ICC Women's Cricket World Cup 2022
Escape and alchemy: Behind Beth Mooney's golden run
The seeds of success for Australia's most productive batter of recent times were sown amid harsh soil. Decades on, as Beth Mooney considers the two worlds she occupies, she is beginning to understand why those seeds are now truly blossoming
Beth Mooney spits out the blood that is pooling in her mouth. She rips off a glove and uses a couple of fingers to feel around for floating teeth. She spits again, this time discarding a fragment of tooth; debris from the impact of a cricket ball that, moments earlier, had snuck under her helmet and smashed into the side of her face, breaking her mandible in two places.
"F--k, that's pretty painful," she thinks. Then: "This is not good."
Fifteen minutes go by. At the other end of the pitch, a stricken Matthew Mott, Australia's head coach and the unfortunate deliverer of the ball in question, finds some succour in Mooney's even countenance.
But it betrays her racing mind. There is too much blood for this to be just a cut caused by the orthodontic wire behind her teeth, as she first thought. The pain, too, tells her this is more sinister. Later, she would reflect with Meg Lanning that the gap in the bottom row of her teeth her skipper had wordlessly observed was indeed a new look – one caused by her chin splitting in half.
And so the worries bounce around inside her head as it becomes clearer something is very wrong. They are a jumbled collusion of dread and uncertainty, as visions of being sidelined for the Ashes and the World Cup beyond it jolt her reality. And they amount to one simple question, which she voices to the team doctor, Pip Inge: For how long am I going to be out?
Mooney is briefly reassured by the positivity in Dr Inge's answer. She walks towards a waiting car, finds it within herself to lighten the mood by rebutting Mott's offer to make her smoothies in the weeks to come (she suggests gin instead) and just 30 minutes later, she is staring at a 3D X-ray of her skull.
In front of the screen, in the cold clarity of the imaging centre, the medical types calmly talk among themselves, detailing what they see. Mooney overhears the words "two fractures", and the anxiety returns.
"When I heard that without speaking to Pip, I was panic stations again, thinking the worst," she says. "My brain was spiralling: What happens if I don't recover from the surgery that well? What if we go see the surgeon and he gives me a different prognosis than Pip, who's saying I'll play the Test match?
"It was probably more a sense of fear. I didn't know what the surgery would look like, if it was going to be invasive, like, were they going to have to cut through the side of my face?
"I was a bit all over the show, because yeah, there was a lot happening."
She contacts her sister, Gabbie, and her best friend, Kirby Short, in case the news leaks out across social media, and facts get lost. It is a selfless move, but the calls help Mooney too, and when Dr Inge confirms a speedy timeline for her return to play, she exhales.
Night comes, and with surgery already scheduled for the following day, she rests her head on the pillow and tries to sleep. Only then, once the adrenaline has dissipated, does the pain truly take hold.
"I just stared at the ceiling for eight hours," Mooney says. "I remember thinking: God, someone just knock me out. I can't really describe the pain.
"But luckily there was only a small window, probably that first 15 minutes, where I thought: I'm not even going to play a single game in the Ashes, or even get on the plane for the World Cup."
For Mooney, whose very existence is so intertwined with the game, that brief contemplation also picked at the seams of a broader question. It is one she has been quietly working towards answering for years.
What is her world beyond cricket?
* * *
Exactly four weeks post-surgery, Beth Mooney sits in a Christchurch hotel room, and tinkers with a puzzle. Five days into her seven-day quarantine period, a little more than a fortnight out from the World Cup she has been waiting four-and-a-half years for, she is contentedly finding ways to pass the time.
The exercise bike has been given a workout. She has been reading The Thursday Murder Club, a crime caper by Richard Osman. Once a day, she has been cutting laps with Lanning and Mott, among others, during their allocated time in the hotel's designated 'fresh-air zone'.
Those two – Lanning and Mott, Australia's captain and coach – have become ever more important figures in Mooney's cricketing life. Through her relatively recent ascension to the top batting tier on the planet, it has been their collective belief, and their repeated encouragements, that have provided the sure footing she requires.
See, Mooney is a study in contrasts.
Secure enough in her game to have evolved into Australia's most consistent match-winner across the past couple of years, she is nonetheless one to resort to self-denigration every time (consider: the self-described "shit-kicker from Hervey Bay" is never happy with a net session; blamed herself for her broken jaw after "getting in a pretty shit position"; has a shared catchphrase with Short of "could be better", a line they throw at each other regularly and which they say defines the grounding nature of their friendship; and was once told by close mentor Shelley Nitschke she should "be a bit kinder to yourself – it's not good for your soul").
Direct enough to routinely ruffle feathers throughout her journey, she has until very recently considered herself unworthy of sharing her opinion within the national team's batting group, which of course includes the exalted company of superstars Lanning, Ellyse Perry and Alyssa Healy, as well as veteran leader Rachael Haynes.
"Only just the other day in Melbourne, she was saying how Rachael Haynes had asked her opinion about something, and she was like, 'Oh jeez, OK'," explains Kirby Short, who as the sole individual to have straddled both of Mooney's worlds – cricket and beyond – is singularly well placed to comment.
"Everyone else would be like, 'Well, what do you mean – you'd be an idiot not to pick your brain at the moment'.
"But she needs the validation from people she respects to go, 'Actually, I am valued by this group and this coaching staff'.
"Increasingly, she feels that; she feels as though she has a voice in the upper echelon of that Australian group. And that's not an ego thing, that's just about feeling valued, which is really important to her."
Adds Mooney: "Meg and 'Motty' have been pretty clear with me how much they value me, and my input in this group. It obviously helps hearing that. But whilst it's nice to hear that, if I don't feel like I'm doing the right things, I'm not going to feel I can be valuable.
"I guess the last couple years, I feel like I'm more comfortable and confident in my own game, and that helps me feel more confident and comfortable as myself within the group."
Mott has seen that evolution play out in tandem with Mooney's feats on the field, the two facets of her growth complementary. He calls her a serial winner, a big-match performer, and the backbone of the teams with which she has those successes.
"I think she's pretty aware now that she is a world-class player," he says. "I can remember the last few contract meetings where it's almost stunned her when we've said how important she is to our team. It's almost this look of, Really? You really think so?
"But now, she's a really strong voice in our batting group. She talks a lot of sense and I think a lot of players really feel she's someone who gets the game, gets situations, and can help, and she's made a real effort to share that knowledge.
"Before, I think she probably felt: I can't really give advice to Meg or 'Pez' (Perry) or people like that because they're good players. But they've given her the license. They've said, 'No, tell us what you think, because you've got a pretty good gauge on these things'.
"That's been part of her real improvement as well."
Improvement is putting it mildly. After almost four years spent trying to secure her place in the Australia set-up, Mooney has been the ICC's top-ranked T20I batter for three seasons now, and last month she briefly became the only women's batter ranked in the top three in both limited-overs formats. Her tally of 1,112 runs at 42.77 across Tests, ODIs and T20Is since the beginning of 2020 is comfortably the most among Australians (Lanning is second with 963 at 41.87). In a line-up of superstars, she has been reliable rock, middle-overs maestro and capable closer all rolled into one.
Mott has no doubt that when the 28-year-old's career is finished, she will be discussed in the same breath as her more illustrious teammates, and it is probably already beginning to be the case.
For now though, the understated reputation serves a purpose. As Short notes, "it suits Beth very much that there's the Perry-Lanning-Healy situation – she's very happy for that".
For Mooney, contentment via cricket has never been about being placed in a spotlight. Quite the opposite. To truly understand her relationship with the game, and for an insight into why she has become so very, very good at it, we need to go back in time.
* * *
"I grew up with a bit of a chip on my shoulder," Mooney says as she ponders her teenage years in Hervey Bay, a seaside town about three-and-a-half hours north of Brisbane, best known for its whale watching.
"I felt like people only ever wanted to speak to me if they needed something – they didn't necessarily want to speak to me because they wanted to learn about me.
"I remember growing up thinking that I could only ever rely on myself."
As a kid, the diminutive left-hander first learned the game while running fine leg to fine leg in her brother's team. When she discovered she was actually quite good at it, the passion grew. By 15, she was being courted by Queensland Cricket. And just four days after her 16th birthday, she was debuting in the state side alongside another talented teen named Jess Jonassen.
But before all that, cricket was serving a very different purpose in Mooney's life.
"I grew up playing cricket as a way to escape whatever was happening in my world," she says. "Home just wasn't a happy place for me … I'd try to steer clear of there as much as I could.
"And I didn't love school. I remember just trying to make every possible team I could so I was away from school and away from home for a couple of weeks here and there.
"Cricket was a place I could go where I had a job to do, and I loved doing it, and I had some really great friends there.
"I used to always get post-tour blues when I got home because I enjoyed being away at cricket so much."
Mooney acknowledges the inherent sadness in this aspect of her youth, yet far from allowing the outcomes to negatively impact her, she has instead performed a kind of alchemy on them, which reveals itself in ways both in and away from cricket.
The first of those is what Short views as the key reason behind her old friend's continued and increasing success: an ability to shut out all around her and direct a laser focus onto the ball.
"When she's on the cricket field, there is nothing more important than the next thing she will do," the former Brisbane Heat skipper explains. "And that doesn't exist in any other part of her life; if you looked at her car, or her house, you'd be like, 'How the hell do you do what you do? How do you be so singularly focused and precise on the cricket field?' Because she's certainly a contradiction off it.
"And yes, she's coachable. Yes, she has a ridiculous work ethic. Yes, she'll hit a million balls and work really hard on fitness and do all of those things.
"But elite athletes should do that; if you want to play for Australia in anything, that is an expectation. If you're not doing that, and you're not accountable to your performance, then I'm not sure that separates you from anyone else who's really good at what they do, in any craft.
"What separates the good from the great is the psychology. It's been ingrained in Beth since she was young, because cricket was always that escape – that safe and happy place – so she loved being on a cricket field, and that now translates to being truly present. Not distracted, not concerned about what's happening in the dugout or the crowd, or what someone said to her the day before, or what she ate for breakfast.
"It's like, 'Right, when I cross that rope, I'm just there and I'm in the moment'.
"Then all of the other things just happen. As a batter, that's invaluable, because that fraction of a second that you're distracted by something else, you make a poor decision and you get out.
"It sounds really simple, but it's actually really hard to do."
Mott talks in similar terms about Mooney's ability to compartmentalise, to find clarity and calm even when her world beyond the boundary is swirling with chaos. It is a trait we have seen before in Australian cricket, most notably through the misdeeds and magic of Shane Warne, and perhaps a little like Warne, Mooney takes the calculus that step further.
"I only really started thinking about this more in recent times, but … it almost feels to me like sometimes the more that's going on outside cricket, the more concentrated I am at cricket, and the more successful I am – which I know doesn't make any sense," she says.
"But because it was an escape for me as a kid, and I could spend hours just playing, I probably started (compartmentalising) from a really young age without realising it … just to find a bit more happiness in my day-to-day life.
"So when I'm out there now, it doesn't take a whole lot of effort to be able to do that, which I understand for some people can be quite challenging."
Another consequence of Mooney's complicated upbringing has become clear via her dealings with coaches. Though they haven't all been positive, it is the nature of her relationships with Mott and Perth Scorchers head coach and Australia assistant coach Nitschke that perhaps echo loudest.
Speak to those close to Mooney and the concepts of loyalty and trust quickly become recurring themes. Mott believes both are hard won with her, which is wholly unsurprising in someone who grew up feeling she had only herself to rely on. They are traits that were, according to Mooney, conspicuous in their absence in most of the relationships she had during her youth. Now, as an adult, Mooney feels they are built at least in part through a willingness to understand what makes her tick.
"One of the first interactions I had with Shell (Nitschke) as a coach was back in 2018," she remembers. "I think it was her first tour to India with us, and I'd been dropped from the one-day side.
"It was our first net session over there, and I was hitting the ball like shit. I could barely hit it off the square. I walked out and Shell goes, 'How'd you go Moons?' and I just said, 'Oh yeah, not so great'. And she made a comment about me being pretty hard on myself.
"I remember thinking: How has she picked that up in half a session? She didn't even throw me any balls. She could easily have made a comment about, 'Yeah you're right, it was pretty shit', but she actually made a comment about my personality type, and showed me that she was willing to understand what I'm like, and work with what I'm like, and not try and turn me into someone I'm not.
"Motty does exactly the same thing. I think that's why they're two of the best coaches I've ever had. They just exude this level of care, not just about you as a cricketer, but more so as an individual, and they ask questions and then they listen to understand you as a person, which is a big one for me.
"They also know how to ask questions to challenge as well, which is really important, too.
"Some people might say it takes a lot to win me over, but if you just listen a little bit more than you talk, it's a bit easier than you might think."
The trust in Mott and Nitschke has also provided Mooney with a safe environment to explore what works in her training and preparation. With that time and space, she has developed a routine she relies on. It is another fundamental pillar of her success.
"She's become one of the most professional people on the planet," insists Mott. "And she's got her own little way of preparing – she doesn't hit on match day, she just backs herself that she's done all the work beforehand.
"She doesn't leave a net unless she feels like she's accomplished what she needs to do, but will equally walk out if she's done that in the first five minutes.
"That to me is when a player is really at ease with their game, they're comfortable in their skin, and they know what they need to do to perform."
Mott has also noticed across the last year or so a slight releasing of the significant pressures Mooney has always placed upon her shoulders. He describes it as "a genuine commitment to not be too hard on herself … not that she would suffer mediocrity, but I think she's realised perfection is unattainable, and as long as she's getting better, she's heading the right way".
Perhaps it has come with her form, and her comfort within the Australian playing group, and the surety those things provide. She acknowledges it has happened, too, and sees it as another positive in her evolution.
"When Shell first started (coaching in the Australia set-up) in 2018, I certainly was still chasing that perfect cover drive, and the perfect innings and things like that," Mooney says.
"But the thing I pride myself on more these days is those games I play that aren't perfect, that are potentially a little bit more gritty and you have to work for it a little bit more.
"After that (first) ODI against England (last month), when I made that 70-odd, I walked off and Motty said, 'That's one of your best ever'. And I sort of said 'Really?' He said, 'Well, yeah, you did this, this and this'.
"So it's good to have people like him and Meg around to remind me of when I am going alright, and I've definitely got better at making sure I do celebrate those days, because cricket's not a forgiving sport.
"And I think I've just accepted it's not always going to be perfect, but as long as I'm evolving – whether it's with my fitness or with my batting or my wicketkeeping – and staying ahead of the pack, it's gonna be OK."
Then there is a third part of Mooney's alchemy, one that addresses that wider question she has been grappling with. It is something that has unfolded away from cricket, though she is definitive when she says her success in the game wouldn't have happened without it. Or them.
"I'm very lucky," she says, "with the people I've got in my world."
* * *
Mooney remembers an early interaction she had with Short in one of her first training sessions at Queensland Cricket. She was incredibly young to be thrown into an elite sporting environment, and her head was swimming with the advice and orders and criticisms directed her way.
Amid the madness, and the unfamiliarity, a 23-year-old Short offered a welcome point of difference.
"She was a kid when she first came into the squad, just a teenager from Hervey Bay, and I remember her saying I was the first person she'd ever really encountered who just shut up and listened," Short says. "I asked questions, and I listened, and I got to know her.
"And I remember her saying, 'It was just the fact you actually listened – you asked questions, and you listened. You weren't telling me, or talking at me."
Mooney sees the same quality still in her friend today.
"Kirby asks questions because she cares," she says. "She doesn't ask because she wants to know."
The friendship has survived challenging times and terse exchanges across more than a decade since. Often, it has thrived because of them, and Mooney concedes her long-time mate has more license than anyone to, as Short puts it, "hit her between the eyes with some home truths".
"It's important to me that people understand it's not a blinding loyalty I have to Beth Mooney – I probably more than anyone in her world will say the things that she doesn't want to hear," she continues.
"What allows us to have a sustainable friendship is that loyalty to each other, but it's founded on absolute honesty. We know that the other one is not going to sugarcoat the thing; we have the conversations, we say the things and sometimes it's bloody uncomfortable.
"But for me, it's not a true friendship if you can't do that."
Adds Mooney: "It's actually nice when you've got people in your world who can give you a bit of 'honesty with care', and you know when it comes from Kirby, it's always coming from the right place.
"There does tend to be a little bit more tough love from that household than anywhere else, but that's what Kirby grew up with, and it's worked for her."
Considered in the context of what is a two-year estrangement from her own mother and father, it is no small thing when Mooney says Short's parents make her feel like another daughter in their family. And it is instructive when she explains how this extends to another family, too; that of former Queensland Fire physiotherapist, Alice Walker. Together, they are a tightknit collective that Mooney has grown close to since she landed in Brisbane all those years ago.
Short refers to the group as "very quiet cheerleaders" given their preference to stay well in the background, though for Mooney, they offer more than simple support. Perspective, for one thing. Coming from educational and medical backgrounds, among others, and having not experienced life at the centre of the professional sporting bubble (with the exception of Short), their views can keep a high-flying international cricketer gratefully in touch with reality.
Mooney values that as much as she does the encouraging texts, the welcoming homes, and the strength and commitment of the relationships – the latter a part of life she has only come to appreciate in adulthood.
"I was quite an independent kid," she says. "I didn't ask for too much help from anyone, and I sort of wore that with a bit of pride when I was younger.
"I just didn't really know any different. I never really built great relationships when I was younger, and in high school even. I had a couple here and there, which I still have now.
"And I probably didn't have great examples of good relationships, either.
"So there was probably an element of both of those things that made me a bit sceptical about people, and not necessarily open to the idea of building great relationships and understanding people, just because I hadn't seen or experienced a lot of that.
"But as I've gotten older, I've learned that relationships you build with people are a lot more important than thinking they're out to get you."
It is indicative of the value Mooney places in these relationships that they have also built within her a quiet confidence to be comfortable in her skin; to have faith in the way she is approaching her life, and the way she is evolving as a person.
"I used to always worry about what people thought of me," she says, "but in the last few years, since building some really quality relationships in my world with people who are outstanding human beings in their own right, I think I must be doing something right; those people don't waste their time with people they don't think are good people, too.
"I certainly know I'm not everyone's cup of tea, and that's totally fine. But as long as I'm being a good person, that's what I pride myself on."
* * *
Mooney considers herself fully fit for the World Cup, with the six-week recovery period for a broken jaw having ended on March 1. Thanks to Dr Inge's special smoothie blend of ice cream, Nutella, and – unbeknownst to Mooney – raw eggs during the Ashes Test, she was able to put on the almost four kilograms she had lost in those initial five days post-surgery.
Now she is setting that laser focus on a 12-month period that must rival any in the history of the women's game: an ODI World Cup, a Commonwealth Games, and a T20 World Cup next February.
Mooney is in the form of her life. The WBBL's leading run-scorer in back-to-back seasons, she is still to enter that traditional peak batting age bracket of around 29-31, and according to Nitschke, she is only now beginning to understand the extent of her ability.
"We know she's driven, and super competitive, but to be that consistent in T20 over a season, let alone a number of seasons, there's a high, high level of skill involved in that," she says.
"I think she sometimes takes it for granted because it's a natural thing for her, but the way she can pick something out in a bowler's action, or work out what's going to suit the conditions, not many people have that.
"Her game awareness, and the way she can sum up conditions, is second to none. I think she's just starting to appreciate now that she's actually got a bit of a gift there."
Mooney is suitably excited for the landmark events that await. She and her teammates look back at their 2017 ODI World Cup semi-final defeat as a "line-in-the-sand moment", one from which their no-fear style of play was born. A world record winning streak followed, but it is the trophy, and redemption, they crave.
Meanwhile, merely being part of the country's Commonwealth Games team is another "piece of history" that is driving her. Not that she needs extra motivation. There are still improvements she is chasing, both everyday and long-term. Still personal goals to tick off.
One of those is to eventually replace Healy as Australia's wicketkeeper and opening batter in all formats. She speaks with respect and warmth about her senior teammate, and takes the team view first when pondering their respective futures.
"God I hope she sticks around for a lot longer, because she has a huge impact on our team," Mooney says. "But I also feel like I've been biding my time a little bit on the wicketkeeping front, and I do want to eventually have a decent crack at doing that role in the Australian team.
"I would relish that kind of challenge. If or when that happens, I'm not sure."
As she has done with her move from Brisbane Heat to Perth Scorchers, Mooney would also be willing to shift allegiances interstate from Queensland Fire should she see it as a means of evolving her game.
There is a caveat there, though, which reveals plenty.
"This question has been on my mind a lot in the last 6-12 months, just with how good I think the Perth organisation is," she says. "I've probably got to spend a bit of time in the next few months thinking about it.
"My life outside of cricket is in such a good spot in Brisbane, so would I be compromising too much by packing up and leaving, and playing elsewhere?
"That's not to say that playing somewhere else is out of the question. I think if I was offered an opportunity to live in Brisbane and fly in, fly out, I would definitely consider that.
"But based on the people who have come up in this conversation today … they're the people who keep me grounded and offer me something away from cricket.
"I can't underestimate the impact they have on how successful I am on the field because of what they offer me off the field. So if I was giving that up, I just think that would compromise a little bit too much, if that makes sense."
It makes perfect sense. They are her world beyond cricket.
ICC Women's Cricket World Cup 2022
Australia squad: Meg Lanning (c), Rachael Haynes (vc), Darcie Brown, Nicola Carey, Ashleigh Gardner, Grace Harris, Alyssa Healy, Jess Jonassen, Alana King, Beth Mooney, Tahlia McGrath, Ellyse Perry, Megan Schutt, Annabel Sutherland, Amanda-Jade Wellington. Travelling reserves: Heather Graham, Georgia Redmayne
Australia's World Cup 2022 fixtures
Mar 30: Basin Reserve, Wellington, 8am AEDT
Mar 31: Hagley Park Christchurch, 12pm AEDT
Apr 3: Hagley Park Christchurch, 11am AEDT
All matches to be broadcast in Australia on Fox Cricket and Kayo Sports