LockerRoom

Farewell to summer: in the LockerRoom with the White Ferns

The revival of women's cricket in New Zealand has been boosted by the sparkling form of the White Ferns. LockerRoom editor Suzanne McFadden was invited into the team's inner sanctum for the final match of the Kiwi summer, and discovers a team bristling with confidence as it eyes up the challenges ahead.

At the golden end of an autumn day in Hamilton, a swarm of children lean against a picket fence wielding miniature cricket bats. They wait eagerly for the line of cricketers to approach and scribble their autographs.

There would be nothing startling in this, of course, if the team were the Black Caps. That kind of adulation has been going on for a century or so. But the heroes in pink and black uniforms that the young fans are queuing for are the women of the White Ferns, who’ve just completed a series clean sweep of the Twenty20 world champions, the West Indies.

“This wouldn’t have happened one year, two years ago, without prompting,” says White Ferns captain Suzie Bates, who was even stormed by kids at Eden Park as she watched the historic Black Caps test victory over England. “You sort of pinch yourself with how far the game has come.

“It’s been the highlight of the summer; everywhere we’ve gone there have been young girls – and boys too – wanting autographs and staying around.

“I think the older you get, the more you realise that’s actually why you play the game… and you want to make sure that young girls are watching and wanting to play the game we love.”

This new phenomenon hit White Ferns wicketkeeper Katey Martin, voted player of the T20 series, when she was far removed from the cricket pitch.

Marty, as her team-mates call her, had been excused from the New Zealand camp for a day to fly to Christchurch for her best friend’s wedding. “I was sitting in the front row of the plane, waiting to put my bag up top, and this little girl had come in,” she explains. “She got all giddy and snuck into her mum’s shoulder.”

At the same time, Victoria Cross recipient Willie Apiata had just boarded the plane. “The girl said ‘Aww no, I’ll get a photo later’, and I was just assuming she meant [a photo] with him,” Martin says. But then the mother explained how much her daughter loved cricket, and it was the wicket-keeper she wanted in the frame.

“Suzie Bates is the one that gets recognised the most,” says Martin. “It’s great that hopefully we can be role models and bring the girls through; show them there is a career in cricket.”

Change had to come. Especially after Sarah Beaman’s damning Women and Cricket report came out in 2016, revealing the sorry state of the women’s game in New Zealand. It sparked New Zealand Cricket to adopt an “inclusivity policy” last August, to help tackle the sport’s under-representation of women and girls; to address problems such as participation, governance and the marketing of the women’s game.

Increased visual coverage of the game seems to be helping the cause. SKY TV’s broadcasting of the third one day international, where the White Ferns smashed the West Indies by 205 runs, attracted an average audience of 30,000 viewers. Live streaming of other games averaged 10,000 unique streams for each match.

Admittedly, the figures are nowhere near as high as a Black Caps ODI (which averages 130,000 viewers a game), and entry to White Ferns games around the country was free to draw in more spectators, particularly families. But interest in women’s cricket is undeniably blooming.

White Ferns captain Suzie Bates is in demand at Seddon Park. Photo: Suzanne McFadden

 

INSIDE THE SHEDS

A winning White Ferns team also plays a major role in boosting the game. This summer, the New Zealand women triumphed in all seven of their ODIs and T20 internationals against the touring West Indies.

At the fourth and final T20 at Seddon Park in Hamilton, LockerRoom is embedded with the team.

An hour before the game, the White Ferns are at the ground, eating, stretching and relaxing. The changing room is boxed in by murals of Northern Districts and Black Caps heroes. It’s no shock that none of them are cricketing women.

But the team bring their own special decoration to every match. Taped to a wall, where every player can see it as they walk out to the field, is a New Zealand flag - signed by almost every woman who has played for the White Ferns. The signatures go back as far as Joy Lamason, White Fern No. 18 (who died in 2012, aged 96) and progress through to the latest cap, No. 190 Kate Heffernan, the 18-year-old who made her debut in this series.

In the kitchenette, Bates and allrounder Anna Peterson - the star of the previous match, a final-ball thriller in New Plymouth - have made themselves peanut butter and banana on toast.

Hayley Jensen, who’s made a solid comeback to the team after three years out, is side-lined with a broken finger. “If it was the World Cup final, I’d be playing,” she says.

Seventeen-year-old leg-spinner Amelia Kerr is still feeling the effects of a strained hamstring. But she’s determined to be out in the middle, knowing she has to return to schoolwork at Tawa College tomorrow.

Walking in from surveying the pitch, fast bowler Lea Tahuhu gives it the thumbs up. “There’s a little bit of moisture in it,” she says.

Starting their warm-up on the field, the White Ferns juggle a soccer ball, while the West Indians are tossing around an American football. Players from both sides run in, desperate for insect repellent, under attack by a cloud of flying ants.

Former Black Caps all-rounder Jacob Oram is working with the Ferns’ bowlers. He joined the team as bowling coach during the ODI series, having worked with the team four years ago.

“It feels fantastic to be back – especially when we’re winning,” he says. “We’ve got good quality bowlers out there, and there’s still a lot of untapped potential, which is great for the future.

“Four years on, we are smarter. I’m not sure if there’s been a massive step forward in skill, but in terms of execution, the tactical nous and awareness has improved.”

Since Oram was last with the team, New Zealand’s top echelon of female cricketers have become semi-professional (and in some cases, fully) with 15 players now on retainers from NZ Cricket. Some of those players also play in the Australian and English leagues. But, in Oram’s eyes, being professional isn’t just about being paid.

“If you look at a Black Cap and a White Fern side-by-side, they’ve got the same inner drive and desire to win for their teammates, and to win for themselves. Their pride in performance is just the same.

“The whole women’s cricketing landscape has changed… it’s probably where the men were 25 years ago. Women’s cricket globally is behind, but it’s on the right path now. And it’s about time. The women deserve it; they put in as much energy and passion as the men do. And it’s nice to see some pretty good crowds, the games live on TV and streamed on the internet. We’re moving up in the world.”

The New Zealand flag signed by every living White Fern. Photo: Suzanne McFadden

 

SING WHEN YOU'RE WINNING

As the players get ready to field first on Seddon Park, they turn the TV on in the dressing room. It’s the penultimate day of the Black Caps’ first test against England. “Turn that off and watch this game,” Oram jokes. But there’s no question where their concentration lies.

West Indies opener Hayley Matthews, who played a significant role in her side’s victory at the 2016 T20 World Cup, attacks the White Ferns’ early bowling, and the visitors notch up 50 runs in the fifth over.

The New Zealanders quickly turn to spin to slow down the run-rate, and the breakthrough comes when off-spinner Leigh Kasperek – who ends up claiming the most wickets in the series – removes Matthews for 40.

New Zealand women don’t play test matches anymore. White Ferns manager Catherine Campbell, a former New Zealand captain regarded as a “cricketing treasure”, explains why there’s a global push for the shorter form.

“Our players would love to play test cricket, but we don’t feel that’s the way to get young girls to want to play cricket. It’s all about colour, and speed, and pace,” she says.

Twenty20 cricket certainly quickens the pace. Within the blink of an eye, it seems, the West Indies have finished their 20 overs on 139-5. Fifteen minutes later, the White Ferns opening batswomen Natalie Dodd and Sophie Devine are walking out to the wicket. Not a lot longer than that, and they’re both back in the pavilion.

The White Ferns are suddenly 27-3. Captain Bates is padded up but has dropped herself down the order today to give others an opportunity to bat. “The top five batting has really pleased me in this series,” says Bates, who is just 23 runs short of surpassing Debbie Hockley’s record of 4064 to become New Zealand’s all-time top scorer in women’s ODIs.

“The brand of cricket we want to play is an exciting one, and when a player like Sophie Devine comes out and whacks it at the top, you know that some of the crowd will be coming just to watch her.”

When Martin and Amy Satterthwaite meet in the middle, there’s a sense they should resurrect some order. They’ve been batting strongly all season, and a week before, they equalled the world record of 124 for a third wicket partnership. And they conquer again, this time putting on 116 runs chasing down the total required with 22 balls to spare.

Martin finishes unbeaten on 54, pushing her series average up to 60. She came in with good form from the domestic cricket season, giving coach Haidee Tiffen the faith to hand her the keeping gloves and promote her up the batting order.

“It’s nice to repay that,” says Martin, who works in IT in Christchurch when she's not playing cricket. “It’s just so enjoyable - you get to turn up here, put on your pinks and have a real good time with your mates out there.”

Back in the changing room, Tiffen gives the team a debrief before they disband for six weeks’ leave. They will tour Ireland and England in June, before heading to the T20 World Cup in the West Indies in November.

“What a way to finish a fantastic series,” Tiffen tells them. “As coaching staff, we’re really pleased with where the team is tracking. We’ve got another seven-eight months of hard work ahead of us leading into the T20 World Cup, and that’s really going to be our focus.

“We are not going to be easy-beats over there if we continue to keep learning, growing our game and getting better – not only as individuals but as a team.”

Campbell presents the revered White Cap award, given to the player deemed by her team-mates to have put in the best performance over the past 12 months. The players have chosen Devine, not only for another outstanding year with the bat, but her return to bowling form.

“It’s awesome to be standing in front of you guys with this. It means more than numbers, or anything out there,” an emotional Devine says. She would also win both the ODI and T20 player of the year at the New Zealand Cricket Awards.

Before the final celebrations in the dressing room truly begin, the entire White Ferns team walk back out into the middle in the fading light, stand in a circle around the pitch and sing their team song. We aren’t allowed to reveal the words, but it involves a lot of clapping, stamping, chanting and laughing.

It’s the song they sing when they’re winning. Long may they sing it.

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