would be a good idea to give cricket one more crack. Plus, I was still quite young and there were a few things left to achieve. So, reflecting on it, I haven't had the same ambition for the game that I did after 2010. The last four years have been more like a transition into another phase of life after I gave my whole self to cricket for ten years. When I did retire, I simply looked around and didn't see many other pathways, as I was so entrenched in cricket. So those four years gave me an opportunity to create some new pathways for myself.
SJ: If the women's game were to be different, where it is a little more financially rewarding, would you have continued with cricket?
NB: I definitely would have had a few more years in me. I also would have done things other ways to capitalise on the money that I had earned, to ensure some longevity out of it. The path would certainly have looked different. The money side is difficult. There were a number of things it came down to. There were three mainly.
The financial side. There was - not frustration exactly with New Zealand Cricket, but I wanted it more badly for there to be more female players in the game and for the domestic and international scene to be more competitive. Secondly - I have got to play a part in that - there was probably more frustration in myself on not knowing how I could impact on that. The third thing is new experiences. When I got back from a tour and went to the gym to train, there was a new experience, or a road trip for example. I got more excited about that.
What I love so much about cricket is that it gave me so many experiences, whether positive or negative, you are able to grow and develop a deeper understanding and an awareness of oneself. That is what I truly loved, and that is why I am so thankful to cricket for all those amazing experiences. I am keen now to probably have more different experiences in life so I can learn and grow in other aspects of myself. That is also what it came down to.
"I think I can be a little bit of a tree-shaker, bit of a stirrer. I know that and I am probably well known for that in New Zealand cricket, with my somewhat different opinions to most"
SJ: You played only two Tests. It looks like only England and Australia play any kind of Test match cricket. Why is that? Are there not enough players willing to play Test cricket? Or is there not enough motivation from the people administrating the sport?
NB: There are two things that pop up. One is this belief that women can't play a good brand of Test cricket. That was what was given to us early on when we were asking the question. I think that is less likely to be the case now. Later on, with the introduction of T20 and the financial component, it was more worthwhile and marketable to play a series of five T20s than one Test match. And obviously the finances to extend the tour to play one more Test match in addition to T20s was unavailable, and so that was unlikely. Those are the two excuses I have seen so far.
SJ: What are your plans for the future?
NB: Moving forward, there is a FIFA Under-20 World Cup, which is a time to be part of a different sport, which will be very neat. Come July, I will have money and no commitments. Two new feelings! The kind of early commitments that I made myself for this year is to make no commitments in these six months, in order to allow new opportunities to open up and throw myself at different people to see what opportunities open up. So after July we will wait and see.
Looking back, I think I can be a little bit of a tree-shaker, bit of a stirrer. I know that, and I am probably well known for that in New Zealand cricket with my somewhat different opinions to most. I know that in recent times I have been bit of a bee in the bonnet both in domestic and international cricket. They are probably pleased to see the back of me.
I am truly grateful for cricket. Even though I gave them a hard time about support and resources, they compare well to most sports out there. The support was actually fantastic. All through my career, there is nothing - to an extent - that they didn't give me, or make me the player that I wanted to be. During tough times and conditions, they supported me in many ways when I asked.
I am really grateful that cricket chose me. I was able to experience all the different wonders that cricket provides and learn all the lessons from the game because there are more bad days than good in the game of cricket. I am fearless going into life now - from giving up all those days with losses and failures and then having the successes. I believe I have had a very successful career. As any high-performance athlete would say, I could always have been better.
One thing I would have liked to have done better was probably to learn how to integrate into the team better, or really understand what a great team culture felt like. There are a lot of unique personalities in the game. Probably I have yet to come across a coach who is really able to mesh all those personalities together to make everyone feel like a part of the team and not be alienated in any way. I also know that my own personality can contribute to that as well. So I look back at that as something that I still would like to understand. Maybe I'll learn that lesson in another environment.