King of the world: Ace leggie dreams big
Melbourne Stars spinner Alana King has always done things her own way, and all she has done has put her on a path to the highest level
Alana King's calendar is clear for the rest of the day. Leaning forward in her seat and with a smile that illuminates her entire face, she remarks that she is very capable of filling the spare hours simply by talking. A small mug of coffee sits in front of her, all but empty. Beside the coffee is a glass of water which, from her eternally optimistic viewpoint, is half full.
Encouraged by the unrestricted offer, I put her claim to the test. Over the ensuing hours, in a narrow laneway adjoining a vast, warehouse-style café, we run through all manner of conversation. The Melbourne Stars leg-spinner reveals herself as funny, confident and self-aware – a rare triplicate for a 23-year-old. I ask her where she sees herself in five years.
"Hopefully being a regular bowler for the Australian women's team," she says, "and being close to the number one bowler in the team – if not the world."
Any trace of her smile has vanished. She looks at me from across the table, registers my surprise, and adds a justification of sorts: "They're big aspirations, I know, but I believe I'm capable of achieving them if I put some solid stuff in place."
Cricketers are not prone to these kinds of bold statements. For fear of failure, perceived brashness, the genteel roots of the sport, or reasons known only to themselves, the widely-held view from the players' perspective is that the best interviews are those in which nothing is said.
Evidently, King is not interested in siding with the majority, and she made it clear from the top that she is a talker. Better still, there is meaning in her words. She sips at the water. Two hundred metres away, Australia's best female players are preparing for the Ashes. She is not part of that elite few. Not yet, anyway. Instead, she is here in Brisbane training with the National Performance Squad (NPS) – a group of young players from around Australia who have been marked for higher honours. In some sessions, they have been working with the Ashes squad as well, collecting scraps of wisdom as she bowls to Ellyse Perry with Alyssa Healy standing behind the stumps.
"I'm loving it," King says, her grin returning. "I wouldn't be anywhere else right now."
Twenty-four hours earlier, King is spinning the ball in her hands, the way Shane Warne used to at the top of his mark. The TrackMan technology at the Bupa National Cricket Centre (NCC) is recording the revs she puts on each delivery. She is familiar with the historical benchmarks. Warne and Stuart MacGill used to hit 2800 revs per minute. Most of her young male counterparts push it to around 2300, maybe 2400 at a pinch.
King was there in the outer when Warne took Test wicket number 700 at the MCG, more than a dozen years ago now, and she still remembers the way he "oozed confidence" with ball in hand. At that point, she was an 11-year-old who had only recently followed her big brother Marc into cricket.
Now, she inhales deeply, then slowly exhales, remembering the importance of her routine. Then she begins her bustling run-up, reaching the crease and unleashing a fizzing leg break. The TrackMan flashes up her number – a tick below 2700. King smiles, as she is prone to do.
"It's nice to have a very high rev count. I keep working on it … but it's making sure I've got the right speed to go with it," she says, grounding herself in reality.
"I don't want to be too slow and floaty. You see in the Big Bash now, anything that's not quite there, you're going to be sent over the fence.
"But I still want to have that big turning leg-break – that's my weapon. I turn the ball, and I don't want to lose that."
And why would she? King's ripping leg-break has taken her places in the past decade, ever since she decided to mimic her brother and try her hand at perhaps the sport's most complex art. Three years later, she had a rookie contract at Victoria – as a 16-year-old – and last summer, she was the leading wicket-taker for both Melbourne Stars and Victoria. Her efforts were noticed by the right people, and now here she is, working away during the final days of Autumn under the mild Queensland sun.
"I'm loving having all this information at my disposal," King says. "I'm working with Shelley Nitschke (Australia assistant coach and former Aussie spinner) from a tactical side of things … and getting her understanding of what more I can do with my action – just tweaking little things to be more efficient and effective in a game."
King's seven-year road between a rookie contract and the NPS has been far from linear. Like most of us, she has known hard times and crushing disappointments. At different stages, sport has left her heartbroken and not knowing where to turn. It has challenged her positive outlook and made her question the point of all the sweat. She casts her mind back to 2013, and a cold winter's night in Melbourne.
"I was training in the indoor nets at the MCG," she remembers. "Second year on a rookie contract for Victoria, going through the stresses of year 12, and all of a sudden the coach tells me, 'Nup – I think you need time away from this environment. Go back to your club'.
"I was pretty shocked, and then I started bawling my eyes out."
King tells that story to the high school students she works with at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart College in Bentleigh, an all-girls school in Melbourne, which she attended herself. There she conducts after-school sports sessions, and all-day sports tournaments. She tells the girls about her struggles because she wants to be relatable and she needs them to understand that everyone experiences down times in life. She feels a magnetic pull towards mentoring teenage girls. Her first job was as a tennis coach when she was 15, while she plans on completing her Master's in Education once her Bachelor in Exercise and Health Science – and possibly her cricket career – are completed. Her current university program has become flexible by necessity, but the fact she is in year five of a three-year degree is bothering her; Alana King likes each aspect of her life to be squared away.
That's not to suggest she is staid or predictable, but merely evidence she knows where she is heading, and she is in a hurry to get there. King again owns her ambition; when she meets with her course coordinator at the start of each semester to work out her subject load, Australia's tour schedule is now a consideration. So too are programs such as the one she is currently undertaking with the NPS. Ultimately, it boils down to this: university will always be there, but cricket will not.
"I'm not yet in the Aussie team," she says, "but I want to give myself every chance to get there."
King is a poster child for the theory that the best sportspeople are those who are exposed to a range of sports throughout their youth. At five, she picked up a tennis racquet, following her brother onto the court as she would later do on the cricket field. She played for the love of the game (and still occasionally does today) but ambition as well, which was fueled by an annual pilgrimage to the Australian Open with her family. As a 14-year-old, she was a ball girl for the women's final. At the time, watching Kim Clijsters beat Li Na in three sets was a window into her future.
"That was my dream," she says. "To play on centre court."
With the support of her parents, King took private lessons and threw herself into her practice. Yet as her tennis dreams faded, cricket came into sharp focus.
"I was like, 'Why am I going further in cricket so quickly, and not going anywhere in tennis?'" she remembers. "I never wanted to give up my tennis … it maybe took me 12 months, but I realised I wasn't good enough to make the next level.
"That was a heartbreaking realisation for me."
King played in her school softball team ("I was just a kid who played every sport I could") and her talent was noticed by her Year 12 business teacher, who then urged her to come down and try out for an all-women's baseball side the following year. With a focus still on cricket, she showed only mild interest, but the teacher's persistence wore her down, and she turned up for a practice session as an ardent follower of Major League Baseball (she supports the LA Dodgers) but with zero playing experience.
"From there, they invested time in me and I just started loving it," she says. "I came in at a great time because the club had two Australian players and a couple of state players as well, so I was working with people who really knew their stuff.
"There were many times during games where I'd field the ball with my bare hand. That was my instinct. But I learned so much."
King played at Monash University Baseball Club through the winters of 2014 and 2015, by which point she was uncontracted at Cricket Victoria. But the birth of the Women's Big Bash League marked a change in fortune. From her perspective, selection came from nowhere.
"I was pretty bloody excited to get that call," she says. "It was a big change because I also moved clubs that year (from Dandenong) to Prahran.
"That's where (one-time Test leg-spinner) Bryce McGain came on board. He was like, 'Where do you see yourself?'
"I said, 'I want to play for Australia one day'."
Burning ambition is a recurring theme in the life of Alana King. It is difficult to pinpoint its exact origins, but one theory aligns neatly with another constant in her life: family.
Alana's father, Leroy King, tells a story about his early days in Melbourne, after he arrived from Chennai in 1984. Leroy (whose English surname is due to his Anglo-Indian heritage) was a young Indian man new to the city. He had dark hair and a thick black beard. One day he was seized by police and arrested at gun point. Why? He had no idea. Ultimately he was released, without charge. He retells the story these days at his children's beckoning, and laughs invariably follow. The arrest had been a case of mistaken identity; a frightening moment morphed into a favourite family tale with the passage of time.
Back in the café, we break from Leroy's back-story for a moment. Alana recounted that anecdote in response to a question about racism: Had her dad faced it? And now: Has she?
"Yes, you face it because you do have a different skin colour, and you're different to other people," she says. "But I never saw myself as different. Now we joke about it, like 'I've got a tan all year round'.
"But you do face it, and you do wonder sometimes, am I getting treated this way because I'm a different colour? It does cross your mind. But I think we've moved past that stage, and you're just taken or accepted on what you can do.
"(Our family) feels there's more racism toward the Indigenous people. I feel sorry for them because they owned this land before anyone else."
With King, it becomes clear, these kinds of statements are never platitudes. She has enquired with Cricket Victoria about taking part in the 'Red Dust Role Models' program, which would see her spend a week in Australia's outback with an Indigenous community. She has already done work with Melbourne-based organisation Cricket Without Borders, spreading the sport's gospel in far-flung places such as Japan, Samoa and Singapore. In six weeks in Sano, around 90 minutes north of Tokyo, she revelled in introducing cricket to hundreds of Japanese students, and savoured her own cultural experience while boarding with a local family; seeing temples and waterfalls far off the beaten tourist track, and sampling the local cuisine.
"I love exploring different cultures, and if you're going somewhere, it's good to experience what the locals do," she says. "For some people, it might be a bit out of their comfort zone, but I'd rather just embrace that."
She refills her water and sips again, her mind returning to her father's story. Leroy King ventured back to Chennai where he met and eventually married his wife Sharon in 1989. He had earned a reputation as a fine chef in his home city and planned on establishing himself in Melbourne as well. But the birth of Marc in 1992 and Alana three years later prompted a recalibration. Instead of a chef, he became a tram driver, and the less taxing hours afforded him more time with his children.
Over time, more family emigrated to Melbourne. Sharon King's parents settled nearby and her father, Hubert, would walk his grandchildren to primary school every morning, while her mother, Rose, would cook them delicious Indian meals. Sharon's brother and his late wife also made the move, as did three of Leeroy's sisters; one with a set of six-month-old twins during a particularly cold winter. As a minority in their new community, they forged a tighter bond than ever. An Indian family across the road from the King family soon became friends for life. Food and cultural ties drew them closer still, to the point that extended family has come to feel more like immediate family. It has all played a sizeable role in shaping Alana.
"My grandparents mean so much to my brother and I," she says. "I would say we're a very tight family … at my aunties' houses, we walk in and if it's dinner time, it's like 'stay for dinner', and all of a sudden we're all having dinner together.
"That's what I would not trade for anything – just having that closeness. I don't think I could find that anywhere else. That's what I love about our family, and our culture."
From that Indian-Australian melting pot in the south-east Melbourne suburb of Clarinda, King evolved to feel a love and loyalty for family that she knows will remain with her. It has revealed itself in various guises across the years, from comfort and support, to anchor and inspiration. Nowadays, it is a key motivator as she pushes herself ever closer to her holy grail.
"There's a couple of things I've got to tick off (in order to play for Australia)," she says. "I've had conversations with (Australia coach Matthew Mott) and Leah (Poulton, high performance coach) about that.
"As long as I can get them ticked off I think I'll be putting myself on a really good path, but it's mentally getting through that as well.
"If I don't meet those standards, I do get very disappointed, to the point where I think, Is this even worth it?
"But then I think, I'm not doing this just for myself – I want to do it for my family as well."
Big Bash numbers suggest King stacks up handily when compared with her competition for a spin spot in Australia's best XI. In the past two seasons, she has not missed a match for Melbourne Stars, with her 29 wickets bettered only by Renegades offie Molly Strano (33) among Australian spinners.
She knows, however, that numbers are only part of the game, and she is acutely aware of the class of her competition; despite Strano's impressive WBBL returns, she hasn't played for Australia since 2017, while centrally-contracted spin trio Jess Jonassen, Georgia Wareham and Sophie Molineux, and potentially Strikers leggie Amanda Wellington, are all ahead of King in the pecking order.
All of which brings us to the next phase of her sporting evolution. We break the conversation briefly for some photos, and when King stands, what is immediately striking about her is her height. At 160cm, Alana King is, well, diminutive, which is relevant because she has set her sights on becoming a power hitter. It is a plan that has been in place for the past nine months or so; a work in progress she believes will best position her for a run at making Australia's world champion Twenty20 side.
"I've been working with my club coach, (former Thunder batsman) Carl Sandri – he's found something in me that I didn't see in myself, and we're just taking my batting to another level," she says.
"As soon as we started doing it I was like, I can't do this. But you don't know until you try it. That six against Adelaide Strikers last year … it actually was like, I can do this."
The moment King refers to came last December at Karen Rolton Oval in Adelaide. There were four balls left in the WBBL match, and the Stars needed five to win. From the first ball she faced, King stepped down the pitch and planted a delivery from experienced England rep Danielle Hazell over wide mid-wicket for six.
"That was a little seed planted in my mind," she says. "After that I was like, 'Right, King – you can do this. You add this to your game and you could be a game-changer'.
"And that's exactly what I want to be."
Like King, Sandri has roots in baseball. He noticed how the mechanics of her stance had been influenced by the sport, and he felt that, together with the natural timing she possessed, her talents were not being harnessed. Encouraged by her match-winning six, they kept at it through the summer. King has always been quite technically sound, so they focused their energies squarely on power hitting. Sandri threw ball after ball after ball. On the first weekend in March, during Prahran's 50-over semi-final, the hard work began paying dividends – batting at number four, King took her side from 5-41 to 9-190 at innings end, clubbing an 83 that included no fewer than five sixes.
"Once you hit one, you just want to keep hitting it out of the park all the time – it's infectious," she grins.
"Go back 12 months and there was no way in hell I was hitting those. But knowing you've done plenty of work behind it … gave me a lot more confidence.
"Once I know it's in my slot, I know I can go – and I can go here, here or here.
"That's a big part of my game now that I'm loving. Hopefully, whether it be for the Melbourne Stars or Australia one day, I can come in as a pinch hitter."
Not satisfied there, King is also working hard on shoehorning her multi-sports skills into her fielding. The lateral movement and constant on-your-toes alertness of tennis. The baseball-born theory of attacking a ground ball in a straight line, aligning yourself with the target and using your whole body to throw. They are small details but the sum total can be decisive. Just last week during a training session with the NPS, Cricket Australia consultant Paul Gonzalez – who also happens to be CEO of Baseball Queensland – picked her out from the group.
"You've played baseball," Gonzalez said, more statement than question.
Interwoven with King's cricket evolution has been her growth as a person. She thinks back to that night in 2013 at the MCG nets when, through her teenage eyes, her cricket dream was callously crushed. She had been neglecting her studies in her most important school year as the pressure of cricket pushed down on her. Maybe the time away wasn't such a bad idea. But the delivery was off. Confusion was at the heart of it. The Athlete Management System (a means by which every state-contracted player needs to check in with their support staff to feed back information relating to diet, sleep, fitness and more) had been introduced, but King didn't feel as if its function had been adequately explained to her.
"It got brought up a couple of times but I was too afraid to ask questions," she reflects.
"I can see a big difference between 17-year-old me to now. I will ask the question now."
King insists she was "a very shy person say two years ago even". It isn't evident in the way she has been holding court in the café. It is little coincidence that her maturation off the park ran parallel with success on it. Not for the first time, she cites Warne as an on-field example to illustrate her point.
"He never showed that a batter was on top of him," she says. "When he had that ball in his hand, he had that confidence. He was like, 'Yeah, I can get this guy out'.
"And I guess that's what, as leggies, it's just that puff-your-chest-out thing – yeah, you just hit me for two sixes, but it's what I can do this next ball'.
"This last season, in the WNCL and Big Bash, that was growing in me.
"I still do go into my shell a little bit, but Shell (Nitschke) is helping me come out of it – telling me, 'OK, you're going to bowl this', and I'm like 'Yeah OK, why not? Just give it a go'.
"I do get competitive, and I get pretty hard on myself when I don't execute a variation and you've got 'Pez' (Ellyse Perry) coming at you and tonking you over your head.
"But it's funny, sometimes it'll happen and Shell will say, 'What are you thinking now?'
"And I feel myself getting more confident, so I try it again."
King recounts a recurring dream she has. It is always a phone call in the middle of the day. She is home by herself and she answers. It is a selector, informing her she has been picked in a team. She tries to stay composed during the call, and when she hangs up she waits for her family to come home to share her news.
"It's a dream you like having, but it's also one you don't want to have, because it keeps coming up and you don't want to be putting pressure on yourself," she says.
"I think because I'm now so invested in my cricket, and I want to get to that next stage, it's going to be inevitable that I'm going to dream about it."
With that, she stands, stretches and picks up her bag.
It appears she is done talking.