Devine out to stage Big Bash finals intervention
Women's Big Bash League player of the year Sophie Devine isn't ready to reflect on her staggering feats just yet.
Sophie Devine insists she doesn’t look at the numbers. Not yet, anyway. Not when there is still work to be done, in the form of a knockout WBBL semifinal on Saturday and, fingers crossed, a final to follow on Sunday.
When the Adelaide Strikers’ campaign is done, the biggest basher in the women’s Big Bash might allow herself a peek at the stats and a smidgen of satisfaction. But it will a fleeting indulgence. Because, as one of the most sought-after talents on the global T20 circuit and a mainstay of the White Ferns, Devine’s packed schedule doesn’t exactly allow much time for reflection.
At the completion of this weekend's finals showdown at Brisbane's Allan Border Field, the six-swatting all-rounder will be straight back home to New Zealand to help marshal Wellington’s Super Smash title defence.
After that domestic campaign, she will play a series for the White Ferns against South Africa, which will serve as preparation for March’s T20 World Cup in Australia. Hard on the heels of that comes a tour of Sri Lanka to wrap up the Ferns’ qualifying campaign for the ODI World Cup, which New Zealand is hosting in early 2021.
After a short break following the Sri Lanka tour, Devine will head to England for the inaugural season of the 100-ball competition (the first time in world cricket a nation has launched women’s and men’s competitions in parallel).
Then, after the English summer, Devine will be back in her White Ferns clobber for a September series against Australia that will mark the start of preparations for the ODI World Cup.
“Even five or 10 years ago, I could not have imagined that we would be playing cricket 12 months of the year,” she says of a personal schedule that demonstrates just how far and how fast women’s cricket has progressed towards full-time professionalism in recent years.
“We always wanted that to be the case – like the men’s programme,” she says. “You just want to be playing more and more cricket.
“I feel very privileged and honoured to be able to travel the world as a full-time female cricketer. It's what I wanted to do growing up. And to be able to live and breathe it now, I guess makes the hard days, when you're not performing or spending time away from family and friends [easier]. At the end of the day, it's a pretty good job to have.”
Devine is in demand for a reason. Her exploits in the WBBL have been nothing short of staggering - resulting in her being named the competition’s player of the year on Tuesday.
Her 28 sixes in 14 games – including a remarkable five in consecutive deliveries to close out an innings against the Melbourne Stars – are the most by a player, male or female, in a Big Bash campaign. She topped the competition’s run-scoring charts with 699 at an average of 77.76, and also took the sixth most wickets (16) for good measure.
“I guess it has been a pretty pleasing season so far,” she says, proving understatement is another talent she has mastered.
“But the season isn’t done yet and I certainly hope I have got another two games to play. I’ve said this throughout the whole campaign – as long as I'm helping us win, getting the team in winning positions, then I know I'm doing my job. Numbers and stats are things that you reflect on once you're done.”
At 30, Devine is clearly an athlete at the peak of her powers – but that doesn’t mean she can rest easy. Not in a sport experiencing such a rapid ascent.
“The great thing about cricket, the unique part of the sport, is that it never stops,” she says. “If you do, then you're in danger of being overtaken. It doesn’t take long until there are new shots, new skills required to keep up with the world’s best. And that is certainly something that's a challenge to myself, to keep developing as a player and bringing in new skills to keep me ahead of the game.
“The Big Bash has been a great show of that. The skills continue to get better and better each year. If you stand still, you're gone and forgotten about. It’s great. It keeps challenging you and makes the competition better.”
As for that remarkable feat of hitting off the unfortunate spinner Maddy Penna, Devine admits it came out of the blue on a day when she was struggling to time the ball.
“Throughout that whole innings, I felt shoddy as hell. I was struggling. It was certainly not as fluid as I would have liked. That’s where cricket is such a funny game. The last five balls I finally managed to get hold of a few and they sailed over the rope," she says.
“Cricket is a pretty fickle game sometimes.”
As any highlight reel of her exploits demonstrates, Devine’s blasts typically don’t just clear boundary ropes brought in to aid run scoring in the women’s game – but often enough exit the stadium.
She’s not sure what her longest hit would be, but at the World Cup seven years ago she did have a six measured at 88m. To put that in perspective, that strike would have landed deep in the stands at Eden Park – and even cleared the straight boundary at the gargantuan Melbourne Cricket Ground by five metres.
“That power hitting side of things is certainly on the up in the women’s game. It isn’t just me now, there are a whole heap of females clearing the rope and they are clearing it by some distance. That’s really exciting for me. I’ve always been told females can’t hit the ball hard. That is certainly changing.”
It is. Devine, however, remains some distance ahead of the pack when it comes to the long ball.
The closest player to her on the WBBL sixes chart was Lizelle Lee, who managed 19 maximums. Alyssa Healy was another spot back with 18.
A touch surprisingly, Devine hasn’t felt in total control of her game of late. Her glut of boundaries, which also includes 59 fours, was primarily a reflection of her ability to spend time at the wicket. Not overly thrilled with her fluidity, she's nonetheless pleased she had “managed to guts it out and play some not very pretty cricket” to get the job done.
“I’m aggressive and I want to clear the rope and put the bowler under pressure. If I’m hitting lots of boundaries, it must mean I’m hanging around long enough to do it consistently. But it is not like I set out to top the charts.
“I get a bit of stick, with people saying it's because I’m too lazy and I don’t like running!”
Smacking the ball to all parts in a Strikers uniform is all well and good, but it is with the White Ferns that Devine feels she has unfinished business. Winning a World Cup remains firmly top of her to-do list.
“That is something we want to get right because we know we have the talent to match it with the best teams in the world. Putting it on the park and doing it under the pressure of a World Cup is the ultimate carrot for me.”
Her other primary driver these days is to contribute to lifting the quality of the women’s game across the board.
“The great thing about the women’s game is that we want everyone to keep getting better,” she says.
Mentoring a young player in Wellington or helping an emerging English talent hone their skills is every bit as rewarding as setting six-hitting records, she insists.
New Zealand’s hosting of the 2021 World Cup looms large, both in terms of an opportunity for the current crop of stars to fulfil their potential, and the chance to inspire a new generation – just as the nation’s victory in the 2000 final did.
“I think I skipped school to watch the final,” Devine says. “I remember the effect it had on cricketers - male and female - when they won, how huge that was. It was one of the first times I saw females play, and even knew that we had a national women’s team.”
Much has changed since that event, which saw the teams accommodated in university dorms in Lincoln, with all the matches played at the same ground in rural Canterbury and only the final televised.
The move to play women’s matches at quality first-class venues has had a dramatic impact on the game, says Devine.
“I don’t think people understand the effect that that has had. I remember when we used to play out at dungy old club grounds and we’d be scoring 150 and people would say ‘oh it is so boring’. Well, put us on a great wicket with a quick outfield and you’ll see things change – and that's what is starting to happen now.”
Devine has watched on approvingly from across the ditch as batting records have tumbled in the Hallyburton Johnstone Shield, such as Jess Watkins’ 158 off 124 balls for CD against Wellington, and Frankie Mackay carrying her bat for the entire innings while scoring a century for Canterbury against Auckland.
Better training facilities, access to gyms and players having the time to work on their game are all factors having a huge effect, says Devine.
“The contracting system has been a real bonus in terms of giving those domestic players a little bit of a financial incentive to be involved and work on their games. So the women’s game is certainly heading in the right direction.”
Amid all the change, though, one thing remains constant. When conversation turns to the purest power hitter in women’s cricket, there is really only one name in the discussion.
* Sky Sport will show the WBBL semifinals live on Sky Sport 2 on Saturday, at 1pm and 4.40pm; and the final on Sunday at 4.30pm.