How Tayla Vlaeminck tiptoed back from the brink

Australia's fastest bowler has methodically worked her way back towards full fitness across the past 18 months and now, having returned to action, she is eager to see what her cricketing future entails

Through the early months of her latest lengthy stint of rehabilitation, Tayla Vlaeminck was being driven by one lofty goal.

Not returning to the cricket, or even bowling a cricket ball.

No, Vlaeminck just wanted to be able to walk unaided to her local café – all of 200m away – to buy a coffee.

Ticking off the little goals and ignoring the bigger picture was crucial for the 24-year-old throughout the last 17 months as she worked to recover from a serious foot injury.

Vlaeminck was beyond excited to reach her most significant milestone to date in Loughborough this week, when she rolled the arm over for Australia A against England A in a 20-over game.

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The fact the game was played on a postage stamp in fine batting conditions, where England A racked up 7-207, was not enough to wipe the smile off the right-arm quick's face.

An early wicket was the icing on the cake.

"It was an lbw and I almost lost my voice I shouted that loudly, I don't know the umpire had a choice (in giving it) to be honest," Vlaeminck said from Nottingham this week.

"The girls got around me and I suppose it makes it all worth it in those nice moments."

Patience was critical for Vlaeminck during this latest stint in the injury ward, with Australia determined to take no risks after the fast bowler was diagnosed with a stress fracture in the navicular bone of her right foot in January last year.

She was subsequently ruled out of the remainder of the Ashes and the ODI World Cup that followed; a bitter blow having been sidelined for 12 months in 2020-21 due to the same foot problem, and missing out on a home T20 World Cup.

It was the latest serious setback in a laundry list of issues to have plagued the quick, who had already endured two knee reconstructions, a dislocated shoulder and a partial ACL strain over the past decade.

Despite knowing Vlaeminck, who has played 18 internationals between injury layoffs since her 2018 debut, would be on the sidelines for more than a year, Cricket Australia handed the quick a national contract in April 2022, and again this year.

It was a move designed to ease any anxieties the Victorian might have had over her future and crucially, ensure she did not feel pressured to try and rush back.

"There's not many in the world who bowl 120-plus, so you have to be patient," Cricket Australia head of performance Shawn Flegler said.

"We made that commitment a couple of years ago – she has something special, let's hang in there.

"I know she is really grateful for it, but she is the type of person you want to see do well, because she is committed to being the best she can be, on and off the pitch.

"It's been a tough road for her, patience has probably run a little bit thin at times.

"She has put an incredible amount of work in, and along with the CA SSSM team and Cricket Victoria team, they have worked really closely together for a long time, it has been a massive effort by everyone.

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"There are probably moments where she thinks, 'is it worth it?' But just to see the smile on her face the other day was pretty cool."

Knowing she had the luxury of time and support was not initially enough for Vlaeminck, who found herself struggling for motivation as she embarked on the early days of another monotonous period of rehabilitation.

It prompted Australia's physiotherapist Kate Beerworth to reconnect the quick with The Australian Ballet (TAB).

She had received treatment from the TAB's leading physiotherapist while recovering from her first navicular injury but this time she went a step further by rehabbing at Melbourne's Arts Centre alongside injured dancers, doing Pilates exercises that aim to strengthen their feet, ankles and calves.

For a few months, Vlaeminck was completely removed from cricket and looking back, she credits that decision with saving her career.

"I did probably a four- or five-month stint where I just went in there and didn't go to cricket and it was awesome," she said. "For me to go in there, not talk cricket, not even have to talk to people about where I'm at, it was really refreshing.

"It took away the fact that I was necessarily doing rehab and just felt like I was training with another person, so it was really cool.

"I walked in first day and some of the stuff I was like, 'oh, this will be so easy' and I'd get like two reps in and I'd be sweating and shaking. They were incredible, they just let me come in whenever I wanted, they dropped everything for me basically, so I definitely wouldn't be back playing without them."

Support from her cricketing friends was also invaluable – and none more so than that of close friend, teammate and housemate Georgia Wareham.

The leg-spinner was recovering from her own serious knee injury throughout 2022, with the pair were there for one another both emotionally and practically.

When Vlaeminck was unable to drive during the first four months of her rehab, Wareham played chauffeur, ferrying her friend to and from her ballet rehab sessions, appointments and on coffee runs.

When the time eventually came to start thinking about bowling again, a different sort of challenge loomed for Vlaeminck.

Given they were unaware of another cricketer having gone through the same injury as the fast bowler, Cricket Australia's medical staff left no stone unturned in trying to figure out why it happened – twice – and what could be done to prevent it happening again.

Vlaeminck ended up remodelling her bowling action to reduce the force being exerted on her right foot.

Then, Australia assistant coach Scott Prestwidge put together a six-month re-loading plan.

"That took a while to get the hang of, I was probably in the indoor nets at Junction for maybe three or four months, just literally walking to the crease, and relearning that pattern I'd done for so long," Vlaeminck said.

"I still don't feel like I'm at 100 per cent, I've only probably bowled at 100 per cent a handful of times.

"It'll take me a little bit, but everyone's been so supportive of me, everyone back at Cricket Vic, all the guys at CA, no-one is forcing me or putting pressure on me to perform straight away, so I feel like I've got a bit of freedom and a bit of time to get back into it.

"It was just some feet alignment stuff … my arms and legs kind of go everywhere when I bowl so I was going into some real weird positions which my body obviously couldn't handle, so I was trying to straighten a few things up and make my action a bit more efficient. Hopefully that'll keep me on the field longer this time."

Vlaeminck has had to learn how to dial down her natural tendency to go at, as she puts it, "120 per cent" at all times whether she is training or playing.

She will also be eased back into playing.

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In England, she will play two of Australia A's three T20 games and while she will also appear in the three-game 50-over series, she again won't be playing every game, or bowling her full quota of 10 overs when she does.

There is no guarantee she will play every match for the Melbourne Renegades this season either, and Flegler said she was unlikely to feature in upcoming Tests against India and South Africa this summer, with her focus to remain on white-ball cricket for now.

"I'm a shocker for if I've got the ball in my hand in the nets, it was like 120 per cent or nothing," Vlaeminck said.

"The last 18 months have been a steep learning curve that I actually just can't do that if I want to play cricket and play regularly.

"I always want to play Test cricket, but I think in my mind at the moment, I'm literally just thinking about playing another T20 on Sunday which will be really cool.

"For now if I could get a T20 game for Australia, if I could even get back in the squad, that'd be incredible."

Vlaeminck was clocked at speeds above 120kph in Brisbane during Australia's pre-Ashes camps, and both the Victorian and Flegler are hopeful she can hit the sorts of speeds she did before her latest setback.

Even if she will need to constantly remind herself she does not need to go at full intensity, every ball of every game or training session.

"The good thing now is she understands she doesn't have to bowl at 100 per cent all the time … she is learning how to control that a bit," Flegler said.

"Ninety per cent is good enough to get wickets and at training being at 70 per cent you can still improve your action, and then you can still go to 100 per cent now and then.

"I think she will get back to 100 per cent (pace) again.

"She's not out of the woods, it could happen again. But everything until this point now has been really good. Fingers crossed she gets through, the action stays together.

"A big thing for her now, committing to the change of action, she feels comfortable with it, she is not thinking about her action anymore, now she can get back to taking wickets and performing. But up until Friday it was, 'make sure the feet are in the right spot'."

When Vlaeminck was preparing for her long-awaited first game back in Loughborough on Wednesday, she received well wishes from her ballet mates.

Although, she is not convinced she completely managed to convert them into cricket fans during her time at the TAB.

"They can speak cricket semi-language now, which is nice (but) I got a couple of messages from them before I played saying good luck in ballet terms, so they still haven't quite got around that part yet, like 'break a leg' and stuff.

"I'm like, 'break a leg' is not the relevant term right now.

"But they've been awesome and I can't thank them enough."

Australia A v England A 2023

Australia A squad: Maitlan Brown, Lauren Cheatle, Maddy Darke, Heather Graham, Nicole Faltum, Tess Flintoff, Charli Knott, Kate Peterson, Courtney Sippel, Tayla Vlaeminck, Courtney Webb, Amanda-Jade Wellington, Tahlia Wilson

First T20: June 21 at Loughborough

Second T20: June 23 at Loughborough

Third T20: June 25 at Loughborough

First OD: June 28 at TBC

Second OD: June 30 at TBC

Third OD: July 2 at TBC