New action, lighter load, and a bit of Australian Ballet: Tayla Vlaeminck's comeback journey

Having been out of action for 18 months, the quick wants to take a leaf out of Pat Cummins' book as she gets back to competitive cricket

Valkerie Baynes
Valkerie Baynes
Tayla Vlaeminck celebrates a wicket, Australia vs India, Women's T20I tri-series final, Melbourne, February 12, 2020

Tayla Vlaeminck has been out of action for a while, but is slowly making her way back  •  Getty Images

There was a time when just walking 200 metres to grab a coffee without needing crutches or a lift home in the car was the biggest achievement in Tayla Vlaeminck's bid to play for Australia again.
Vlaeminck was one of the fastest bowlers in the women's game before suffering a recurrence of a stress fracture in the navicular bone of her foot, which kept her out of two T20 World Cups either side of the ODI edition in 2022. She made the last of her 24 appearances for Australia during the 2022 Women's Ashes, 18 months to the day before she played for Australia A last Wednesday as part of their T20 series against England A running alongside the current Women's Ashes Test. Vlaeminck picked up the wicket of opener Bryony Smith as England A won by 74 runs at Loughborough.
"It was so much fun getting out there," Vlaeminck said at Trent Bridge after stopping by to see her senior team-mates locked in battle with England. "It's been a while in the making… it was an lbw and I almost lost my voice I shouted that loudly. I don't know that the umpire had a choice, to be honest. The girls got around me and I suppose it makes it all worth it in those nice moments."
Making it all worth seemed a long way off, even when she progressed from that short coffee errand to a ten-minute walk listening to a podcast. Or when she spent four months working with the Australian Ballet, just a stone's throw from the MCG which Vlaeminck credits with playing a crucial role in helping her back to cricket.
"It's one of the key reasons I'm back," she said. "It was awesome because building calf strengthening stuff is literally their gym, so for me to go in there not talk cricket, not even have to talk to people about where I'm at or even see it at all, it was really refreshing. It took away the fact that I was doing rehab and just felt like I was training with another person. I walked in first day and some of the stuff I was like, 'oh, this will be so easy,' and I'd get two reps in and I'd be sweating and shaking. They were incredible. They just let me come in whenever I wanted, they dropped everything for me basically, so I definitely wouldn't be back playing without them."
Vlaeminck has also worked closely with Cricket Australia and Cricket Victoria, remodelling her action to try and prevent a recurrence of the injury.
"I've made a few technical changes that we identified as probably a reason why my foot kept going on me," she said. "That took a while to get the hang of. I was probably in the indoor nets at Junction [Oval] for maybe three or four months, just literally walking to the crease, and relearning that pattern I'd done for so long.
"I still feel like I've only probably bowled at 100% a handful of times. And going into a game is completely different to the nets, so I think it'll take me a little bit. But everyone's been so supportive of me, no one is forcing me or putting pressure on me to perform straight away, so I feel like I've got a bit of freedom and a bit of time to get back into it.
"It was just some feet alignment stuff. My arms and legs kind of go everywhere when I bowl so I was going into some real weird positions which my body obviously couldn't handle. I was just trying to straighten a few things up and just make my action a bit more efficient and hopefully that'll keep me on the field longer this time."
"I'm a shocker for if I get the ball in my hand in the nets it was like, 120% or nothing. The last 18 months have been a steep learning curve, I actually just can't do that if I want to play cricket and play regularly."
Tayla Vlaeminck
Vlaeminck also needed to change her attitude towards training. While her all-or-nothing approach was laudable in an elite athlete, it's unsustainable for a body that has also endured two knee reconstructions, a dislocated shoulder and a partial anterior cruciate ligament strain.
"I won't go crazy on the games and just have some more rest time and more games off," Vlaeminck explained. "We've changed my training a little bit as well, less intense overs at training. I'm a shocker for if I get the ball in my hand in the nets it was like, 120% or nothing. The last 18 months have been a steep learning curve, I actually just can't do that if I want to play cricket and play regularly. So just those little things - making sure I keep them going now that I'm actually back playing is going to be hard but something that I'll have to get my head around."
She sat out the second T20, which England A won by five wickets but was expected to feature again in Sunday's series decider as her comeback is carefully managed. But the Test being played simultaneously remains a good way down the comeback trail, with the 24-year-old Vlaeminck saying, "If I could get a T20 game for Australia, if I could even get back in the squad, that'd be incredible".
There are precedents for such a revival, however, if Vlaeminck wants to add to her one Test appearance, in the 2019 Ashes. Australia men's captain Pat Cummins was a gifted teenager with a fierce bouncer who had to overcome heel and back stress fractures to go on and play 51 Tests and counting.
"I see what he's done and I think that's pretty cool," Vlaeminck said. "And the same thing happens to a lot of young athletes in lots of sports, right? People come in, they have two or three years where they just get one thing after the other and then all of a sudden something happens and you're fine. It's cool to be able to see that and see that other people have found a way out but I suppose when you're actually in it, it doesn't necessarily always feel like that's going to be the case.
"While what Pat's done is incredible and hopefully I can do the same thing, I'm also not Patty and so it's hard to be able to be like, 'I'll be sweet from now on and I'll play 50 Tests'. But it does give you that little growing sense that once you start to mature in your body a bit more your bones hopefully harden up a little bit then yeah, but there's a lot of cricket to go."
Such is Cricket Australia's faith in Vlaeminck's talent and potential that they renewed her national contract with no expectations attached as to when she would play for her country again.
Shawn Flegler, Cricket Australia's Female High Performance and Talent Manager, described Vlaeminck's return in the Australia A game as a "massive relief" especially as her injury was such a rare one, giving medical and coaching staff little by way of a blueprint for her rehabilitation programme.
"There's not many in the world who bowl 120-plus," Flegler says. "You have to be patient, you always have to be with fast bowlers, but even more so with those who bowl 120-plus. We made that commitment a couple of years ago. She has something special, let's hang in there. I know she is really grateful for it, but she is the type of person you want to see do well because she is committed to being the best she can be, on and off the pitch. I have no regrets about offering her a contract.
"The good thing now is she understands she doesn't have to bowl at 100% all the time. When she used to train, it was 100% from ball one in training, 100% in the game. Now she is learning how to control that a bit. Being 90% is good enough to get wickets and at training being at 70%, you can still improve your action. And then you can still go to 100% now and then. It's just her understanding, being a fast bowler and learning her craft. I think she will get back to 100% again."

Valkerie Baynes is a general editor, women's cricket, at ESPNcricinfo