Alyssa Healy celebrates the win

Never shy of a word (or a dozen)

Brett Hemmings / © Getty Images

Hate to Love

Hands, gob, heals

The brilliant Alyssa Healy vowed to "bring the bitch back". What's an English journalist to do but love to hate her?

Raf Nicholson |

In England there is a type of stage performance known as pantomime. Every Christmas, hordes of families descend on their local theatre for the "panto": a hilarious all-singing all-dancing production, based on a well known fairy tale. There is always a downtrodden hero, who the audience will cheer for, and who we all know will triumph in the end.

But any good stage show also requires an antagonist, and in pantomime that is the job of the pantomime villain. The point about a pantomime villain is that their evilness is exaggerated for comic effect. They stamp around the stage, scheming and plotting, actively encouraging boos and hisses from the audience. We are meant to have mixed feelings about a pantomime villain: we want them to ultimately be thwarted, but in the meantime we relish seeing them cause havoc.

For me, Alyssa Healy is the archetype of the pantomime villain. It isn't so much that I "hate to love" her, in the way that the slug on this article would suggest. Healy, as pantomime villain, is the character I love to hate.

Once upon a time - as any good fairy tale begins - Healy went under my radar. Her debut for Australia came in 2010, standing in for the injured Jodie Fields. For a few years Healy was in and out of the side, struggling to retain her place as a pure batsman; it was only when Fields retired in June 2014 that Healy made the step up to being a permanent fixture in the side. Since then she has been Australia's keeper of choice.

Unfortunately for the opposition, having found her feet in international cricket, she also found her voice. As a journalist following the women's game, it soon became apparent to me that she was becoming queen of the sledge. In an interview with ESPNcricinfo in 2017, Harmanpreet Kaur remembered being welcomed to the WBBL the previous season with "something unpleasant" from Healy behind the stumps. Tammy Beaumont also points the finger at Healy as the worst sledging culprit she has ever encountered, notably in the 2017 Women's Ashes. "I couldn't field in a match because I'd torn my quad, but it came out in the media that I'd got a bruise," Beaumont told me. "The next game, I came out to bat and it was right after Ellyse Perry had got her double-century. Alyssa Healy decided to remind me that Perry had batted for eight hours and still was managing to come out and field. She told me that I obviously just didn't fancy it!"

In a vox pop, players were asked who the first pick in their fantasy T20 XI would be. Healy's response, without a second's hesitation, was "Alyssa Healy"

Ahead of that series, Healy had deliberately ramped it up a notch. "I've vowed to bring the bitch back," she declared in the media. "Playing all these domestic competitions around the world has made everyone too nice. Everyone plays with one another and is too worried about what everyone thinks." She warned that the "nice Aussie team" was history. This is the bluster of the pantomime villain: leading the war of words, deliberately enticing a chorus of boos from the audience.

The annoying thing, from the perspective of an English journalist, is that this war of words seems to have served its purpose. Australia retained the Women's Ashes at the end of 2017, and Healy's 2018, in the wake of her declaration about bringing the bitch back, was nothing short of spectacular. In March against India she made her maiden international hundred, finishing with 133 from 115 balls. She was the leading run scorer at the World T20 in the Caribbean, taking home four Player-of-the-Match awards, and was named Player of the Tournament. Commentator Mel Jones said of her WT20 performances that she would "back Alyssa Healy against the anacondas, the way her form's been at the moment". She was recently voted the ICC's T20 player of the year.

In panto the audience are expected to warn the "good guys" when the villain appears, with the refrain "She's behind you!" The on-strike batsman when Healy is keeping wicket could use a similar warning. Healy's 33 dismissals in 2018 put her second on the list of most prolific keepers for the calendar year, with only India's Taniya Bhatia above her; her dismissal per match ratio of 1.43 is higher than Bhatia's. This is interesting partly because Healy is not on the surface the most naturally talented wicketkeeper in world cricket; she does not provide anything approaching the graceful acrobatics of Sarah Taylor. My view is this: there is no place for quiet wicketkeepers in international cricket. Healy's big mouth wins her wickets.

Have I enjoyed seeing Healy thrive? It's true that I've often felt tempted to boo her; pantomime is a participatory medium, after all. She is also Australian, which my dad would say is reason enough to make her the villain of the piece. But it is becoming hard to dislike someone who is so entertaining, both on and off the pitch. My favourite parts of the WBBL are when she is miked up behind the stumps and you can hear every word of her exchanges with the on-strike batsman.

With boyfriend (and now husband) Mitchell Starc after the win in the women's Ashes Test in Canterbury in 2015

With boyfriend (and now husband) Mitchell Starc after the win in the women's Ashes Test in Canterbury in 2015 Dan Mullan / © Getty Images

"Weren't you out!?" she asked Nicole Bolton earlier this season, incredulously, as if she expected her to walk when the umpire failed to raise his finger. "I don't know!" a flustered Bolton replied. In one of this season's vox pops, players were asked who the first pick in their fantasy T20 XI would be. Healy's response, without a second's hesitation, was "Alyssa Healy". I laughed out loud the first time I saw the clip.

Her success this past year has meant she often makes an appearance in press conferences, and when she does, there are genuine moments of hilarity. After making 46 against West Indies in the World T20 semi-final, for example, Healy was asked about her choice of eyewear, having chosen to play the match in glasses. "The way my gloves have been going of late," she joked - a reference to several missed stumpings across the tournament - "I thought why not? It can't get any worse!" In the days where many female cricketers are media-trained up to the eyeballs, Healy makes for a refreshing contrast.

Perhaps how one feels about Healy ultimately depends on how one feels about sledging. She has repeatedly said in interviews that she sees it as an essential part of the game. "If you can get into a player's head it can go a long way to producing a wicket for the team," she told the BBC in 2017 (while stressing that she would never cross what she sees as "the line" between "banter" and "personal insults"). Personally I agree with her; in any case, if I were to dislike someone purely for having a big mouth, that would be rather hypocritical. Back in my all-too-brief university cricket days, I had a reputation for being a bit gobby; I was once warned by an umpire for "excessive appealing". And I'm not even Australian.

So I guess I will remain conflicted about Healy. With the Women's Ashes returning to English shores this summer, I will look forward to watching her chirp away behind the stumps and making us all laugh in press conferences. I will not look forward to the big runs she will no doubt score against England. Most of all, she will continue to be the player I love to hate.

Raf Nicholson is a writer on and historian of women's cricket. @RafNicholson

 

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