ICC Women's T20 World Cup 2020
Hapless to fearless: How defeat sparked Australia's revival
The inside story of how one heart-breaking innings ultimately brought a team closer together, and sparked a new mantra they hope will lead to them to World Cup glory on home soil
Laura Jolly previously wrote for News Corp Australia and the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015, and is now cricket.com.au Women's Cricket Editor providing dedicated coverage to all aspects of the women's game
September 2017. The Australian Women’s Cricket Team sit in the dark, wordlessly reliving their worst nightmare.
They have gathered in a meeting room at Brisbane’s National Cricket Centre, and they face a television screen on the front wall.
The sound is muted, the room’s lights switched off.
Beaming out from the blackness for the next two-and-a-half-hours is Harmanpreet Kaur, unleashing a form of hell that, just three months earlier, had left the world’s best team out of the World Cup and questioning everything.
When it was over, the lights came back on, and a new beginning dawned.
The skies were grey and threatening when Australia arrived at Derby’s County Ground on July 20, 2017, for the one-day World Cup semi-final.
They had played well, if not dominantly, up to that point to finish second on the table at the end of the group stage and while the danger posed by India was not underestimated, an eight-wicket win over their rivals from the subcontinent just eight days earlier meant they were heavily favoured to advance to the final at Lord’s.
But from the moment they arrived at the ground, things did not go to plan.
First, the heavens opened. Heavy rain delayed the start of play by more than three hours and forced the match to be shortened to 42 overs a side.
When the coin was eventually tossed, it fell India’s way and captain Mithali Raj opted to bat.
When Megan Schutt struck with the sixth ball of the game to remove Smriti Mandhana without scoring, and Ashleigh Gardner’s first wicket left India 2-36 at the end of the first power play, it seemed Australia had the early ascendency.
Then, Harmanpreet arrived.
Like rabbits in headlights, Australia were hapless as the hard-hitting Indian unleashed one of the all-time great one-day innings.
Experienced players – among the best in the world – went to water, plans went out the window and after 115 balls of supreme hitting, Harmanpreet stood unbeaten on 171 and Australia were, if not on their knees, at least staring down the barrel of a defeat few had thought possible.
Their target of 282 from 42 overs was never going to be easy. And despite Alex Blackwell’s gallant 56-ball 90, it proved far too much.
Ranked No.1 heading into the tournament, it had seemed a fait accompli the Australian team bus would travel south to London on July 21, with Lord’s their destination.
They did travel to London, but only as far as Heathrow, their dream of back-to-back World Cups in tatters.
Three months later, the Australian players and staff sat in a circle at Brisbane’s Bupa National Cricket Centre.
Fresh from reliving the highlights of that innings, they unburdened themselves of the raw emotion they had each been carrying since that day in Derby.
Meg Lanning admitted she had barely slept since, unable to reconcile with a feeling of humiliation.
"We were all feeling pretty similar things," Australia coach Matthew Mott admitted to cricket.com.au.
"It was a bit of embarrassment; when you’re used to success and people are expecting success and it doesn’t turn out like that, it can be quite confronting."
Watching the semi-final back in that fashion was a plan devised by Mott and team psychologist Peter Clarke.
"We weren’t really sure how it would go," Mott said.
"It certainly could have backfired.
"But it is one we all look back on now and go, ‘that was the moment where we actually looked inside and looked at our team, warts and all’.
"It’s funny how you almost need those crucible moments, where everything pulls back to that point to start the trajectory up."
Turns out, it was the making of them.
"It sounds stupid, but it was really nice for everyone to be that vulnerable," Schutt told cricket.com.au
"It was probably the first time we really showed that side of ourselves.
"It changed our perspective and everyone realised we can probably be better to each other emotionally.
"We’d always been good on the field, but maybe off the field we needed to tap into that emotion and become closer."
Meeting adjourned, the Australian team left that room – and their demons – behind. The next day, they started planning for the 2017 home Ashes, a chance for redemption against the team that ultimately raised the trophy at Lord’s in July.
Australia were the best team in the world, held the number one ranking in both limited-overs formats (there are no Test rankings in the women’s game) and boasted once-in-a-generation players like Meg Lanning and Ellyse Perry.
But in late 2017 they did not have a World Cup to show for it – and that hurt.
The aura of invincibility Australians had carried for years was starting to crack.
"We realised other teams were coming at us hard and throwing caution to the wind more, and we were left vulnerable," Mott said.
"Since that semi-final, we’ve left a lot less to chance. We’ve trained uglier, we’ve looked at ourselves pretty harshly.
"We were going at a level which would have given us a certain amount of success, but if we truly wanted to be a great team. We all thought we had that potential, but we had to make some changes."
The need for players to be much clearer on their roles within the team – and to be held accountable for delivering on them – was identified as an area in need of improvement.
So too was the need for some serious, honest feedback.
"That was a ‘fork in the road’ moment for our team," vice-captain Rachael Haynes said.
"At times we were going back into our shell, rather than putting the onus on our opposition.
"We had to be really honest with each other and get some clarity on what we wanted to stand for as a group.
"We needed to get a lot clearer on what style we wanted to play and have the confidence we could pull it off.
"People understood there would be times where they’d fail, but more often than not, when you take the positive option it comes up."
Also crucial was the support of Mott and his staff, in giving players the confidence that even if they failed, as long as they were playing their role in the manner they had been asked to, he would have their backs.
"We felt like we had the talent to go to another level with our game, but we just didn't know how to do that," captain Lanning explained.
"But I think when you trust that the person next to you is trying to get the best out of themselves, that's a really important part of it.
"We’re all in it to win it, we try and push the game forward and make sure that we’re the best team that we can build.
"That trust is something that's really helped us be so successful in the last 18 months."
The 2017 Ashes were a start.
Important strides were made; with Lanning sidelined following shoulder surgery, gone was the buffer that, if things fell apart, ‘Meg would fix it’.
Armed with clearer definitions of their roles and shouldering – no pun intended – added responsibility, that series became a chance for some of Australia’s less heralded players to prove they were not merely intended to exist as the support cast of The Lanning and Perry Show.
It was the seminal moment for Alyssa Healy, who embraced her new job at the top of the order and embarked on what became a two-year purple patch with the bat.
Still, come the series finale in Canberra on November 17, it was clear there was still work to be done.
Australia had started the multi-format, points-based series strongly, winning the first two ODIs before dropping the third. The one-off Test was a run-laden draw, notable for Perry’s record-breaking double century.
Winning the first of the three T20Is ensured they would retain the Ashes, but England then fought back to level the series on points.
It was a moral victory; England had still failed to prise the trophy from Australia’s hands.
But it left a bitter taste in their mouths.
It was far from home, in the little-known city of Vadodara in India in early March 2018, that the seeds of change planted in Brisbane months earlier began to properly blossom.
Subcontinental tours can often make or break a cricket team. A city like Vadodara is a world away from the ones Australian players grew up in and the squad found themselves spending almost every waking minute together.
For this group, their 2018 series proved to be a defining moment
Huge congratulations to Aussie T20I cap #48 Sophie Molineux! 🙌 #INDvAUS A post shared by Aussie Women's Cricket Team (@auswomencricket) on
During that tour, Schutt noted the bonds forged during that month in Vadodara and Mumbai had the team gelling better than at any point in her career.
She doubled down on those comments recently, noting: "The great thing about this team is we all get along.
"We get along so well,” she continued. "We’re absolutely blessed to have the group we do.
"Not every team has that, in fact, I don’t think anyone does like we do.
"It creates a happiness on the field that helps us play good cricket."
On the field in India, another transformation was taking place. Lanning was back with the group, with a new lease on life after recovering from shoulder surgery.
Australia had not won a T20 series since mid-2015, a record they needed to change – and fast – with a T20 World Cup looming in the Caribbean in November of that year.
The Mumbai tri-series against India and England presented an opportunity to change the script.
The word ‘FEARLESS’ adorned the walls of the Australian dressing room.
Tough calls were made on the batting order, with star allrounder Perry relegated well down the order in favour of the team’s biggest strikers.
And finally, finally, something clicked.
Australia set a new high-water mark for the highest team total in a women’s T20I on their way to winning the tri-series – a drought-breaking win more notable for the reassurance it brought that they were indeed on the right track, than for the silverware handed to Lanning.
"The thing I like about our values is that they’re not just words that sit on a wall, they’re actions you can see in our everyday behaviour," said Mott.
"Challenging our teammates doesn’t have to be a negative thing, it can be done in a really nice, positive way.
"If someone says they’re going to be fearless and play certain shots, and then goes into their shell, the accountability around that is something really obvious in our group."
Australia were not merely content with their progress following that drought-breaking win.
That much was clear the moment they named their squad for a three-game T20I series against New Zealand in September 2018.
After a six-month hiatus, the Australians gathered in Sydney with two fresh faces – uncapped teenagers Georgia Wareham and Tayla Vlaeminck.
Rather than sticking with tried and tested players, the national selectors had adopted a fearlessness of their own. It soon paid off.
Australia steamrolled New Zealand, taking a 3-0 T20I series win, form they carried on to Malaysia, where they emerged undefeated from six limited-overs matches against Pakistan.
From Kuala Lumpur, they flew to the Caribbean, still with – as Mott recently put it – not a monkey on their back, but a gorilla.
Would the changes they had made translate to success under the intense spotlight of a World Cup?
Then, India happened. Again.
This time, defeat at the hands of Harmanpreet’s team did not spell the end of Australia’s tournament; it was their final group match and their place in the finals was already secure.
However, the timing was not ideal – their next match would see them play hosts and reigning champions West Indies – the same team that broke their hearts in Kolkata in April, 2016, in the final.
Ahead of that semi-final at Antigua’s Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, the Australian squad again found themselves gathered in a small room, as Mott laid down the challenge to his players.
"We’ve been hunted before, we’ve been number one, we’ve been expected to win," the Australian coach said at their pre-semi-final meeting.
"The only good thing about losing that game the other day is that a lot of people from outside this group have potentially written us off.
"And I see that as a huge positive… we go into this game as the hunters."
The conditions for that knock-out clash were oppressive.
The local crowd were deafening in their support of the hosts. The Australian cheer squad consisted of just seven friends and family, proudly brandishing an Australian flag.
A heavy cloud of smoke lingered over the field, wafting from the stalls lining the outer where fans queued up to feast on fried chicken.
And Australia were unstoppable.
They thrashed the defending champions by 71 runs and, two days later, it was England left reeling in the tournament final as Australia stormed to an eight-wicket win.
If anyone had wondered what this title meant to a team that has enjoyed no shortage of success – prior to the 2016 event, they had won four World Cups in five years – it was obvious in Lanning’s reaction after hitting the winning runs.
The Australian captain, usually a woman of steel, unleashed an almighty roar, leaping first into the air and then into the arms of Gardner.
Their teammates, who had stood arm-in-arm on the boundary waiting for the winning moment, raced to the middle to greet them.
"That feeling of pure happiness, that we achieved what we set out to do," Haynes recalled of her overwhelming emotion in that moment.
"I was just really proud, because the team worked so hard and they were just so determined."
In the early hours of the next morning after the final, the Australian team again sat in a circle.
This time, they were sitting on the pitch at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium.
And in the middle of their huddle, the T20 World Cup.
"That was one of my favourite moments after the game," Lanning said.
"We were just having a drink and chatting between ourselves about our reflections on the game and on the past year or so.
"The crowd had all left but the scoreboard was still up with the score and it was the sort of moment you remember for a long time, just sitting there soaking it all in."
On Friday, Australia’s bid for back-to-back T20 World Cups begins at Sydney’s Showgrounds Stadium.
It won’t be easy. They are the hosts, with all the pressure that brings.
In their group are two other tournament fancies in India and New Zealand. Only two will advance.
Then there’s the small matter of the final at the MCG, where it is hoped a new world record will be set for attendance at a standalone women’s sporting event.
"You can look at that as a millstone around your neck, or just a great opportunity to play in front of your family and friends," Mott said of the pressure – or as he prefers to put it, perceived pressure – on his team.
"Expectation is a good thing because it means you’re going pretty well as a team.
"We know how hard it was to win the last one. We’re under no illusions of how hard it will be.
"But let’s embrace it.
"We went into the last World Cup hoping we’d win it, and not make mistakes.
"I hope we go into this World Cup saying, 'let’s really go out and take this on.'"
If Australia wanted the ultimate test of their fearlessness, this is it.
2020 ICC Women's T20 World Cup
Australia squad: Meg Lanning (c), Rachael Haynes (vc), Erin Burns, Nicola Carey, Ashleigh Gardner, Alyssa Healy (wk), Jess Jonassen, Delissa Kimmince, Sophie Molineux, Beth Mooney, Ellyse Perry, Megan Schutt, Annabel Sutherland, Georgia Wareham
February 21: Australia v India, Sydney Showgrounds
February 24: Australia v Sri Lanka, WACA Ground
February 27: Australia v Bangladesh, Manuka Oval
March 8: Final, MCG
For a full list of all World Cup fixtures, click HERE
* All matches will be broadcast on Fox Cricket and Kayo, while Australia's matches will also be broadcast on the Nine Network