Suzie Bates: 'I'm really aware that every opportunity now could be my last'
The New Zealand allrounder reflects on the ways in which age can be an ally of senior athletes
Age is an ally of senior athletes. Their words are accompanied by certain wisdom, which would perhaps have helped their younger selves, too. That seniority also brings a quiet cacophony - that is louder in mind than on the outside - about being one match, or series, or tournament away from the end.
Suzie Bates, the New Zealand allrounder, is the second-most capped player in women's T20Is. Only India's Harmanpreet Kaur has more appearances than Bates' 139. But the retirements of former captain Amy Satterthwaite and wicketkeeper Katey Martin last year gave Bates a reality check.
In her 17-year career, Bates has played a T20I without both Satterthwaite and Martin on only 19 occasions, 13 of them since July 2022. While Martin, 37, quit after last year's home Women's World Cup, Satterthwaite, 36, was shocked after being left out of New Zealand's central contracts list and retired.
"I'm really aware that every opportunity now could be my last, whether that's by my own choice or by someone else's," Bates tells ESPNcricinfo from Pretoria, where New Zealand played three unofficial warm-ups before the Women's T20 World Cup starting on Friday.
"I found it really difficult because I believed [Satterthwaite] was still good enough to be contracted and carry on. She's been one of the greats and someone I've played alongside and always looked up to and I felt I had to sort of sit back and watch that unfold. It gave me another wake-up call about how quickly this game can be taken away from you and I had a little bit of an experience with injury.
"But it just reminded me once again to never take the game for granted and I promised myself from that point on that if I was going to keep playing, I was going to enjoy every game and until I stopped contributing to this team and stopped enjoying it. That's when I know I've had enough, but right now I feel like I'm still doing both.
"I probably reflected on the way Amy left the game and I just wanted to make sure that I carried on and made myself proud but made those players that wish they were probably still doing what I was doing proud as well. Katey Martin is another one who's left a huge hole. There's no one quite like her. I just feel really fortunate that Sophie [Devine] and I are still able to be leaders in this group because we've played so much cricket together."
A shoulder injury followed by surgery in late 2020 kept Bates out of action for much of 2021. She was finding her way back into the New Zealand side in 2022 with a World Cup and Commonwealth Games scheduled. But it wasn't easy.
"When I first came back from my shoulder surgery, I really struggled to find any kind of form in the middle," Bates says. "I felt really good the way I was training, but just found it difficult at the middle to score runs. At that time, self-doubt crosses your mind, whether you're still good enough to play at that level. So I had to work pretty hard not only on my game physically and my technique, but also mentally to get me back performing at that level.
"After that World Cup we had some massive changes, which was hard for me to see some of my best mates leave the side. Knowing I was one of the senior players that was fortunate enough to still be playing, I probably took it upon my shoulders to be a really positive influence on the group. I know looking back, when you have those older players that are really supportive and positive, that makes a massive difference.
"It's lucky we've got such great young players and obviously Amelia Kerr is a pretty special talent. She's fun to be around and the likes of Eden Carson, who grew up in Otago. It's very easy to get around those girls and just try and help them be better players and more importantly, enjoy their cricket on and off the field."
Bates, though, turned her form around in fine fashion. She scored 662 runs in ODIs - the second-most for New Zealand in 2022 and the most she has scored in a calendar year - and 339 runs in T20Is, the second-most for New Zealand. Only twice in her career has she scored more T20I runs in a calendar year. She was part of New Zealand's bronze-medal finish at the Commonwealth Games - which she terms "one of the highlights of my White Ferns career" - and then topped the batting charts for Oval Invincibles while captaining them to their second title in the women's Hundred. She also made her presence felt in Sydney Sixers' runners-up finish in the WBBL.
What shone through was Bates' ability to accelerate and her range of shots on both sides in front of and behind the wickets. She had a strike rate of 131.30 - the most for New Zealand - at the Commonwealth Games, and her 146.83 was only second to Smriti Mandhana among the top five run-scorers in the Hundred.
"I feel like I've gone through a few different phases where I probably tried too many things and tried to bring too many shots into my game," Bates says. "You talk about accessing 360 degrees, and I was accessing behind the wicket but I felt like I lost my form hitting down the ground. Therefore, you're not really accessing 360 degrees. I went back to the basics and made sure that I'm still hitting the ball clean, up the field, and been able to stand still.
"The way the game is going if you can access behind the wicket as well [it helps]. Probably the biggest work-on for me was being able to reverse and lap and all those types of things. When conditions, though, suit hitting over the top, it's nice to be able to use the pace and bring that into my game and also manipulate the field. That's what T20 cricket has done for me. But sometimes you can play so much and lose the basics of just a front-foot drive."
"I haven't made any decisions and I promised myself that I wouldn't think about finishing until I knew that I was going to, but this could be my last World Cup; we just don't know. Wherever I play now I just feel so grateful that I'm playing in this time where society is really getting behind female athletes and every moment I feel is special because it's so new with people supporting so well"Suzie Bates
Despite making her international debut in 2006, it was only last year that Bates played a game for New Zealand in Dunedin, her hometown. She became nostalgic without wanting to place a comma or full-stop on the story just yet.
"I haven't made any decisions and I promised myself that I wouldn't think about finishing until I knew that I was going to, but this could be my last World Cup; we just don't know," she says. "The profile of the game has changed so much over my career and for people to know that the White Ferns are playing in Dunedin and come down and watch… even playing for the [Otago] Sparks there is really special. We get crowds sitting on the bank and they're really getting behind women's sport.
"Wherever I play now I just feel so grateful that I'm playing in this time where society is really getting behind female athletes and every moment I feel is special because it's so new with people supporting so well… sold out crowds at the Commonwealth Games, sold out crowds at the Hundred, it's just really exciting and with the IPL [Women's Premier League] as well. You just see that the game is going up and up and that's what makes me most proud and why I still want to be a part of it."
Bates is no stranger to franchise cricket, having played the WBBL, the Kia Super League, the Hundred and the Fairbreak Invitational. She is looking forward to the WPL, too, and attributed the various leagues for keeping her going for so long. She has also managed to keep herself fit and relevant to the changing needs of the sport. After her shoulder surgery, she switched from seam bowling to offspin and is still effective.
"Initially there was perhaps a phase when I was in my late 20s, where the New Zealand contract may not have allowed me to keep playing," she says. "But by playing franchise cricket around the world, I was able to earn an income.
"So first and foremost, it's probably kept me in the game longer than I ever thought. At my age, I'm kind of like, just do it. You're not going to be doing it forever. It is a really special time to be a female cricketer."
S Sudarshanan is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo