Cricket star, football prodigy, Miss Marketable, children's author, café owner. But above all, Ellyse Perry is an inspiration
Imagine, for a moment, the mounting yard before a famous horse race - the Melbourne Cup, perhaps, or the Kentucky Derby. The yard is filled with horses, all of them superb equine athletes, coats like satin, muscles defined, tuned to the minute to run their fastest. Tension hums. But there is one horse who looks relaxed, easy in its body, graceful, so confident it has the composure to look around at the other horses, take in the crowd, and all the while, it moves like shaken silk. This horse will win the race.
It is a scene that flashes through my mind the first time I meet Australian cricket and football superstar Ellyse Perry.
If you haven't heard of Ellyse Perry then you need to read on.
In 2007, at the age of 16, she became the youngest cricketer to represent Australia, scoring 19 runs off 20 balls in a one-day international against New Zealand. Two weeks later she laced up her football boots and made her debut for the Matildas, the Australian women's football team, in an Olympic qualifier against Hong Kong. She scored her first goal in the second minute of play.
In 2010, in one of those moments of serendipity, her two skill sets collided in the final of the Women's World T20. Perry was bowling the last over of the match. New Zealand needed a four from the last ball to force a Super Over. New Zealand's Sophie Devine, renowned for her powerful hitting, struck the ball hard, a beautiful straight drive. The camera follows the trajectory of where the ball should have gone - straight to the boundary like a bullet - but it's not there. Somehow, still unbalanced from her follow-through, Perry had stuck her right foot out and deflected the ball to mid-on, taking her team to victory. Her action was faster than thought.
Perry is ranked No. 2 in the ODI allrounder ranking table and No. 3 in the T20I one
© Getty Images
Perry is ranked No. 2 in the ODI allrounder ranking table and No. 3 in the T20I one © Getty Images
In 2011, at the FIFA Women's World Cup, Australia played Sweden in the quarter-final. They lost, but Perry scored her team's only goal, a goal described by Socceroo legend turned commentator Craig Foster as one of the best ever in Australia's World Cup history.
In 2013, playing the final of the cricket World Cup in India with an injured ankle, later found to be a stress fracture, she bowled out the top three West Indies batsmen for 19 runs. Australia won the trophy.
In the 2015 Ashes, with 264 runs and 16 wickets, she topped the bowling and batting statistics for either side and was Player of the Series. Between 2014 and 2016 she scored no fewer than 17 one-day-international fifties in the space of 23 innings, the best ever such streak for any cricketer, male or female. In April this year she was announced as Wisden's leading woman cricketer in the world.
The accomplishments and statistics make me dizzy - and more than a little intimidated to meet Perry.
I fly in from Tasmania and, as always, Sydney is an assault on the senses. The sparkling harbour splashes against heavy sandstone grandeur and the glass and steel of spearing modernity. White-collar workers dressed so sharply they hurt to look at push past you as if you are invisible. It is a relief to arrive at the Cricket NSW headquarters.
Five other current women cricketers who have played other sports at a high level*
© ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Five other current women cricketers who have played other sports at a high level* © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
The complex is modern, but nestled within the ivy-clad walls of the heritage-listed SCG. I peer through the iron gates, catch a glimpse of the emerald-green oval, the back of the members' stand and the practice pitches, and I imagine what it would be like to be a 16-year-old fast bowler newly selected to the Australian women's team, arriving here for the first time.
Before meeting her I had devoured everything I could find on Perry. By the time we shake hands in the office reception my notebook is bulging with clippings. "Australian Sport's Pitch-Perfect Poster Girl"; "Peerless Perry"; "Twin international Perry, the ultimate role model". I had seen her on television and online, and listened to her on the radio, and don't doubt for a moment that I'll recognise her: she is "the girl next door", the "youngest ever", the "all Australian girl", instantly recognisable. Yet when she comes up to me with her hand outstretched, I hesitate. She is smaller and more fragile than on TV. Her smile hints at a shyness at odds with the label she has had to carry since 2013 as "Australia's most marketable athlete".
Perry leads me through the administrative offices to the precinct's café. She has a wave and a smile and an easy way with people. I catch a glimpse of us in the glass windows of the café and it makes me grin. Despite being more petite than I'd imagined her, Perry walks with a long stride, a thoroughbred racehorse, and I'm shuffling to keep up, all huff and puff on my short legs, a shaggy Shetland pony carrying awkward bundles. She is dressed in a standard issue NSW blue tracksuit, and while not glamorous (like in some of her photos at award ceremonies), she is well groomed. She presents the perfect image of a professional sportswoman, and until I see the smashed glass on her mobile phone, I think she is too smooth to be true. The screen is barely readable and it hints at a less organised, more relatable world.
Perry plays club football for Sydney FC in the W-League, 2015
© Getty Images
Perry plays club football for Sydney FC in the W-League, 2015 © Getty Images
As we begin talking I am aware my questions have been asked before, and though Perry's answers aren't scripted, her responses stay within the boundaries of the well-primed, media-trained athlete. When our conversation turns away from cricket, we start to chat more easily. I ask her if she likes reading and suddenly we are sharing our mutual delight for Liane Moriarty and swapping our plans for watching the HBO adaptation of Big Little Lies. We talk about dogs - she loves hers, a blue Staffordshire Terrier, and tells me her dog makes missing her husband a little easier. He, Matt Toomua, is playing professional rugby in France. The two, married since 2015 and labelled an "Australian sporting power couple" by the Sydney Morning Herald, will meet in Europe after Perry's cricket commitments have finished, and she is looking forward to exploring France and Italy with him.
They own a couple of cafés, but I'm mistaken in thinking this is just an investment. She becomes animated as she tells me one of her favourite things to do when travelling is find the local café. Japan is her favourite place to travel, because of how the Japanese venerate and protect their culture, alongside their fiercely innovative and entrepreneurial instinct. As she speaks, I realise how sport has opened up a world beyond Australia for Perry.
She was born in November 1990 at the Seventh Day Adventist Hospital on Sydney's leafy Upper North Shore. Her childhood was spent in Pymble, a suburb of large blocks with houses set well off the street, often with a tennis court and swimming pool out the back, or a great swathe of lawn perfect for backyard cricket. By train, Pymble is only 30 minutes from the centre of Sydney, but much further away in terms of lifestyle. Dotted with playing fields, bounded by wealthy private schools, Pymble was a perfect place to grow up for a sporty girl.
Perry's face lights up when she talks about her parents. Her father, Mark, is a retired maths teacher, an amateur football coach, and even now another set of eyes for Perry's batting technique. Her mother, Kathy, is a GP and has her own practice, which Mark has managed after he retired from teaching. Both her parents were athletes: Mark represented Australia at squash and played high-grade cricket, while Kathy swam and played representative netball. Ellyse credits her older brother, Damien, a talented football and cricket player, as her constant sporting competitor growing up: beating him, or trying to, made her believe she could play "boys' sports". Still, although sport was a big part of their lives, nobody in the family ever considered it for a career.
Perry is an Australian icon who could change the way young girls view the idea of having a career in sports
© Getty Images
Perry is an Australian icon who could change the way young girls view the idea of having a career in sports © Getty Images
So how, I ask, does a girl from the wealthy, conservative North Shore of Sydney end up playing football for Australia? Perry's answer is simple - she started playing for Beecroft Wombats, the local junior football club, because her brother did and her father was the coach and she loved it. But the question is more complicated than Perry's answer.
I talk to the football commentator and historian Andy Harper. He is amazed that a talented athletic girl from the North Shore would choose football as her sport. As recently as ten years ago, Harper had approached the school Perry attended for a football programme. There was not enough interest. The popularity of women's football was another decade away. While in retrospect it seems completely normal that Perry would have pursued football, at the time her choice was more radical than she appears to appreciate.
Cricket is part of Australia's national identity; just as a meat pie and sauce go together, so do an Australian summer and the sound of cricket on the radio. Football was introduced to Australia post World War II by European migrants. Perry's North Shore peers would have been more likely to play tennis or swim competitively during summer, and play hockey or netball in winter.
They might have played cricket in the backyard, yet despite a long history of women's cricket in Australia, that too would not have been a popular choice for high-school girls in that locality. That is, until Ellyse Perry came along. Before she had even left school, she became Australia's first dual international representative in football and cricket.
It was not easy to sustain a dual-international career. The Matildas coach from 2013 to early 2014 was the tough-talking Hesterine de Reus, who made no secret of the fact she thought Perry didn't play enough football for her to warrant selection.
Now playing in the Women's Big Bash and England's Kia Super League, Perry's all-round exploits will be seen and idolised by a larger group of fans
© Getty Images
Now playing in the Women's Big Bash and England's Kia Super League, Perry's all-round exploits will be seen and idolised by a larger group of fans © Getty Images
Perry's old football coach Alen Stajcic - a huge Perry fan, who made it possible for her to continue playing football for Sydney FC alongside her cricket commitments right up until the 2017 season, when a hamstring injury sidelined her from both sports - replaced de Reus as the national coach before the 2015 World Cup. But Perry, though available for selection, was not really in contention because injury had limited her game time in the W-League. She has not played for the Matildas since 2012. She is philosophical about this. She takes it as a positive development that both sports were demanding a higher level of professionalism. She is focusing on her cricket.
"In cricket, there's a few more opportunities... and more resources," she says. "Women cricketers are the best-paid female athletes in Australia," I say. "It's not about the money," she replies, "though it helps."
Over the last few seasons, Perry has upgraded herself from a fast bowler who could swing the ball with menace and send down a decent bouncer, and a spectacular outfielder, to someone who also bats authoritatively in the top order. She is now among the best allrounders in cricket; the ICC rankings have her behind only Stafanie Taylor, the West Indian captain.
In interview after interview, Perry's team-mates talk of her dedication and professionalism. When she played the Women's Super League in England in 2016, her captain at Loughborough Lightning, Georgia Elwiss, told All Out Cricket: "She's always having a hit, always working on parts of her game, and she doesn't mind if that means she's last off the training ground. But she has fun along the way, as well… Normally you see an Aussie and you're like, 'Eurgh, Aussie', but the way she goes about her business and how professional she is - while also being so lovely and so normal - says a lot about her."
What is it that makes Perry different to other players? As a bowler her ability to swing the ball for a crucial wicket at a crucial moment is priceless. As a batsman, she always looks as though she has more time to hit the ball than the quality of the bowling she is facing would suggest. Her new ability to hit over the top of cover (a weakness addressed with hours of sessions in the nets, so it is now a strength) means she is not so vulnerable to being caught out there.
All athlete: Perry bowls in the T20 final between New South Wales and Victoria, 2015
© Getty Images
All athlete: Perry bowls in the T20 final between New South Wales and Victoria, 2015 © Getty Images
Sports commentators talk about the elusive X factor. Everyone is looking for it. It's the footballer whose timing on the ball makes her opponent look lead-footed. It's the cricketer who strikes the ball so cleanly she never looks like getting out. The X factor is easy to recognise but difficult to define. Perry tells me she enjoys the pressure before a game. It is this temperament - the more difficult it is, the more she thrives - that makes her a big-game player.
In the inaugural Women's Big Bash League in 2015-16, she faced the new challenge of captaincy. Her team was the inexperienced Sydney Sixers and they lost their first six matches. Surely Perry must have doubted her abilities as captain.
Then, in the seventh match, she did something surprising. She won the toss but instead of electing to bat on the flat and inviting SCG pitch, she opted to bowl. The opposing team, Perth Scorchers, were renowned for their batting, but Perry's decision paid off. Without the pressure of having to defend a small total, the bowlers, Perry included, were able to bowl with aggression. Sixers won. From this point in the season they won nine in a row and made the finals. It was Perry's ability to think under strain, an extension of the quiet confidence with which she handles herself, that proved to be decisive.
Over 2016 and 2017 the Australian women's Rugby Sevens team won gold at the Rio Olympics, the Australian Rules Football league launched its long-overdue women's league to sellout crowds and excellent ratings, the women's soccer league gained in popularity, as did, in its second year, the WBBL. If women's sport in Australia is in an exciting place, Perry is the perfect athlete at the perfect time. She recognises that even 15 years ago her career would not have been possible and she would have had to study and work outside sport to support her position in any Australian team. If she goes along with the media attention, it is in part because she recognises that she is the spearhead of Australian women's sport in this new era.
"My biggest hope," she says about women's cricket, "is that it creates its own strong identity and exists in its own right - not as a comparison to the men's game", and that people watch it "for its intrinsic value and entertainment". One of her ambitions is to help take the sport to a level where it's financially viable without support from the men's TV rights.
"My biggest hope is that it creates its own strong identity and exists in its own right - not as a comparison to the men's game"
© Getty Images
"My biggest hope is that it creates its own strong identity and exists in its own right - not as a comparison to the men's game" © Getty Images
She talks with informed zeal about the future of women's sport. She is excited about advertisement campaigns like Adidas' "Unleash your creativity" or Nike Middle East's spot featuring women athletes in hijab. She calls them "empowering pieces" that highlight the power of female athletes to promote women's rights in places where they are denied even basic ones. She talks passionately about how sport, because it is culture, can influence change in society. When I suggest she may be a role model for women athletes in developing countries, she politely laughs at me. "There are women superstars playing for India and Pakistan doing that far more effectively than me."
It is easy to see Perry as a sporting superstar blessed with good looks, a great education, supportive parents and the opportunities to fulfil her talent. But she has made the most of those. She has been creative with how she has interacted with a public eager to know more about her. Her stint on the national radio station Triple J built a rapport with a youth audience. Her segment was called "Perry Good at Sports", and her willingness to engage in a series of ridiculous games delighted listeners who might otherwise never have heard of her.
Her bestselling children's books, written with Sherryl Clark, have a genuinely inspiring message. In the series of four books, a young Ellyse tackles problems young readers can identify with, like mean teachers, or being left out in the school playground. The books show her as a girl next door, a bit insecure, shy and just wanting to have fun playing sport. I imagine my ten-year-old self reading them and deciding to try out for the cricket team, instead of being talked out of it by my circle of friends who called such girls "butch".
I ask Perry which athletes have inspired her after their retirement, when they have to construct a life that is not constantly reported, applauded or vilified. I'm not that surprised that she mentions Susie O'Neill, the champion swimmer, "Madame Butterfly", also an all-round Australian golden girl. O'Neill has two children, is still involved in her sport, commentates on it, and has a regular radio show. It is clear Perry has watched her progression with admiration.
At the end of our time I mention I will go and find somewhere to have lunch and write up my notes. Perry is immediately on her phone and within a minute or so I have three recommendations for places to eat depending on my mood, budget and the distance I am prepared to walk. She is genuinely excited for me to be heading off into the city in search of a café.
On the way to the airport I post a Facebook request to all my friends who are mothers of athletic girls. I ask them whether Perry has been an important figure for their daughters. The response stuns me.
Some are from mothers of girls as young as seven or eight who are playing football on the boys' team, or playing up an age group because Perry did it and so they can too. With wistful gratitude, these mothers contrast their daughters' mindsets with their own growing up.
The other set of respondents are mothers of older girls who are already burgeoning star athletes in their own right. I have watched one of them from the time she was a small girl, always mixing it with the boys, and better than most of them at cricket and rugby. She is now 14 and has represented her state across multiple sports. Her mother tells me her daughter is asked all the time what sport she is going to choose when she gets older, and she says she doesn't have to decide yet - and maybe she'll be like Ellyse Perry and play them all. Nearly all the respondents mention that it is Perry's athletic ability and the fact she hasn't appeared in a bikini or marketed herself as a calendar girl that is also appealing.
In the lead-up to the current World Cup, Perry was asked who her sporting role models were. She mentioned "Mr Cricket" Michael Hussey, and Australian soccer superstars Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka. There were no women in her list.
Perry has changed that for young women athletes in Australia. The 12-year-old daughter of a friend of mine, when she finds out I'm writing an article on Ellyse Perry, sends me an email.
Ellyse Perry has shown me anything is possible if you put your mind to it and inspired me to continue striving for the highest. She has excelled in both cricket and football proving that girls can be great at these sports too. Young girls feel as though they can do what they want to do with their lives.
I read the fervour in these words and think that whenever Perry retires, and she is only 26, it won't be the brilliant statistics she will be venerated for. Instead, she will be celebrated for the next generation she has already inspired.
The Cricket Monthly is changing. After 35 issues, beginning August 2014, it is going to become a more regular part of your life. Instead of a fully formed issue appearing at the start of every month, one feature will be published every day or so. In its more dynamic form, TCM will be more topical and urgent, while staying true to its founding ambition of scale and depth, and combining quality of writing with rigour of reportage and the spirit of narrative storytelling. It's going from monthly to month-long.
*12.09 GMT, July 17: Changed from "represented their countries in other sports" to "played other sports at a high level"
Maggie MacKellar has written four books, and her essays have been published in Island, the Good Weekend, the Saturday Paper, and Best Australian Essays
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