Cricket

The accidental White Fern and her many broken digits

White Fern offspinner Leigh Kasperek is quietly becoming known as one of the world's best spin bowlers, even though she keeps breaking the tools of her trade. 

You could call Leigh Kasperek an accidental international cricketer; then again you could change her nickname from ‘Kasper’ to ‘Fingers’.

What you can’t deny is her place in the White Ferns squad preparing for the T20 World Cup in Australia later this month.

There’s a divide within the group, not uncommon in team sports at top level.

First you have the star performers, the global household names in women’s cricket, including new captain Sophie Devine, Suzie Bates, the temporarily absent new mother Amy Satterthwaite, her partner Lea Tahuhu – who is arguably the fastest bowler in the women’s game – and teenage prodigy Amelia Kerr.

Then there are the steady contributors, who play important roles, such as Kasperek, Katie Perkins and Katey Martin.

Kasperek, born and raised in Edinburgh, arrived in New Zealand with no intention or expectation of playing for the White Ferns. It sounds like a case of the cricket came out of the travel, rather than vice versa. She was frankly surprised when she got the call up before a tour to India in mid-2015.

Since then she’s always been picked for the White Ferns, and was a stand-out bowler in their nine-wicket T20 victory over South Africa on Sunday. But she hasn’t always been able to make the field.

And that’s where Kasperek’s fingers come into the story.

She’s had a staggering run of injuries to that one part of her body. But as the off-spinning all-rounder succinctly puts it: “You can’t play with fingers pointing at different angles.

“I’ve missed quite a lot of tours through breaking fingers. I haven’t missed out on selection but have had to make myself unavailable.”

It’s worth pointing out, she’s never had injury problems to any other part of her body.

 Leigh Kasperek delivers her trademark offspin to India in an ODI in Napier last year. Photo: Getty Images.

Consider this small taste of her fickle fingers story: She set off to tour South Africa in late 2016 and on day one broke her bowling finger and headed home. She then missed the subsequent home series against Pakistan.

She made it back for domestic cricket and went to Australia for a series – and broke the left pinky finger in the warm-up before the first game.

So the sum total of her broken fingers is: left and right little fingers, her middle left, the index finger on her right hand, and a broken right thumb. On two occasions the breaks came as she completed a catch.

“I’ve got really small hands and there’s a constant fear you’re only one catch away,” she says. “I always joke I want to be a wicketkeeper.”

Kasperek’s 33 ODIs have produced 51 wickets at 20.7; in T20s, she’s taken 58 wickets in 34 games at 12.93. In one of her most memorable performances, she bagged 4-7 against Australia in the 2016 World T20 tournament. They're all impressive figures. 

Her start in cricket was unusual.

At her primary school, South Morningside, they needed a girl to make up the XI. It had to be a mixed team, so it became Kasperek plus 10 boys.

“I just enjoyed being out there with the boys and being in a team sport. I played lots of other sports, but they were individual,” she says. Cricket was well down her sporting pecking order at that stage.

“Tennis was my main sport; I had a good arm and hand-eye coordination.

“I didn’t know anything about cricket. They just needed a girl for cricket and I got dragged in. There was no particular pull to cricket and no family connection. It almost happened by chance.”

"Tactically she’s one of the smartest cricketers I’ve come across," Wellington Blaze coach Ivan Tissera

An Edinburgh council sports programme for public school children led to meeting the-then Scottish men’s captain Gordon Drummond.

“He was a really good guy. He oversaw the programme and took me onto the squash court and taught me how to bat properly,” she says.

(Drummond likely took special pride in Kasperek’s only ODI century, 113, batting at No. 3 and sharing a 295-run stand with double centurion Kerr against Ireland in 2018.)

Kasperek racked up 53 internationals for Scotland. It was fun, but not something you could make a career out of.

A trip to Perth (the Australian one, not Scotland) was crucial. Kasperek, then 19, realised cricket could take a player around the world. The travel was the big appeal.

Her links with Western Australia led to an entrée to Wellington. The timing was good.

Cue Kasperek, the Tourism New Zealand promoter: “I just fell in love with New Zealand and the people and everything about it. That’s why I stayed.”

After one season with Wellington she switched to Otago, where she’s been until this season when she returned to join the White Ferns-laden Wellington side.

So how was life in Dunedin, the Edinburgh of the south, for someone born and raised in Edinburgh?

“Other than the street names I didn’t quite get it at all. But the people are very similar. And it’s cool how everybody had a Scottish connection,” Kasperek says.

Her wicket-taking ability, parsimony with the ball and ability to be an effective lower-order batswoman caught national selection eyes and in mid-2015 she was in.

First she had to sit out three years to be eligible for the White Ferns. Then she made an interesting personal discovery. While she enjoyed going home to visit family and friends there was a snag.

“I missed being in New Zealand. I just felt happier here,” she says.

Leigh Kasperek (far right) celebrates a wicket with the White Ferns - a team she never expected to play for. Photo: Getty Images. 

There are no sporting genes as such. Her parents Charlie and Suzan played golf and badminton. She has an older sister, Kim, who has no cricket interest.

Kasperek doesn’t necessarily spin the ball large distances but she is clever with flight, angles and pace, keeping the batters thinking.

So how about a spot of self-assessment?

She admits she’s not the most talented cricketer about, but enjoys being in pressure situations, working out field settings and would like to think her peers rate her a good team person.

They do. At their recent awards night, having won the Dream 11 Super Smash T20 title, Kasperek was named top for contribution to teamwork, one of Wellington’s four cornerstone principles along with passion, commitment and excellence.

“That’s pretty cool. It’s nice hearing good things because you want to try and make a good impact.”

Successful Wellington Blaze coach Ivan Tissera is a big fan, not only of Kasperek the player, but also Kasperek the person.

“She always likes to help players. That’s one of the key things about her,” he says.

“We’ve got a young off-spinner coming through, Xara Jetly. Leigh’s taken her under her wing. She’s really good like that.

“And tactically she’s one of the smartest cricketers I’ve come across.”

The last two world tournaments haven’t gone well for the White Ferns.

They were disappointing at the World Cup in England in 2017, while the schedule for the T20 version in the Caribbean late in 2018 meant New Zealand had to beat either India or Australia to advance. They didn’t.

“I don’t think our preparation was particularly good on either occasion, but we didn’t play well enough,” Kasperek says.

So there have been plenty of lessons.

The White Ferns are now in a T20 series of five games against South Africa as lead-in to the T20 World Cup (which starts, by happy personal coincidence for Kasperek, in Perth on February 22).

After being decisively second-best in the ODI series last week, it was time for the White Ferns to make a statement. And they did so in game one in Mt Maunganui on Sunday, with Kasperek and Kerr spearheading the bowling, both finishing with figures of 2-17 off four overs. The next game is in Hamilton on Thursday.

Softly-spoken Kasperek is still pondering what life after cricket will look like. She turns 28 next week and will keep going as long as she feels she’s an asset and still wanted in the national team.

Off the field, that’s another question requiring more thought.

“I know I want to help people, but I’m trying to work out how best to do that. I’ve had so many ideas of things I want to do but I think I’m leading towards fire fighting,” she says.

“I’ve thought of social work, being an army medic. I’m probably not someone who is going to sit down and study for hours.”

When she was younger, there was never something that she really wanted to do. “That’s probably the reason I went off to travel for a bit.”

Wanting to find yourself, as the old cliché goes?

“I didn’t find myself,” she laughs. “I’m still searching for whatever it is I’m going to do.”

But in terms of living in the now, her life is pretty good.

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