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White Ferns coach targets World Cup redemption

One of the only women coaching international cricket, Haidee Tiffen has her sights fixed on a long-awaited World Cup victory for the White Ferns - but not without a little song and dance, as Suzanne McFadden reports.

The bond between Haidee Tiffen and Suzie Bates began nearly a decade ago in the middle of an inner-city Sydney park, over a couple of Beyoncé songs and a record-tumbling partnership.

At one end of the Drummoyne Oval pitch, Tiffen was about to call time on her playing career. One of the great all-rounders in New Zealand cricket, she was captaining the White Ferns in a crunch semi-final match against Pakistan at the 2009 World Cup.

Suzie Bates was 21 and at her first World Cup. She’d just played basketball at the Beijing Olympics, and was touted for great things in cricket.

What unfolded that day lives on in the sport’s folklore. Bates smashed an incredible 168 runs off 105 balls, while Tiffen scored her first – and only – century in a career spanning 117 one day internationals. Together for 36 overs, they built a 262-run partnership which still endures as a New Zealand record for any wicket stand.

“Suzie and I balanced each other well. She played more of the power game, and I fed her the strike,” Tiffen says.

Between overs they would meet in the middle, and talk about anything other than cricket. Bates sang a few songs; Beyoncé hits, as Tiffen recalls.

“Haidee kept me pretty chilled in the middle,” Bates says. “We kept things fun and had a laugh. We did a lot of running too. Haidee led by example in fitness while she was captain – she was always top of the group, which drove me to train harder.”

The White Ferns lost the 2009 World Cup final to England and, soon after, Tiffen laid down her bat at the age of 29. Some say prematurely.

Bates has continued to grow in strength and esteem; she’s now the White Ferns captain, and arguably the best female cricketer in the world. Tiffen, now the White Ferns coach, wants to lead Bates and her team-mates to a world title by the end of this year.

Haidee Tiffen and Suzie Bates meet in the middle after setting a record Women's ODI 2nd wicket partnership of 262 in Sydney in 2009. Photo: Getty Images

As Tiffen takes her team on tour to England and Ireland this week, a precursor to the T20 World Cup in November, she muses over how she and Bates still enjoy working closely together.

“Suze likes having fun; she’ll be the first to get up and dance in the changing room,” says Tiffen, 38, who’s not afraid to join her. “That’s something we share, Suzie and I – we try not to take ourselves too seriously.” Well, not until it comes down to the business of winning international cricket matches.

“As a coach, Haidee has similar traits to those I remember from her captaincy,” Bates says. “She always keeps things positive and builds belief and confidence in the group, and she’s very passionate about encouraging people to get more out of themselves on and off the field.”

Tiffen is what you’d call a player’s coach. She’s seen as a great communicator and a master at managing relationships with her players - as focused on the wellbeing of the person as she is the performance of the player.

She also has a strong grasp of the technical intricacies of the game and how women’s cricket ticks. When she warms up with the players in the field before a game, she looks as though she could comfortably pad up and stride out to the wicket again.

“It feels like this team is part of my DNA, ' she said when she was appointed to the job in April 2015.

But when the White Ferns were shockingly eliminated at the group stage of last year’s World Cup in England – failing to reach the top four for the first time - Tiffen had to take a hard look at whether she was cut out to continue as coach.

“It was a pretty low changing room; everyone was in shock because we honestly believed we could have done well. That’s the worst part of the job – when everyone is absolutely gutted, and you don’t know what to say,” she recalls.

“You always question whether to carry on. But I was determined to turn this around.”

She has a chance in November, at the Twenty20 World Cup in the West Indies – where she’s confident the world No. 3 White Ferns won’t capitulate under pressure again. She's buoyed by New Zealand's top order finding dazzling form through a series whitewash over T20 world champions the West Indies this summer.

Until a fortnight ago, Tiffen was the only female head coach among the world’s top 10 women’s cricketing nations. She’s since been joined by former Indian wicket-keeper Anju Jain, now coach of Bangladesh.

“I would love to see more women in the system,” Tiffen says. “It’s a goal of NZ Cricket, and other countries around the world, to really promote female coaches.

“The knowledge and experience you take from actually having been out in the middle is invaluable. You understand the emotional and psychological situations that most of the players go through.”

She knows her assistant coaches, former Black Caps Matt Bell and Jacob Oram, understand the player psyche too, but also believes there are peculiarities between the women’s and men’s games.

“I don’t want to dumb us down, but there is a difference to the physical side of women’s cricket. Some tactics and rules are slightly different too,” says Tiffen, who coached schoolboy cricket while she was still playing.

Tiffen was considered relatively young when she ended her playing career after a decade with the White Ferns, but it’s a decision she has never regretted. “It allowed me to look at other areas of my life that are important to me, and cricket is just one of them,” she says.

Tiffen wanted to concentrate on her job as a teacher at Christchurch’s Hillmorton High School, and spend more time with her family and her partner, Tracey Mortensen – a clinical nutritionist who’d played cricket for Auckland. She learned to play the guitar, and did her coaching qualifications, knowing she could still do more for cricket. 

"I’m incredibly privileged and honoured to wear the White Fern again. I know it’s not forever, so I want to treasure every moment."

- White Ferns coach Haidee Tiffen

But 18 months after Tiffen had settled in, her life was rattled by the Christchurch earthquakes. She was at school swimming sports during the devastating 6.2 quake in February 2011, and was knocked to the ground.

Her home in Avonside was in the red zone, and was eventually demolished. “We were fortunate that it was clear cut, but it was horrible. We know now we were some of the lucky ones. I really feel for the people who are still working through the process, seven years later,” she says.

“But out of the trauma and tragedy came so many positive things. We moved to Auckland, and I absolutely loved it.” 

She taught at two high schools, coached the Auckland Hearts women’s cricket side, and toured with the White Ferns as an assistant coach.

When Tiffen and Mortensen moved back to Christchurch, the job of head coach of the White Ferns came up. The timing was perfect. “I was ready to transition out of teaching and challenge myself in other ways,” Tiffen says.

“It’s been awesome. As women’s cricket has grown globally and NZ Cricket continue to move forward positively in regards to women in cricket, it’s great to see how quickly it’s evolving. It’s a great time to be involved in the game, and I believe more women will become involved in many different ways.”

Her short-term goal is to see the White Ferns win a World Cup. “It’s the ultimate for any cricketer,” she says, having played in New Zealand’s only World Cup victory in 2000.

“Everyone is really committed to achieving that. We have three opportunities in the next four years – the T20 World Cup this November and again in February 2020 in Australia, before New Zealand hosts the 50 overs World Cup in 2021. We’d really love to bring all of those trophies home.”

But Tiffen’s vision for the White Ferns goes well beyond amassing silverware.  

“It’s about winning fans, and getting girls to pick up bats, wanting cricket to be the No. 1 sport for females in New Zealand,” she says. “It’s part of our responsibility to make sure the White Ferns are playing a brand of cricket that’s exciting. In 2021, I want to see men in the crowds wearing the White Ferns’ magenta pink tops. That would be success.”

Tiffen is also set on making role models of her players. Her’s was the legendary White Fern Debbie Hockley, now president of NZ Cricket. Tiffen was still at Timaru Girls High School playing in Christchurch’s premier women’s club competition, when Hockley once lent Tiffen her helmet.

There’s a four-year-old girl in Queenstown who sent the White Ferns a picture she’d drawn, asking the team to play a match in her town. “Young girls like her are one of the reasons we play and why we want to perform well for the people of New Zealand,” Tiffen says.

Tiffen now lives in the new North Canterbury town of Pegasus, with Mortensen and their two chocolate Labradors, Happy and Whittaker.

She will be away from home for the next six-and-a-half weeks, as the White Ferns play a T20 and three one-dayers in Ireland, before a tri-series with England and South Africa, and three one-dayers against the English before returning home. “That’s a lot of cricket,” she says. “We’re very much focused on this tour, but the ultimate goal is the World Cup.”

The team will meet up with Bates in England. The player of the match in last week’s first IPL women’s exhibition game in India, the captain has returned to the English county Hampshire for another season, where she will also lead the Southern Vipers in the Kia Super League.

Says Tiffen: “There’s a really exciting feel about the women’s game around the world. Three of our players were in the IPL exhibition match; we have players in the Big Bash League and the Super League. It’s a wonderful time to be involved in the game.

“I feel I’m incredibly privileged and honoured to wear the White Fern again. I know it’s not forever, so I want to treasure every moment I have in the role.”

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