Three-time Grand Slam winner Ash Barty shocked the tennis world today by announcing her retirement. In the latest issue of the Nightwatchman, Richard Edwards marvels at her switch from grand slam tennis to Big Bash cricket
THE TENNIS ICON WHO FLIPPED TO CRICKET
Richard Edwards is in awe of Ash Barty’s multi-sporting genius
It was George Orwell who wrote that all animals were equal but that some were more equal than others.
It’s an analogy that could just as easily be attributed to those with an almost unearthly ability to turn their hand to whichever sport they fancy. Just ask those who watched on as Ash Barty, the world’s No.1 female tennis player, turned a cricket whim into a full-time contract with the Brisbane Heat in the Big Bash in the Australian summer of 2015/16.
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 which not only served to reignite her fledgling tennis career but also helped to turn convention on its head and change the way that Queensland Cricket prepared its players.
She clearly didn’t know it at the time, but the reigning Wimbledon and Australian Open champion was about to embark on a journey that would change her life – and that of those who had the great fortune to work alongside her.
Ironically, though, perhaps the greatest indication of a talent that briefly swapped tennis for cricket, came not on the court or at the wicket, but on the golf course.
“She was watching a golf tournament on TV,” says Dave Richards, Barty’s former coach at Queensland Cricket. “She 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. 81! 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.”
For those of us who have trailed round courses forlornly, throwing the odd club and spending more time kicking the ground in frustration than threatening the pin, it’s clear that Barty could have turned her hand to pretty much anything.
Luckily for the Brisbane Heat, it was cricket that appealed above anything else and, according to Scott Prestwidge, assistant coach at the Heat, there was good reason for that.
“When you see her now, she’s very team-orientated and when she came in it was really like she was crying out for this team environment,” he says. “She literally loved it – any team meetings, team dinners, she was the first one there. She really embraced it.
“I think it also actually helped her when she went back into tennis. She knew she was a bit jaded, a bit burnt out by the tennis and she needed freshening up.”
It wasn’t as if things weren’t going her way on the court, though. In 2013 Barty had reached the doubles final at the Australian and US Open as well as Wimbledon. The latter was a venue the Aussie teenager knew well, having won the tournament’s junior title in SW15 as a 15-year-old in 2011.
She had also become the youngest Australian to gain selection to the country’s Fed Cup team since Jelena Dokic in 1998 and won her first Grand Slam matches at Flushing Meadow and Roland Garros.
After announcing an indefinite break from the sport in September 2014, Barty felt in need of a new challenge and an opportunity to be involved in the kind of locker room that would never be available to her in tennis.
“It is tough when you’re by yourself and I think that’s why team sport is so appealing,” said Barty, when explaining her code switch to the Aussie press on the eve of the Big Bash. “I’m still connected very much to tennis and everything it has to offer. It’s been a part of me since I was four years old and is never going to leave me.
“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.”
The code switch was a big call and certainly wasn’t one that benefited her financially. Her earnings on the WTA circuit in 2013 had brought her $600,000. A contract with the Heat, meanwhile, was worth roughly $10,000.
After an initial conversation in a Brisbane coffee shop, Richards and Barty agreed to a net session to test out whether her desire to start a new career in cricket was a non-starter or something that might actually lead somewhere.
Armed with 150 balls and a bowling machine, Richards set 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, so I wasn’t expecting too much, if I’m honest.
“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.”
Barty came out of the net and told Richards that it had felt OK. 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 Australian international who played 68 matches for Queensland between 1980 and 1994, was Barty’s coach at Western Suburbs and marvelled at how someone who had never previously played the game developed such an astute understanding of cricket in the shortest time imaginable.
“Her father was a huge cricket fan and she would sit on the sofa with him and watch Australia play,” she says. “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 10-15 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 learnt something. As a coach you can’t ask for any more than that. And within a few weeks she was scoring a hundred for us.”
This backyard cricketer was suddenly front and centre of minds across Australian cricket, 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. Before, Prestwidge says, batters would have a set number of balls in the nets. Barty, though, 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,” he says. “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 basically changed our whole thought process and the way we designed our batting programme, from a volume point of view. 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 all those 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 December 5, 2015, at the Junction Oval in the Melbourne suburb of Box Hill 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 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 they weren’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 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. She would be disappointed if she didn’t score, of course she was 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 3 before being trapped lbw by Sarah Coyte. “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 was really around the mental space and really sharpening up before she went into the tennis environment.”
Barty had revealed to the Australian press in October 2015 that she had been receiving counselling for depression, which contributed to her decision to walk away from the sport that had dominated her life until that point.
And her coach, Craig Tyzzer, believes that if Barty hadn’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 No.1 in the world in the manner she has.
“It was the best thing she ever did, stepping away from the sport,” he said. “She wanted to reassess her life. 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, following discussions with officials during the Australian Open. 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 perspective on both sport and life and the kind of attitude that meant whatever happened on the court, she would accept the hand she was given, good or bad.
“I was very young, but I turn 20 this year and it’s a different perspective on life and tennis in general,” she told the WTA website after making her return public. “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.”
It’s safe to say that 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.
This article is from the Spring 2022 edition of the Nightwatchman