CommBank Series v India - T20Is
Alyssa Healy and the pursuit of happiness
Through more than a decade at the top level, amid glory and while overcoming grief, Australia's self-described 'team pest' has become one of this country's most prominent cricket voices
It was between the Test and T20I legs of this Australia-India series, in the comfortable surrounds of the Royal Pines Resort on the Gold Coast, that Alyssa Healy was struck by a slightly uncomfortable realisation.
As she surveyed the playing group around her, which was one short after new mum Rachael Haynes had flown home to Sydney, the thought occurred to Healy that – for the first time in her international career – she was now its oldest member.
Across almost 12 years playing for Australia, one of the country's greatest wicketkeeper-batters has been many things to many people.
But old? Never.
"I still feel like I'm 21, and it's my first tour," she laughs. "I still feel like I'm that little kid around the group."
The reality might be somewhere in between.
At 31, Healy is arguably still in her prime batting years. Fitness-wise, she is in better shape than she's ever been, while behind the stumps, she continues to hold herself to the highest standards.
But the realisation got Healy thinking about matters beyond cricket. She's been doing that a little bit of late; pondering a plan for the coming years, when the sport that she and her husband Mitchell Starc have lived might finally take a back seat to life.
But there are layers that complicate the process. Ones that push back 20 years into the past, and ones that throw forward into the future, to a time when Healy says she might well "disappear into the abyss".
Before that version of reality plays out though, there is still much work to be done.
* * *
Across the past month, in sunny – and sometimes rainy – Queensland, Alyssa Healy and Mitchell Starc have been in each other's pockets. They quarantined together for a fortnight in a Brisbane hotel room, then trained together – and with the rest of the Australian women's squad – for a week in Kedron, in the city's northern suburbs. They then hopped a flight to Mackay for the first leg of the multi-format series against India, before heading south to the Gold Coast for the Test match.
A day after that finished, Starc returned to Sydney to pack his bags and fly to the Middle East for the men's T20 World Cup, their time together coming to an end for most of the next four months.
Throughout, while not quite joined at the hip, the two were constant companions: walking beside one another to and from the team bus; enjoying dinners out alone; and golfing together.
All of which is completely normal for some – even many – married couples. For others though, the thought of one's partner joining them at work for a month – which is essentially what Starc just imposed upon Healy – would be a little claustrophobic.
"It's probably a bit cliché, and I feel like married couples say it fairly flippantly, but we genuinely are like best friends," Healy says, laughing a little self-consciously at the giddiness of it all. "So when Mitch comes on tour like this, we actually really enjoy spending time together.
"When we're at home, it's the same thing – we're quite homebound, we like spending time at home, we like to spend time with the dogs, we like spending time with family."
Which is the first point of complication. The profession of international cricketer does not align neatly with 'homebody'. Healy, whose sharp intelligence has for the most part been conveyed to the wider public via her take-it-or-leave-it wit behind the stumps or, increasingly, her articulate and well-considered views on contemporary cricketing topics, knows this.
Through different periods of lockdown across the past two years, she caught herself enjoying the restrictions a little too much.
"I loved the lockdown because I got to genuinely spend time at home with Mitch, with the dogs, and with our families around us," Healy said.
"We both loved that. We still love playing cricket for Australia – don't get me wrong – but I really enjoyed getting a little sneak peek of retired life."
Let's be clear: Healy isn't calling time on her playing days just yet. She admits she knows how she would like things to play out, as much as that is possible within this COVID-19 era ("I know my plan; I know what I want to do, but it's ever-changing"), but for now, the chief consequence of that knowledge is not a counting down of days but a ramping up of action.
Last week, the Australia squad sat in a conference room where they were digitally greeted by Aussie Rules legend Adam Goodes.
For a 25-minute presentation and the 25 minutes of Q&A that followed, Healy sat absorbed by Goodes' unique insights into the professional sporting environment, many of which she could relate to in her own way.
He then began his sign-off with a quote he attributed to NBA great Isiah Thomas, which he explained he had adopted through his playing days and beyond: "If I'm only ever remembered for being a basketballer, then I've failed in life."
In closing, Goodes added: "Cricket is what you're doing right now, and you're incredibly good at it, but it also gives you a platform to do other things, so don't miss that opportunity."
The sentiment struck a chord with Healy.
"It was a funny one, because I kind of feel the same," she says. "We're really lucky in this generation that we're in a time in our sport where we can see change, and we can see growth, and we can see development.
"I look at the Belinda Clarks and the Lisa Sthalekars, they would have been bashing theirs head against a brick wall, trying to make some of this stuff happen, but I feel like now we've got a real voice in the game, and we can help drive conversations about how we can get better.
"When I finish playing cricket, I don't necessarily know how involved I'll be in the game. So for me, one of the best ways I can give back to the game that's given me so much is right now, and what I can do on and off the field to help grow the game.
"I feel like it's a really great opportunity to potentially say a few things – not necessarily 'go down swinging' – but say a few things that might challenge some thinking or help grow out our sport now.
"I see that as a great way to contribute, and give back, and help make sure the next generation are getting even better than what we've got at the minute."
Healy has already put the wheels in motion. Through her presence on social media and in the commentary box – where she will this summer work on the men's Ashes – she is perhaps the most prominent voice among Australia's all-conquering women's squad.
In fact, considering that through Mitch she has a window into the men's team (with whom she has trained on several occasions), as well as the relatively quiet presence of the national male players throughout 2021, the case could be made that she is currently the strongest voice in Australian cricket.
Last month, she used her platform to push for more collaboration between the national men's and women's set-ups, suggesting each had plenty to offer the other, and that invaluable resources and intel were being wasted.
Beyond the confines of this country, she has also been a strong proponent of the establishment of a Women's Indian Premier League, while just recently, her perspective ventured past her green-and-gold allegiance to the greater good of the women's game when she expressed her delight at the depth of Indian talent evident in this series.
"She's got a global mindset," says national women's head coach Matthew Mott. "It's not just Australian cricket she's looking at – she wants to see cricket thrive across the world."
Skipper Meg Lanning, who has spent more than a decade beside Healy in the national set-up, has noticed her teammate's evolution.
"She's taken on more responsibility," Lanning says. "As a young player, she always had that sort of free personality and sometimes gave off as if she perhaps didn't care too much about what happened – she was just going out there to have fun and the result would look after itself.
"But over the past five years ... she's become more of a leader. She understands that people are watching her a fair bit – watching what she does – and she knows she can have a really positive influence."
It took time for Healy to get to this point. She has described her younger self as a "reluctant professional" and just as that is evident in her batting statistics through those early years, the same is true of her shifting voice in the game. While the self-described "pest" remains one happy aspect of her character, it is no longer the dominant force.
Coming to the fore instead, through not only her advocacy for the women's game but also her insightful commentary, has been a figure that commands authority.
"She's a respected voice in the game," adds Mott. "Hopefully she doesn't stop playing for some time yet ... she'd be a massive loss to cricket if we didn't keep her in some capacity."
* * *
Healy's success has brought self-belief, and with it, a form of comfort. Her dramatic transformation as a batter across the past four years transpired for a couple of reasons.
First, Mott and his then assistant coach Tim Coyle felt her talents were being wasted down the order. They knew she could take even the best attacks apart on her day, and that her best chance of doing that consistently would be as an opener.
"She was doing a good job down the order for us ... but you always felt she needed and wanted more," Mott says. "We bit the bullet and said, 'Right, let's give her a go opening for a long time', and gave her a bit of comfort around the way she could play and express herself.
"That's where the big shift was – when she felt valued in that role."
Healy insists she still doesn't like to watch footage of herself batting – "because I don't look like Ricky Ponting" – but acknowledges the advancements in her game have helped her become not only more self-assured as a cricketer, but as a person.
"It took a while for me to grow into a cricketer, but it also took a while for me to just be comfortable with who I am, probably on and off the field," she says.
"You just sort of mature as a person, don't you, off the field, and you learn to live with who you are and what you've been given, and just try and use it to the best of your ability."
Pre-dating her shift to opener was another important change that played its part in revealing the best of Healy, on and off the field. With his appointment as head coach, Mott carefully instigated a shift in thinking, which came to impact training habits and team culture. He had an expectation that Australia's best female cricketers should be at least partly driving their own development; that the onus should be on them to understand the what and the how of their self-improvement.
"'Motty' came in at a time where it all felt really highly strung," Healy explains. "We were well drilled, but it was like we were so used to people telling us what to do that we were always waiting for that to happen.
"You're playing at the top level – realistically, you should know what you need as an individual to best prepare yourself for the game.
"And I think that player-driven environment leads to the maturing of players really quickly. You really need to own what you want to get out of it, and (understand) how you want to be a better player, and I think knowing that just instantly makes you grow and develop as a cricketer."
Healy's maturation as cricketer and person went hand in hand with those changes to both her game and the team environment. These days she refers to the national squad and its support staff as being "like a little family", and the group's 'honesty with care' policy is one factor that helps maintain harmony.
Another is Healy's natural inclination towards kindness, a trait that probably jars with the garrulous, sometimes combative figure she can present as behind the stumps, and one that reveals itself more behind the scenes, in her interactions with the younger players.
"She cares a lot about the people around her," says Lanning.
"If ever there's a moment where you're maybe a little bit off, she's usually the one to ask how you're going, or if everything's OK.
"She's really good at picking up little things like that with individuals ... and over the last few years especially, she's been able to read the group really well and understand what we need at certain times.
"She's always looking out for people in her own way, especially the younger kids that come in. A lot of that is behind the scenes – she's always making sure they're settling in OK, and fitting in nicely.
"None of it is to get recognition ... she just really cares about us having a good team environment, and wants people to be enjoying themselves."
In this regard, Healy understands the juxtaposing nature of her public and private selves. Over the years, she has grown accustomed to it, though that doesn't mean it rests easily with her.
"My job in the side is to antagonise ... to get under the skin of the opposition and to lift my teammates, and that for me is just being a pest and putting smiles on (teammates') faces," she says.
"But I can see how that could look fairly polarising. There'll be people who will never meet me, yet have an opinion of who I am purely based on how I am behind the stumps.
"I find that really interesting, and kind of sad for them, because I feel like if they came and had a beer with me in the bar afterwards, they might change their opinion."
* * *
The notion of trying to make the people close to her happy is hard-wired into Alyssa Healy's brain.
For almost 19 years now, she and her parents, Sandy and Greg, have been dealing in different ways with the grief from the loss of Alyssa's older sister, Kareen, who died from cardiac arrest on a touch football field when she was just 15.
Healy remembers lashing out as a teenager, a confused child in a shattered family that became motionless amid the turmoil of tragedy.
"I was 12 – there's no way I processed that at such a young age," Healy reflects.
"But I never really spoke about it, either; as much as my mum (encouraged) both Dad and I to talk about it, we never did, really.
"So that had to play a role in how I was as a teenager and how it was affecting me – all of a sudden I was an only child, my mum and dad were struggling every day, you know, and yet I was still there, still just going along with my daily life, which I thought was a little bit strange."
Healy knows better than anyone that their family dynamic is forever changed, just as she knows her parents will never fully heal. Her solution to those unsolvable problems became a simple one: do everything in her power to make them happy. She is aware it is an aspiration that is, at its heart, unattainable, but it is all she can do to keep her family moving forward.
"It is a big burden, and probably something that I shouldn't put upon myself," Healy says. "There's no word to describe what Mum and Dad went through, right? Like, when you lose a partner, you're a widow, or when you lose your parents, you're an orphan.
"There's no word for a parent who loses a child. It's actually one of the worst things that could possibly happen to a family, and it happened to us, and there will never be a time where it's fully mended.
"It's kind of my job, I feel, to just keep going, and keep living life to its fullest and enjoying life, and I guess putting smiles on my mum and dad's faces.
"So for me, I just go out there and show them that I'm happy, I'm enjoying life – I'm doing OK – and that's through me playing cricket with a smile on my face, and Mum and Dad flicking on the telly or being at a game knowing that, 'Oh she's feeling really good today – she's really happy'.
"It's not a great burden I've placed on myself, but it's one that I feel like is just a responsibility of mine, to keep us all happy and going."
As she settles into her thirties, Healy thinks about Kareen nowadays more than ever. She looks around at friends with young families and cannot help but wonder what might have been.
"I could be an aunty – she might have had some kids by now," she says.
"They're sort of things that you miss out on, which is a little bit sad."
With that wider perspective, one that has shaped Healy's generosity of spirit, it is not difficult to see why she happily tasks herself with ensuring her younger teammates feel comfortable within their new environment.
And it is no stretch to suggest the many thoughts that swirl through her head nowadays – of her parents' grief, of her contemplations of Kareen, and of her ruminations on the future – mean she can approach the present with a degree of wisdom gleaned from life experience.
"I see myself now as just a more mellowed human," Healy says. "Both on and off the field."
It is an evolution that echoes in her firm belief that everything happens for a reason. It is an adage she repeats often, and while it hasn't magically provided Healy with clarity around the loss of her sister, she has found optimism and even motivation from the sentiment.
"Everything does happen for a reason," she says, "and for whatever reason that did happen – and I don't feel like I've fully seen why it happened yet – but I know there's got to be some greater purpose for it. Maybe it's (given me) like a tick in my brain to go, 'How can I make sure I'm making my days great, and also, how can I make somebody else's days great?'
"I think having that perspective, maybe is why it happened. It probably gave me that, and I'm grateful for that perspective every day, because when I wake up feeling a bit shit about my life, nothing will ever be as shit as that day, so go out there and enjoy it."
* * *
Rachael Haynes' departure from the current tour not only meant Healy had become the oldest in the playing group; it also resulted in her promotion to vice-captain for the Test match and the T20Is that followed.
Amid the excitement of four debutantes in Baggy Green, it was a detail that was largely glossed over, a fact that in itself was revealing; her ascension to such a position, ahead even of the more experienced Ellyse Perry, was viewed in most corners as a fait accompli.
For Healy, the appointment carried with it significant meaning, though despite also being NSW Breakers skipper, she struggles to reconcile the notion of being "captaincy material" with the way she views herself.
"It probably hasn't really sunk in that if Meg goes down, I have to captain, and that's a little bit scary," she smiles.
"I've never really seen myself as a captain. I've seen myself as a leader, but I'm happy to lead from within the group ... creating that buzz and that morale and driving the group that way instead.
"It's like, well (captaincy) has never been my style and I can't just flip that around now. But I've really enjoyed captaining the Breakers over the last few years and feeling like I can have a real impact on some of these young cricketers, and help them develop into great Australian cricketers."
It is just another challenge Healy is willing to take on should the need ever arise, and today, even the task of making her parents smile feels slightly less burdensome, simply because she is genuinely happy.
"It becomes just a more natural thing that you're doing; you wake up every day and you love what you're doing, and you love how everything's going," she says. "And that does scare me at times, because something's always got to go wrong."
In spite of that understandable sense of foreboding, she has taken some words of advice from an old strength and conditioning coach and implemented them into her regular way of thinking.
"He used to say to us all the time, 'When you wake up feeling really good, they're the days you want to cash in on – you go and lift heavy, or you go and run fast – because they don't come around very often'," she says.
"And for me ... if I wake up really happy, feeling really good, you cash in on those days – you go out there and you better someone else's life, or you buzz around the group and make sure the team is ready to go for a fierce battle against India."
One doesn't have to go far to see Healy putting theory into practice.
In last week's first T20I, as the Australia players ran onto Metricon Stadium amid a hubbub of pyrotechnics and loud music, Healy zig-zagged her way through the group, cajoling and clapping and back-slapping, and generally putting smiles on faces.
That morning, she had woken up happy, and she was excited to make others feel the same.
CommBank Series v India
Australia lead India 9-5 on points
Australia squad: Meg Lanning (c), Darcie Brown, Maitlan Brown, Stella Campbell, Nicola Carey, Hannah Darlington, Ashleigh Gardner, Alyssa Healy, Tahlia McGrath, Sophie Molineux, Beth Mooney, Ellyse Perry, Georgia Redmayne, Molly Strano, Annabel Sutherland, Tayla Vlaeminck, Georgia Wareham
India T20I squad: Harmanpreet Kaur (c), Smriti Mandhana (vc), Shafali Verma, Jemimah Rodrigues, Deepti Sharma, Sneh Rana, Yastika Bhatia, Shikha Pandey, Meghna Singh, Pooja Vastrakar, Rajeshwari Gayakwad, Poonam Yadav, Richa Ghosh (wk), Harleen Deol, Arundhati Reddy, Radha Yadav, Renuka Singh.
First ODI: Australia won by nine wickets
Second ODI: Australia won by five wickets
Third ODI: India won by two wickets
One-off Test: Match drawn
Oct 7: No result