Alyssa Healy poses for a portrait during Australia women's squad announcement
Jason McCawley / © Getty Images

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How Alyssa Healy went from slugger to beast

A World Cup exit three years ago changed the way the Australia keeper-batter approached her game

Melinda Farrell  |  

Each roar seemed dwarfed by the next. It was a sound Alyssa Healy never dreamed she would hear from the middle of a cricket stadium. She had played much of her career to the soundtrack of scattered applause from modest crowds, sometimes the players' entourages outnumbering the spectators.

But here, in the MCG cauldron, there were 86,174 sets of vocal chords thrumming in communal expectation as she tapped her bat and waited for the opening delivery of a T20 World Cup final that had been hyped far beyond any women's game in history. The first roar erupted as soon as the ball rocketed off her bat. Deepti Sharma's delivery was a gift, a full toss hammered wide of long-on for a boundary.

Healy's remit was to attack; sometimes it paid off, at other times it led to early exits. The latter almost happened in the first over here, when the roars segued into gasps, but Shafali Verma's mangled attempt at a diving catch ensured an extended life.

The volume button was turned up when Healy charged at Rajeshwari Gayakwad on consecutive balls, her strong bottom hand launching the ball over the long-on boundary.

The quivering needle almost snapped when she struck the third of three successive sixes off the hapless Shikha Pandey. The ball was full and pitched outside off stump. With exquisite timing and power, Healy cleared her front leg and hewed the ball over cover. It was easily the shot of the night, the sort hardly seen in the women's game until recent years. Most still can't conjure it.

And as the crowd thundered its approval, Healy chuckled. She had smiled and laughed throughout her innings, an elite athlete in her prime, relishing every beat of her showstopping routine that eclipsed Katy Perry's pre-match shimmying bats. Now it was Healy's bat singing and dancing, and its owner was having a ball.

"In my mind it was highly unusual that members in the Australian team were promoting a World Cup final at the MCG that we're not even sure we're going to be a part of and that they're expecting us to be a part of" Alyssa Healy

Soon she would be dancing again, this time on a stage with her team-mates and Perry, rock stars of the cricket world.

As a young child growing up on Queensland's Gold Coast, Healy wasn't particularly interested in cricket, despite being part of a family immersed in it. Her father, Greg, had played for his state and her uncle Ian had become an international star courtesy his peerless wicketkeeping, vital runs and vice-captaincy of the Australian team.

It wasn't until seven-year-old Healy moved to Sydney along with Greg, her mother, Sandy, and her older sister, Kareen, that she fell into the game thanks to a school friend's invitation. The friend soon dropped out, but Healy was hooked, and she soon signed up with a junior club.

As is typical for many young Australians, cricket wasn't her sole sporting pursuit.

"I pretty much played every sport under the sun," she recalls. "I actually loved playing soccer growing up. When I got into primary school down here, one of the PE teachers came from a really big hockey family and lured me across to the hockey side, so I put soccer aside and joined hockey.

"I probably always wanted to play hockey for Australia, but I think everybody knows the way that I hate training, that was never gonna happen. I was so into cricket and I enjoyed that a little bit more, I think."

Life was settled in Sydney, filled with family, school, friends and sport. Then, when Healy was 12, her family's life changed forever.

Like her little sister, Kareen was a healthy and happy teenager who loved playing sport. A day after her 15th birthday, Kareen finished her classes at the private girls school she and Alyssa attended and met her friends to play in the school's rugby team.

Hit, giggle, hit: Healy laughed frequently through her 75 in Australia's victory over India in the T20 World Cup in March this year

Hit, giggle, hit: Healy laughed frequently through her 75 in Australia's victory over India in the T20 World Cup in March this year Cameron Spencer / © Getty Images

There, without warning, Kareen collapsed. She had suffered an anaphylactic reaction and gone into cardiac arrest. After she spent several days in a coma, doctors delivered the devastating news that she wouldn't recover, and her family made the agonising decision to switch off Kareen's life support.

"It's never really brought up a lot and I never forcibly bring it up," Healy says. "But if people ask me, I'll talk about it. But yeah, our world changed pretty much that day.

"We probably still haven't [gotten over it], to be honest with you, but Mum and Dad have been amazing. I don't know how they've done it. I was a bit of a shit of a teenager and probably just locked myself away a lot, but Mum and Dad have managed to deal with it."

As Healy entered her final year of high school, Greg took a job in Singapore, hoping a change would help the healing process. Sandy stayed to support her daughter through her studies before joining her husband.

"I was pretty much independent as soon as I finished school, and living at home, looking after a dog and being fiercely independent straight out of school. They moved over there for five or six years to see if it could change the way things were, and they've come back to Australia now and sort of been going okay. I don't think anyone really recovers from anything like that, but they've done everything possible to try and heal themselves along the way."

In the years following Kareen's death, Healy's growing talent with the bat and behind the stumps was rewarded with selection in New South Wales age-group squads.

"A lot of those names are still playing WBBL or WNCL. I remember playing against Emma Ingles and Elyse Villani. Meg Lanning played for NSW back then, so it was a really great group of young cricketers coming through at that point and I don't think any of them thought they could have a career out of the game."

"We were friends. We kept bumping into one another when we both started playing for New South Wales. We kept that friendship over the teenage years. It just developed into something a little bit later" On her relationship with husband Mitchell Starc

Although Healy was proficient behind the stumps when she first joined the senior NSW squad, Leonie Coleman was already established as the side's wicketkeeper. Healy's aggressive batting saw her included as a specialist batter, but in retrospect, she felt her elevation up the order was a little premature.

"They threw me a bone when I was 16-17 and gave me an opportunity to bat at three for New South Wales, which was a huge push into the deep end. But I probably still saw myself as a bit of a go-out-there-and-have-a-bit-of-a-slog. So it probably wasn't a great spot for me to be in at that time."

But she was in a fortuitous place. Coleman's retirement in 2009 gave Healy the flexibility of a dual role. Around that time Australia's captain and keeper, Jodie Fields, badly tore all three hamstrings of a leg while batting for Queensland and was eventually replaced by Healy in the Australian side for the 2010 World T20.

It was a dark and grim day in Derby. And it wasn't just the weather. A rampant Harmanpreet Kaur had all but annihilated the Australian attack in the semi-final, careening to 171 off 115 balls, and Australia were facing ejection from the 2017 World Cup. Healy came to the middle with her side down five wickets and still needing 142 runs. Batting at seven, she had only been at the crease four times in the World Cup, and apart from an unbeaten 63 against Pakistan, those stays were brief.

It was a familiar scenario in her ODI career. Generally playing down the order, she had managed just one half-century in 37 innings. There would be a flash of excitement, a swing and a miss, then the inevitable wicket. Her reputation as something of a slogger, harking back to her NSW days, gave her critics growing ammunition. What made things worse was the realisation that the better teams had figured out her flaws and the limitations of her technique made her vulnerable.

Jhulan Goswami was the quickest and most experienced of India's bowlers and had already disposed of Lanning, the captain. Goswami had a simple plan: bowl full and straight. Healy attempted to loft the ball down the ground, but as she connected, the bat handle turned in her hands and the miscued ball was easily caught at mid-on. The tail was fully exposed. Australia, easily the tournament favourites, went out of the World Cup.

It would be a critical juncture for Healy and the Australian team.

"What I really needed right then was a sweep shot I could rely on": Her dismissal against England in the 2017 World Cup prompted Healy to expand her hitting repertoire Stu Forster / © Getty Images

"We lost some games in that tournament and got ourselves in positions where we could potentially lose games because we weren't being overly brave with our batting. We were very tentative. We had such a dynamic and powerful batting line-up but it really just wasn't getting utilised to its full potential. And I was getting frustrated coming in in the last five overs and trying to go at 12 an over just to get us to a total we should have been getting to all along."

After the World Cup exit, coach Matthew Mott sat Healy down for a talk.

"Motty said, 'Look, the next series is the big Ashes series. I want you to open the batting for us.' I thought, oh great, another opportunity to open the batting in T20 cricket, it's what I've been asking for, and he said, 'No, I want you to do it in all formats.'

"I said, 'Okay what's going on?' and he said, 'I want you to take the game on. I want you to bat sensibly, but I want you to play aggressive and put the opposition on the back foot early and see if we can give ourselves that licence to play a bit more freely and make those big totals we knew we could make.'"

Healy was happy to have Mott's and Lanning's backing to bat her natural way, but no matter how valuable such confidence may be, it can't reshape a batter's technique or expand their armoury of shots. And before she could begin the hard work in the nets, Healy knew she had to analyse the past, no matter how confronting.

"I hate talking about it, because it's a frustrating moment from that World Cup. It probably highlighted a little bit more that what I was doing was not quite enough. It was actually a game against England where we still needed eight to ten runs an over when I came out to bat. They set a really good field for me. Danielle Hazell was bowling around-the-wicket offspin at me and they had no one behind square on the leg side. I got out lbw trying to flick one off my pads, which was probably my favourite shot growing up, but it wasn't the right shot at the time.

"What I really needed right then was a sweep shot I could rely on. It was a light-bulb moment, that I needed to work on making sure I could hit the ball 360 degrees, especially now that we've only got four fielders outside the ring and there's always going to be a gap in the field somewhere. I needed to make sure that if I needed a boundary, I could back a certain shot."

Healy sought the advice of Ash Squire, a good friend who runs a small cricket coaching business in the west of Sydney. She set out her needs: a reliable sweep shot and the ability to hit more powerfully to all parts of the ground. Squire helped her to make technical adjustments, and every day for the next few months, she worked with him, hitting balls out in the middle until she started to see and feel the changes.

"I worked really hard on the sweep shot. By opening up that area of the game and forcing oppositions to think about putting a deep backward square in, it brought up a fielder, more often than not on the off side. And I love hitting through the off side. I went really hard on nailing that shot over cover and now I can back that shot nine times out of ten if I'm given the right delivery."

Healy 2.0 is a beast. The influence of Squire, a mountain of hard work, and the faith of Mott and her team-mates wrought a phenomenal change.

Up till the 2017 World Cup, she averaged 15.96 at a strike rate of 92 in ODIs. Since then, her average has risen to 57.15 at a strike rate of 108.85. In T20Is, she went from averaging 17.63 at a strike rate of 111.24 to 35.68 at 150.3.

She can now dominate attacks with a wide range of shots and increased power. Oppositions can no longer bank on setting a field to her weaknesses because Healy can now ruthlessly manipulate fields.

Five months before the 2020 T20 World Cup, she demolished Sri Lanka with brutal elegance, reaching her century in 46 balls - the second fastest in women's T20Is - and, with a magnificent lofted straight six, breaking Lanning's record for the highest individual innings score, on her way to 148 off 61 deliveries.

Upgrade complete.

In a world where professional athletes are often guarded with their words and careful to remain "on message", Healy has always been refreshing. She is cheeky and quick with a glinty-eyed wisecrack.

She can take the piss out of herself to make others laugh, whether she's performing an impromptu daggy dance for her team-mates in the dugout or dropping zingers when miked up for TV coverage of the WBBL. She is also one of the first players to offer a friendly hello to journalists and have a genuine chat.

Her cheekiness and humour don't always translate well to other cultures on the cricket field, but Healy has long had a reputation as one of the most chirpy players in women's cricket. During the 2015 Ashes Test in Canterbury, some of the England players took umbrage at her chatter behind the stumps, and she became a prized wicket because of it. When she was dismissed in the T20 World Cup final at the MCG, the Indian players gave her the kind of send-off you rarely see in the women's game, hinting at some residual displeasure.

But Healy baulks at the label of "sledger".

"I can completely appreciate that some people would say that," Healy says. "But I don't think anything that comes out of my mouth is more than a little bit of a joke, and hopefully I get a bit of a laugh.

"I don't believe there is a lot of sledging in the women's game. There's a lot of banter, but no out-and-out personal sledging that I've been a part of or seen. I hope I'm not the biggest sledger. I've had really good exchanges with a few different international cricketers, and at the end of our careers we can hopefully share a beer and laugh about the silly things we did."

That doesn't mean Healy wouldn't take advantage of riled up opponents. A self-described tech and sci-fi nerd, she channelled this interest into proposing a mental approach for the Australian team before the T20 World Cup.

She had smiled and laughed throughout her innings, an elite athlete in her prime, relishing every beat of her show-stopping routine that eclipsed Katy Perry's pre-match shimmying bats

"I love watching movies, playing the PlayStation, gadgets, and I love the Marvel comics," said Healy. "In the Black Panther film, [the superhero's sister] builds him a suit that absorbs all the energy from his opposition's blows. And when he's ready, when he strikes his punch, he uses all the force they put into him, so his force is ten times what theirs was.

"For me, it was a really great analogy for our team, knowing that everyone came out really hard against us. You look at the way India played against us in that tri-series before the World Cup. We had a lot of power at the top of the order and all we had to do was hold on tight and absorb all that pressure. We knew that when it was our time to strike, we were going to do that. And after the first loss [in the T20 World Cup], in pretty much every game, we really reined in every slide back. And by playing in a black strip, it was easy to make a connection [to the film]."

As Healy attacked India's bowlers before a heaving MCG, the cameras zoomed in on a particular spectator in one of the corporate boxes. Mitchell Starc, released early from the Australian men's tour of South Africa for the occasion, sat holding a bottle of beer, watching his wife take centre stage. The other half of cricket's most high-profile couple - they jokingly refer to themselves as the "Stealys" - has been a familiar presence for anyone covering Australia, New South Wales, or the Sydney Sixers over the years. Whenever the national men's and women's sides are in the same country, he takes any opportunity to leave camp and travel to wherever Healy and her team-mates are playing. It's a partnership that goes back virtually to the beginning of their respective cricket journeys.

Healy played in boys' sides from a young age, in the era before girls' participation in the sport was commonplace. She was the first girl to play in private-school competitions in New South Wales and first encountered Starc as an opponent in club cricket before they were both selected for Sydney's Northern Districts Under-10s side. Before a growth spurt and the realisation he could bowl rather fast, Starc was also a wicketkeeper, and the pair shared the role for the next five years.

"He was actually a really good wicketkeeper," said Healy. "We used to play 60-over cricket and we used to get 30 overs each of wicketkeeping and then run around in the field, so it was actually kind of enjoyable for both of us.

"We weren't, like, really chummy. We didn't always play in the same team, we didn't live anywhere near one another. But we were friends. Both our dads, at some stage, coached us, so they knew one another really well. As we got a little bit older, we went our separate ways, but we kept bumping into one another when we both started playing for New South Wales. We always kept that friendship over the teenage years. It just developed into something a little bit later."

The Stealys: Mitchell Starc is a familiar face at Healy's matches whenever their schedules line up

The Stealys: Mitchell Starc is a familiar face at Healy's matches whenever their schedules line up Matt King / © Getty Images

Cricket clearly permeates their lives together. When they married in 2016, Starc's best man was Squire, the long-standing friend who would become so influential in Healy's career. They have been fortunate that the Australia men's and women's schedules have often allowed them to be in the same country. But it is indicative of their hectic lifestyles that the longest period of time they have spent together at home is now, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

"We haven't killed one another yet, so we're okay," Healy says. "Fortunately for us, the golf course isn't shut, so that's taking up a couple of days of our week. We're doing it sensibly, distancing and whatnot. We're doing a few different little workouts around the house, making sure the house smells as sweaty as it can."

In some ways, the restrictions necessitated by the pandemic had a levelling effect, coming so soon after the euphoria of the World Cup final. In the weeks following the celebrations, Healy tweeted about the difficulties of buying toilet paper caused by widespread panic-buying. It had a surprising result.

"Everyone was grabbing exactly what they needed themselves and not worrying about others, but I guess sometimes the beauty of social media and just tweeting about being an everyday person reinforces to you that there are some really good people out there. I got a whole heap of messages about sending me toilet paper. I think a lot of them were from India. They were all ready to box up some toilet paper and send them across, which was really cool.

"It doesn't matter how many World Cups you've won, it doesn't matter how much money you've got, Joe Blow down the street is in the same situation as you. It has been nice coming back to reality. I think both Mitch and myself are enjoying just being normal people at home. I can hear him with the whipper snipper at the moment, mowing the lawn."

Being a normal couple at home has also made Healy reflect more deeply on the next stage of her life and examine her desire to keep playing professional cricket.

"I often wonder if they would have turned around and had another look at me as a wicketkeeper if I didn't have the last name Healy. I used to joke about that, but I think I was just a really talented junior" On the attention she got for being Ian Healy's niece

"It's either going to lead me closer to retirement, if I get too accustomed to this lifestyle of not having to train every day and doing normal every-day things, or it'll probably make me miss the game and make me want to play for a little bit longer.

"Now that I have just turned 30, all of a sudden people want to talk about what your career looks like and when it's going come to an end, and when we have kids. It's a whole new thing that I'm going to have to start answering that question.

"I still feel like I'm really enjoying my cricket and this team of girls I'm playing with. I still think there's a lot that we can achieve in the next 12 to 18 months."

Healy holds a unique position as the partner of one of the world's highest-profile cricketers while claiming a distinguished place of her own in the game. But if being the girlfriend and now wife of a famous cricketer brought increased attention, it was hardly a new situation. She has been dealing with that for most of her life.

Before the advent of the WBBL brought a more widespread interest in the women's game and its players, I pitched a number of story ideas on the Australian team to (invariably male) editors. The first question I fielded was all too often: "Do you actually like women's cricket?" The second: "Can we get Ellyse Perry? She plays two sports." And the third: "What about Alyssa Healy? Isn't she Ian Healy's daughter?"

Most now realise Healy junior is actually Ian's niece, but aside from making her one of few female cricketers sought out by the media, a famous sporting moniker often leads to charges of nepotism if performances are lacking. And there were certainly critics in the press box who felt her earlier performances with the bat weren't enough to justify her position in the Australian team.

"I don't think I'd ever thought about what name was on my shirt or the team sheet," Healy says. "Obviously I got talked about being Ian Healy's niece quite a lot and people wanted to write about that, but it never affected me one bit. I think even the chatter about whether or not I should be in the team - I never really thought it was because I had the last name Healy. I think it was about if I was good enough or not.

Healy says downtime in the wake of Covid-19 might lead her

Healy says downtime in the wake of Covid-19 might lead her "closer to retirement, if I get too accustomed to this lifestyle of not having to train every day and doing normal every-day things" Harry Trump / © ICC/Getty Images

"I suppose when I look back on it, I often wonder if they would have turned around and had another look at me as a wicketkeeper if I didn't have the last name Healy. I used to joke about that, but I think I was just a really talented junior. I got gifted a lot of great opportunities along the way to be an Australian cricketer, but it took me a decent amount of time into my career to take that seriously and treat it as a real career option.

Healy calls herself a "reluctant professional athlete", one for whom cricket was only a small part of her life until recently.

"I always saw myself as someone who had really great perspective and balance in my life. Cricket wasn't a huge part of it, but over the last couple of years I've seen how much value cricket has given me and how much opportunity there is within the game. It's made me knuckle down and enabled me to reach the potential I could have reached eight to ten years ago. So I don't necessarily think it had anything to do with the last name. I think it had something to do with me switching on and deciding that playing for Australia was something I really wanted to do.

"It is nice standing here now as a 30-year-old who's been playing for a long time to not be referred to as Ian Healy's niece. But it's something I'll probably get referred to for the rest of my life and I'm okay with it."

Unless you were in Australia last summer, it's hard to convey the unprecedented extent of publicity and hype that ushered in the T20 World Cup. Whether it was in the form of giant billboards, adverts on buses, newspaper articles, or a chicks edit of the iconic "C'mon Aussie, C'mon" TV advertisement, the message being hammered through was that Australia would surely be at the MCG for the "Big Dance" in front of what organisers hoped would be a world-record crowd.

As the most professional women's team in the world, with more resources and investment than in any other country, Australia have always worn the favourites tag. But a shock loss to India in the opening match and wobbles in some subsequent games gave rise to fears of the inconceivable - that Australia might not make the final, dealing an enormous blow to ticket sales and local interest.

Publicly, players dead-batted incessant questions about the effect of pressure, but privately, it was taking a toll. Healy's own lack of runs made her the focus of the ensuing public jitters.

"What I really needed right then was a sweep shot that I could rely on. It was a light-bulb moment that I needed to work on making sure that I could hit the ball 360 degrees" On her thoughts during the 2017 World Cup

"There was a huge amount of pressure and expectation on us for 18 months," Healy says. "I don't think I've ever been a part of a world event in which I've had to make a whole heap of appearances promoting it. In my mind it was highly unusual that members of the Australian team were promoting a World Cup final at the MCG that we're not even sure we're going to be a part of and that they're expecting us to be a part of.

"Looking back on it, we went into our shells a little bit early on in that tournament. That final group game against Bangladesh really gave us the confidence and I think we were right from then on. The way we peaked at the end shows the class and maturity of our side. We knew that our best cricket was yet to come, and ultimately, on March 8, we played the perfect game of cricket."

The perfect game of cricket. The biggest crowd women's cricket has ever known. Partying on stage with a superstar. Standing on top of the world holding a trophy.

It now seems like a vision of a long-gone age, viewed through a coronavirus looking glass. The following weekend the Australian Grand Prix was cancelled, along with every other sporting event.

"It's such a bizarre feeling that seven days later that final might not have even taken place," Healy says. "If it had, we would have been playing in front of no one. It's something I never thought I would get to experience in my career - the 17,000 people at the first game at Sydney Showgrounds was a really cool atmosphere as well, but to get 86,000 people at the MCG was an unbelievable day. I think it meant a lot to a lot of people. I feel unbelievably grateful for that opportunity to almost feel like it was the start of something really special in this country.

"But to see the way the country is now - borderline total lockdown… I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason and in its own time. Obviously it's a sad thing for sport in this country, but at the same time, it sort of brings a smile on my face that a game of women's cricket could potentially be one of the biggest sporting events in the country over the next 12 months. It still hasn't really sunk in."

For now, like many of us, Healy remains in limbo, uncertain of the future, but blessed with a hopeful perspective born out of the tragedy of losing her sister at a young age.

"No one should have to go through that. I guess the silver lining out of it is that it did give me a lot of perspective. A bad day on the cricket pitch honestly is not a really bad day in life. It definitely helped me to understand that at a younger age than a lot of other people.

"And it's more often than not why you always see me playing with a huge smile on my face."

Melinda Farrell is a journalist and broadcaster

 

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