There aren’t many bigger names in women’s sport. We sit down for an interview with Ellyse Perry.
For someone at the very forefront of the rise of women’s cricket, Ellyse Perry, dual international, is actually the last of a dying breed. Growing up, her sporting heroes were men. She aspired to play like Michael Hussey, Harry Kewell or Mark Viduka. She was undoubtedly aware of sportswomen and their feats but her exposure to sport, like everyone else’s, was largely restricted to the men’s game.
That’s changing now. Due to societal trends, increased media coverage and a change in approach from some national governing bodies, young girls can watch Steph Houghton, Maddie Hinch or Laura Trott close up – and they can then see them online and on TV. They can have heroes who are just like them. Many choose Perry.
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“Certainly the ones I watched most on TV and knew the most about were the men’s teams,” she explains. “I had some idea of the women’s team in both sports [football and cricket] but the level of public knowledge about women’s sports teams has really increased, almost ten-fold, and that’s really wonderful for girls.”
Fortunately for girls in the UK, the Australian allrounder has been on our doorstep this summer. The inaugural Kia Super League followed on from the success of the Women’s Big Bash League and, amongst many other things, Cricket Australia (CA) and the ECB learned that there is an appetite for domestic women’s cricket. In 10 years’ time, some of the girls who right now are getting their faces painted in team colours and queuing up for autographs will be professional cricketers themselves, and they’ll be able to cite a number of female sporting role models.
“Probably in the last three or four years there’s been a real tide of momentum which has lifted women’s sport globally,” she says. “I think that’s happened for a number of different reasons. It’s tied in with changes we’ve seen on a societal level with regards to equality and women in the workplace. But the fact that there is a healthy following from the media and the general public in a number of different tournaments around the world is encouraging.
“It’s important to note as well that the level and the standard of these tournaments now means they’re truly entertaining. I sit in a biased position but a lot of people come up to me to say how much they enjoy the competitions. I think they offer something different to male competitions, they’re a bit more raw, fresh and exciting, rather than men’s competitions which have been entrenched in professionalism for a very long time. It’s been a really wonderful time to be involved and there are only more exciting things to come in the future.”
Despite the increased publicity surrounding the women’s game, the players themselves – much like their male counterparts – never signed up to be role models. They just wanted to play sport. In that respect Ellyse Perry is no different. Where there is perhaps a slight difference between the women and the men – in cricket at least – is that while the average male cricketer is more than happy to do their bit in terms of talking to the players of tomorrow, posing for photographs or coaching at roadshows, the average female cricketer is genuinely delighted to take part and witness how they’re inspiring the next generation. They’re not fulfilling a contractual obligation. They’re just thrilled that what they’re doing matters.
“It’s hard from my perspective to think about how young girls look up to me,” Perry says, almost surprised at the suggestion. “I’m just doing what I really love doing and what I’ve been fortunate enough to do for a living. Knowing how much sport has given me in my life – with the wonderful experiences that I’ve had, the chances I’ve had to learn things about the world and travel to different parts of it, and the chance I’ve had to learn about myself – I think there’s so much value to it from a society point of view.
“Whether that’s playing elite sport or just playing with your local club, it’s all really important. If another young girl is keen to play sport – whether it’s cricket, football or anything else – because of watching us play then that’s awesome and it makes it even more fulfilling.”
Over 15,000 people watched the Kia Super League live this summer – that’s a lot of people with new heroes.
Perry’s abilities have gained her an element of celebrity and meant that to a certain extent she transcends her sports – both cricket and football. She made her international debut in both sports in 2007 – aged just 16. She took her side’s opening wicket and went onto take 2-37 in a defeat against New Zealand in the cricket, and in the football she scored after just two minutes – even though she’s a defender – in an 8-1 victory over Hong Kong.
Balancing both sports must always have been challenging – not that Perry would let on – but as both have become more professional she’s had to focus her efforts. As Australia’s then national football coach Hesterine de Reus explained upon omitting Perry from a squad in 2014: “To play at the highest level you need to invest a lot of time to become a world-class player. To do that with two sports at the same time is a bit harder. It’s a good sign for the development of women’s football that it’s harder to earn a spot in the team.”
There was always a Roy of the Rovers aspect to jumping from one national side to another and Perry agrees with her old coach that it demonstrates standards are going up, and indeed argues that her inability to play both sports is a positive sign. “I really love playing football, as much as I love playing cricket, I guess, and in the past I’ve been lucky enough to play both. In saying that, in the last couple of years I’ve played more cricket and had more opportunities to play that. I think in a way that’s a sign of the progression in both sports. We’re getting to a point where they’re both becoming more and more full time and the commitments expected of players are reaching that fully professional level. I’ll keep playing both sports for as long as possible and if that changes then I see it as a really great thing.”
It’s a supremely positive way of dealing with no longer being in a national squad, but then Perry’s central purpose, like so many of her peers, is the progression of women’s sport. So selfless is she you begin to wonder whether there’s anything that she can’t do. All in all it’s a fairly intimidating package. Was Loughborough Lightning captain Georgia Elwiss scared when she found out she’d be captaining one of the biggest names in the world game? “I think initially I was excited more than anything but then it dawned on me… she’s such a good player, is it going to be a bit daunting to captain her? The only memory I had of Pez was her handing me a plate in the lunch line when I was in the opposition, so I thought she’d be alright! And she was, she was brilliant from the moment she arrived.
“It must have been intimidating for her, as well. There weren’t many Aussies in the competition and she was coming into a new group. She’s been the ultimate professional. She’s always having a hit, she’s 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. She bought into our culture straight away and all of the girls have warmed to her. Credit to her because she is such a big name, but she’s been a normal cricketer, and she’s been so keen to pass her knowledge on. Having been her teammate now, my respect for her has only increased. 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.”
Her contribution at Loughborough was also pretty good on the field. She scored 190 runs at 47.50 and her semi-final innings of 64 nearly dragged her side into the final. For her it was a novel experience. A new group of players, a new team to adapt to, new relationships to forge. “It’s actually been really fun and I probably didn’t realise how good it would be until I came over here and did it. People say a change is as good as a holiday and a lot of the time that’s true. Coming to a new place, when people have different perceptions and ideas of you, it’s great to be able to contribute something in a new environment. It’s been wonderful to learn new things and I’m so glad I’ve had this experience.”
Speaking to international cricketers there is sometimes a sense that – hard work notwithstanding – it was inevitable that they would go on to achieve all that they have; that when they were younger, they knew where they wanted to be and what they needed to do in order to get there. Ellyse Perry is different for two reasons. Firstly, because her talents are so vast that she could have had a crack at several careers. Secondly, she’s a woman. And for women the idea of making a professional career out of either cricket or football was pretty alien 20 years ago. It remains a challenge today, for sure, but the landscape has shifted and the possibilities have increased.
“I don’t think I thought about a career in sport too much,” Perry says. “For me, growing up, sport was just a huge part of my life. It was a big part of my family and it was what I did at school as well – be it lunchtime or after school. I played all different kinds of sport and I loved them all.”
Perry though is a true allrounder – in every sense of the word – and there’ll be much more going on once her career at the very top of elite sport is over. She’s studying Economics and Social Science at the University of Sydney, pursuing business opportunities (she owns two coffee shops) and there’s already something of the politician about how she navigates an interview. You get the sense that she’ll be darn good at whatever she takes.
For the time being though, it’s cricket – and a bit of football – and, whether she acknowledges it or not, inspiring the next generation. “To be able to progress my love of sport into a career has been an absolute dream come true. I’ve been really fortunate to be afforded the chance to turn my passion into a career: if someone would have told me that 15 years ago I would have been absolutely thrilled.”
She’ll be even more thrilled knowing that because of people like her, those young girls who are now learning to love cricket can legitimately dream of following in her footsteps and making a career in the game.