A $2 bet cost New Zealand cricketer Hayley Jensen six months of her career, but she’s redeemed herself on the pitch, writes Suzanne McFadden.
Hayley Jensen has one hell of a comeback story to tell. Four years after a nasty bowling injury sent her packing to Australia – and two years after a $2 bet had her banned from the game she loves – she’s back in the White Ferns.
It’s a story of love and loss, redemption and pride, and of true devotion to the game of cricket. For the past three years, Jensen has lived and played in Australia. She’s now settled in Canberra, where she’s just finished the women’s domestic cricket season with the ACT Meteors.
The thought of playing for New Zealand hadn’t really crossed her mind lately – even though it had always been her dream to return the team she was dropped from in 2014. But when the call came, Jensen was torn over whether to go or stay.
The 25-year-old, Christchurch-born Jensen has undoubtedly improved and matured her game since she’s been playing in Australia, to the point where the medium-pace bowler was one of the stars of the Melbourne Renegades in this year’s Women’s Big Bash League, Australia’s crowd-pulling razzle-dazzle Twenty20 competition. But her meteoric rise has not been without controversy.
In 2016, Jensen was forced to serve a six-month ban from all cricket.
By placing a $2 bet on her male counterparts in the first test between the Black Caps and Australia at the Gabba in November 2015, she ran foul of Cricket Australia’s anti-corruption code, which clamps down on gambling in the sport.
With a zero-tolerance approach to players betting on cricket “to maintain the integrity of the sport”, Jensen was handed a two-year ban, with the punishment eased by an 18-month suspension. But it was still brutal for Jensen, who for six months was prohibited from “participating in any form of cricket or cricket-related event”.
“It was a very tough time for me, especially mentally. I grew up playing cricket, the game that I love, then for those six months it was like it was taken away from me,” she says. “I was just left not knowing what to do. Cricket was pretty much my role; everything that I’d been doing.
“To be honest I don’t even remember placing that bet. I know it was $2. And that $2 went a very long way.
“Then all of a sudden, I got a call. A couple of other girls got the same punishment, and their bets were only $1 or $2 as well. Something so small and yet it can do so much damage.”
But there was never a time when Jensen considered turning her back on the game. “I knew what I wanted to do. It was only for a short amount of time, and I knew I would be back and hopefully better for it,” she says.
“I guess it made me more hungry. The season after that I won a lot of awards, so it had obviously made me a little better! But certainly going through it was really, really tough, and it made me tougher as a person.”
That resilience and resolve has reflected in her return to the pitch. She stamped her name at the end of last year during the Women’s Ashes tour, where, playing for the ACT Invitational XI, she took five wickets for 26 against the Australian women’s team.
Jensen was first chosen to play for New Zealand in early 2014, making her debut against the West Indies at Lincoln University, before jetting off to the T20 World Cup in Bangladesh, and then to the West Indies.
On her way home, Jensen stopped off in Melbourne to stay with family. “It was really close to the start of the New Zealand domestic season, so I was asked if I could play a couple of club games over here to keep my eye in.” The Melbourne Cricket Club took her in.
“Playing in Australia has made me a better player, because of the huge resources they have here.”
Soon after she returned home to Christchurch, she suffered a season-ending injury – tearing an oblique muscle, that runs between the hip and the rib cage. Commonly suffered by bowlers, the painful injury is known in cricketing terms by the more watered-down term of “side strain”.
“From that injury, I didn’t get picked for the White Ferns for the next series,” she says, “so I decided to finish the club season off in Australia.” She hasn’t returned since.
Jensen immediately made her presence felt, becoming the first woman to ever score a century for the Melbourne Cricket Club.
This season, she moved to Canberra, following her partner Nicola Hancock, a former Australian A player who was already with the ACT Meteors. Jensen has enjoyed her season there – few of the players are from Canberra, so they’ve had to knit together as a team.
“Playing in Australia has made me a better player, because of the huge resources they have here,” she says. “I’ve had full-time coaches, played and trained on the MCG under lights, played on TV in the Big Bash series, up against the best players in the world. So many things I’ve had the opportunity to do here that I wouldn’t have had if I’d stayed in New Zealand.”
Not that she’d turned her back on her home nation. She always held on to the hope of playing for the White Ferns again.
But she admits her selection for next month’s five-match T20 international series against the world champion West Indies in New Zealand, “kind of came out of the blue”.
Playing in the Melbourne Renegades alongside two of the Ferns’ top players – Lea Tahuhu and Amy Satterthwaite – “probably made the coach watch our games a little more”, she reckons. During the season, White Ferns coach Haidee Tiffen phoned her to scope out if she was interested in playing for New Zealand again.
But Jensen didn’t have a clear-cut answer. “I wasn’t really sure how to feel about it,” she says, knowing she would lose her status as an Australian local player in both the Big Bash and the national cricket leagues – meaning next season she would have to battle for one of the few places given to international players.
“I spoke to Nic straight away, rang my family and friends, and [Tiffen] rang New Zealand Cricket trying to figure it out. Four weeks ago she came back and said ‘I can pick you if you want to play’,” Jensen says.
But there was another quandary she faced. Money. “If I chose to stay [in Australia] I would be benefitting financially. I literally have a casual job here, that I can pick or choose when I want to go to. I could live off playing the Big Bash and state cricket over here,” she says.
Back in New Zealand, Jensen would receive match fees for her international appearances, but would have to wait until July to see if she received a New Zealand Cricket contract. The top 15 women’s players are signed up each year, and are paid between $20,000 and $34,000.
But in the end, Jensen went with her heart. “I’m going to New Zealand to fulfil my dream. As a kid I dreamed of playing for New Zealand, money or no money, and so that’s what I chose,” she says. “I’m glad that weight is off my shoulders and I can go back to enjoying my game.”
Jensen hopes she will bring versatility to the Ferns side through her seasoned bowling. “Now I have the experience of playing so much T20 cricket, I feel like I can bowl heaps of different scenarios,” she says. “I used to just run in and bowl, but now I know what I’m going to do with each ball, and why.”
So from the knowledge and experience she’s gleaned from the Aussies, what does she think New Zealand Cricket can do to improve the game for women here, and entice more girls to play?
“I think it’s just promotion, promotion, promotion,” she answers. “Some families don’t even know women play cricket for their country, let alone the kids. On TV, in the papers, where girls go to schools – it’s all about spreading the word. Let everyone know that women play cricket too.”