GGeorge Orwell wrote that all animals were equal but some were more equal than others. The same applies to athletes. Some of them have an almost unearthly ability to turn their hand to whichever sport they fancy. Just ask anyone who watched Ash Barty – the women’s world No1 tennis player who has retired as the reigning Wimbledon and Australian Open champion – turn a cricket whim into a full-time contract with the Brisbane Heat in 2015.
What started as a conversation at an awards dinner for Australia’s women – during which a teenage Barty spoke about the pressures of being on the international sport hamster wheel – turned into a spell that reignited her fledgling tennis career and changed the way that Queensland Cricket prepared its players. She did not know it at the time but Barty was embarking on a journey that would change her life.
Perhaps the greatest indication of her talent came not on the court or at the wicket, but on the golf course. “Ella She was watching a golf tournament on TV,” says Dave Richards, Barty’s former coach at Queensland Cricket. “She ella turned around and said: ‘I reckon I could have a go at that.’ She went out the following day and shot a round of 81. Eighty-one! That was the first time she had ever picked up a set of clubs. It gives you an idea of the kind of talent we were dealing with.”
Barty could have turned her hand to pretty much anything. Luckily for the Brisbane Heat, cricket appealed to her. “She’s very team-oriented and when she came in it was really like she was crying out for this team environment,” says Scott Prestwidge, assistant coach at the Heat. “She loved it. Any team meetings, team dinners, she was the first one there. She really embraced it. It also helped her when she went back into tennis. She knew she was a bit jaded, a bit burned out by the tennis and she needed freshening up.”
After announcing an indefinite break from tennis in September 2014, Barty wanted a new challenge and a chance to be involved in the kind of locker room that was unavailable to her in tennis. “It is tough when you’re by yourself and that’s why team sport is so appealing,” said Barty before her debut in the Big Bash. “There’s never a lonesome moment on the field if you’re struggling. There’s 10 other girls on the field who can help you out and get you through the tough times.”
It wasn’t as if things were going against her on the court. In 2013, Barty had reached double finals at the Australian Open, US Open and Wimbledon. The latter was a venue the Aussie teenager knew well, having won the tournament’s junior title as a 15-year-old in 2011. She had also become the youngest Australian to be selected for the country’s Fed Cup team since Jelena Dokic and she had won her first grand slam matches at Flushing Meadow and Roland Garros. Switching codes was a big call and not one that benefited her financially. She had earned $600,000 on the WTA circuit in 2013, whereas a contract with the Heat was worth about $10,000.
After an initial conversation, Richards and Barty set up a net session. Armed with 150 balls and a bowling machine, Richards went to work. What happened next has stayed with him ever since. “It was extraordinary,” he says. “She had told me she had played a little bit of backyard cricket growing up and the odd game for her school from Ella, so I wasn’t expecting too much. But she must have played and missed less than five times, if at all, throughout that session. I’ve been coaching cricket for a long, long time and I genuinely don’t think I had been as excited watching someone play, essentially for the first time. She was playing booming great off drives and, by the time we’d finished, she was trying to clear her front leg and hit it further and further. Cross hand to straight bat in 150 balls was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen.”
Reluctant to push her into making any hasty decisions, he told her to go away and have a think about whether she would be interested in joining the Heat squad in a season that would see many female Australian cricketers move from the semi-professional ranks to becoming full-time pros.
For that reason alone, having Barty around was invaluable. Her performances on the field also showed just how quickly she was learning, not least in her first T20 match for Western Suburbs in the Brisbane Women’s Premier competition, when she top-scored with 63 off just 60 balls. Barty then took 2-13 off four overs. A few weeks later she smashed her first century off just 52 balls.
Katherine Raymont, the former Australia international, was Barty’s coach at Western Suburbs and marveled at how someone who had never played the game developed such an astute understanding of cricket so quickly. “Her father of her was a huge cricket fan and she would sit on the sofa with him and watch Australia play,” says Raymont. “She must have picked up an awful lot from that because she would understand situations in a match so quickly. I’ve played and coached players who couldn’t do that after playing for 15 years. In her first couple of matches for us she got ducks, which she wasn’t happy about, clearly. But every time she was out, she learned something. As a coach you can’t ask for any more than that. Within a few weeks she was scoring a hundred for us.”
This backyard cricketer was suddenly front and center of minds across Australia, including those charged with running the women’s game. After all, Barty’s story was hardly unique, given that Elyse Perry was successfully managing to combine a career in both cricket and football at the time.
“I know from Cricket Australia’s point of view that they were watching her closely, they were watching her progress and seeing the same things as us from a fast-tracking point of view,” says Prestwidge. “We were basically saying that if she stayed in the sport for another 18 months then she would have been pushing for a spot.”
A big reason for that was her insatiable appetite for hard work. Barty was used to hitting 1,000 balls a day on the court, so why should cricket be any different? “She basically applied the same training method from tennis into cricket,” says Prestwidge. “She literally turned up every training session and instead of hitting 200 balls – as most cricketers would – she hit 1,000 balls, just like she would as if she was playing tennis. It changed our whole thought process and the way we designed our batting programme. From a work ethic point of view, our players were sort of borderline amateur because they weren’t really getting paid at that point.
“This person from another sport turns up and they watched her progress over that first three months and saw how much she improved. It was an amazing experience for players in our squad to watch this tennis professional come in and train the way she did. It opened a lot of people’s eyes up.”
Her Big Bash debut finally arrived on 5 December 2015, at the Junction Oval in Melbourne in a match against a Stars’ outfit that included Meg Lanning and Nat Sciver. Chasing down the Stars’ 156-7, Barty came to the wicket with the Heat’s victory chances looking distinctly cool. Clearly at home in front of a crowd of 1,500 people, she scored nine of her from her first 15 balls. Barty then opened up, smashing 30 from the next 12, including three fours and a six. She was the final wicket to fall – bowled by Sciver aiming for another maximum – as the Heat got to within 20 runs of their target. “If anyone was questioning if she belonged in the comp before that innings, then she they were n’t by the end of it,” says Richards.
If the Heat expected a flurry of further runs to follow then they were left disappointed. Despite a stunning opening salvo, Barty struggled in the remainder of the competition, with a next top score of 17 against eventual winners, Sydney Thunder.
“She’s a very chilled sort of person in nature,” says Prestwidge. “One of her strongest personality traits of her was that, when she came off, regardless of whether she had scored runs or not, she would walk straight into the team huddle to encourage the next person going into bat. She was always vocal in her support of her. She would be disappointed if she didn’t score because she was so competitive, but that wouldn’t stop her doing everything she could for the team.”
Her final innings came against the Adelaide Strikers, with Barty scoring three before being trapped lbw. “At the time she would openly talk about when she would return to tennis and how she saw this as a new journey,” says Richards. “When it got to the end of the cricket season, she said she needed to tick a few more boxes before going back and I think that it was really around the mental space and really sharpening up before she went into the tennis environment.”
Barty had told the press in October 2015 that she had been receiving counseling for depression, which contributed to her decision to walk away from tennis. And her tennis coach, Craig Tyzzer, believes that if Barty had n’t switched her focus to cricket when she did, then it’s unlikely that she would ever have tasted her subsequent grand slam triumphs, or risen to world No1. “It was the best thing she ever did, stepping away from the sport,” said Tyzzer. “She wanted to reassess her life from her. For someone to be able to step back in and play at the level she has after years out is pretty amazing.”
By February 2016, Barty was back playing tennis. It was a measure of her determination to give everything to cricket before she left it, however, that she caught the red-eye flight from Perth to Brisbane immediately after a tournament so she could play in the Brisbane grade cricket final for Wests at the tail -end of that summer. She went out with a bang too. Western Suburbs beat Sandgate Redcliffe by six runs in the final, with Barty top scoring with 37 off 39 balls.
And that was that. She returned to tennis with a fresh attitude. “I was very young, but I turned 20 this year and it’s a different perspective on life and tennis in general,” she said. “If it works, great. If it doesn’t, I can’t really complain. I’ve had a phenomenal career for the short time that I did play.” She has had little cause to regret that return. But could she one day come back to cricket? “It’s unlikely, but when you’re as talented as her you can never say never,” says Prestwidge. A fact that Barty knows only too well herself.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism