Elite now, elite then: Before the golden age of women’s cricket
Cathryn Fitzpatrick, one of the fastest, most fearsome fast bowlers the game will ever see, reached the pinnacle of her sport at a time when female cricketers went without significant financial reward or widespread recognition
20 January 2020, 04:27 PM AEST
Ahead of the 2020 Women's T20 World Cup, we take a closer look at some trailblazers who were crucial to the development of women's cricket in Australia
Cathryn Fitzpatrick says she isn't bitter, and she doesn't act like it either.
In a glittering career spanning more than 15 years, Fitzpatrick spearheaded the Australian Women's Cricket Team, and to this day is remembered as one of the fastest female bowlers of all time.
Now 51, the Victorian has since carved out an exceptional career as a coach and has led the national side to World Cup glory on five occasions in total, on and off the field.
Currently part of Cricket Victoria's coaching staff, she's now able to make a living from cricket, a luxury that wasn't afforded to her for the bulk of her playing career.
In Fitzpatrick's day, juggling a regular job with a position at the top of her sport was a given.
She recalls a time when, far from being paid to play, she was sent an invoice.
But despite the recent windfall of investment in the women's game in Australia, Fitzpatrick feels no sense of spite, nor lingering bitterness that she missed out on playing in the first truly professional era of women's cricket in Australia.
What does irk her is the perception that women playing cricket is a new-found revelation.
"I think the product's always been good," Fitzpatrick tells cricket.com.au.
"'You must admire the athleticism' they say. That's the thing that bugs me. Women's cricket today is a great sport, but don't say it's better. That's a little bit disrespectful of what's gone before.
"We used to do the two-kilometre time trials, we used to be fit, we used to be athletic. Guess what, if we used to train full time, maybe we would've been way superior?
"And I think the people that played before us were pretty alright too. Guess what, so was Betty (Wilson). Guess what, so was Sharon (Tredrea). They were athletic, they were dynamic, they had unbelievable skills."
Fitzpatrick has a fair sense of how this disparity came about.
"When people talk about the men's game, they can always reflect to other eras with a picture in their mind," she says.
"When they talk about the current women's game, I don't reckon they have a picture of what it was like."
A simple YouTube search proves Fitzpatrick's point. There is next-to-no evidence of a fearsome Fitzpatrick delivery, nor of her team's dominance. With very few matches broadcast on television and sparse media coverage, it was hard work to be a fan of the Australian women's team.
And it was even harder to be a player.
Following her Test debut as a 23-year-old, Fitzpatrick juggled cricket with a job as a council employee running behind a garbage truck, before graduating to a role as a 'postie'.
It wasn't glamorous, but the early wake-ups allowed her to make it to afternoon training on time, plus there was the added physical element that doubled as fitness training.
"Both those jobs, the quicker you did it, the sooner you'd get home," she says.
"Early mornings weren't always fun. When it was raining, it was no good."
The lack of any income from cricket made it difficult to balance a job with the demands of training and playing for the national team, particularly when overseas tours were involved.
It wasn't until after Fitzpatrick's retirement that Australia's women were remunerated beyond merely covering basic expenses.
"Up until 1997, we paid to play," she recalls.
"I found an invoice that said this is what I owe, this is my levy, the invoice for my culottes, shirt and a blazer with somebody else's name on the pocket.
"Even when we stopped paying to play, it would still cost us money because you're out of pocket.
"If I'm at a rental property and I'm away for two months, I've still got to pay rent, but you've taken leave without pay from work."
Despite the hardships, something about cricket kept Fitzpatrick coming back.
The way her eyes light up when revisiting a particular tour or dishing the dirt on one of her old teammates is telling of her enduring love of the game, and of fond memories with the Australian team.
Far from the controlled, high-performance environment that the current superstars of the women's game inhabit, Fitzpatrick alludes to a few stories from her days on tour that she suggests best remain unpublished.
Recalling "hotels that weren't hotels," dodgy meals, broken down buses, and - with a glint of mischief - practical jokes on unsuspecting teammates, it's clear that Fitzpatrick revelled in her touring days.
Asked how the current crop of players would cope, Fitzpatrick is adamant they'd be "full-on shocked."
In 2019, Fitzpatrick was inducted into the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame. Later that year, induction into the ICC Hall of Fame followed.
Widely regarded as one of the finest fast bowlers ever, the numbers show why.
She collected 180 wickets from 109 one-day internationals, a world record at the time and a feat that has kept her name in second position on the all-time ODI wickets tally behind on India's Jhulan Goswami. From 13 Test appearances, she added a further 60 wickets.
Clocking speeds up to 125km/h, Fitzpatrick was known to terrorise batters. When the match was in the balance, it was Fitzpatrick who was thrown the ball. Spearheading the national side, she was integral in both the 1997 and 2005 World Cup triumphs.
And beyond just the raw numbers, accounts from former teammates complete the picture of Fitzpatrick as a menacing seam bowler, doggedly dedicated to her craft and unrivalled by any fellow quicks of the era.
"She was certainly ferocious on the field and a great competitor," former Australia captain Belinda Clark said at Fitzpatrick's induction into the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame.
"As a captain of a team, that's exactly what you want. You want people walking over the line and giving their best and she certainly did that every match she played."
Much like the current national team, Fitzpatrick's Australian side featured a fair share of champions. Playing alongside the likes of Clark, Karen Rolton, Lisa Sthalekar and Lisa Keightley, Fitzpatrick recalls the intensely competitive team culture.
"We were ruthless and we were fiercely competitive," she said.
"Our trainings were tougher than any games. We held each other accountable (and) we were very direct."
Clark says Fitzpatrick played no small part in building the culture that created such a successful team.
"In team meetings she was very honest," she recalls.
"If there was any time the team was getting off track, or people started to babble about stuff, you could be sure that she would bring things back into line."
The culture of accountability and competitiveness worked and Australia were the dominant force in women's international cricket during Fitzpatrick's era. Of the 109 ODIs that Fitzpatrick played from 1990 to 2006, the team lost just seven matches.
All the while, Australia's public was largely yet to tune in. The team was sparingly noticed by the mainstream media and if they were covered at all, it wasn't necessarily positive.
"I was always a 'female Merv Hughes'," Fitzpatrick remembers.
"Then Brett Lee came on the scene and then I was the 'female Brett Lee'.
"I thought, 'Hang on a minute - I was here before him, why isn't he the male me?'
"You had to do something spectacular to even be compared."
In 2007, after a spectacular playing career spanning 15 years, Fitzpatrick announced her retirement at the age of 39, to little or no fanfare outside the bubble of the team she represented so admirably.
She moved into coaching a short time later and in 2012, after a stint at the helm of Victoria, she was named the head coach of the national side she once played for.
During her three-year tenure, Fitzpatrick coached Australia to three World Cup titles and oversaw the development of the likes of Meg Lanning, Ellyse Perry and Alyssa Healy.
And to this day, Fitzpatrick continues to get her hands dirty at her beloved Dandenong Cricket Club in Melbourne's outer suburbs, where a lifetime of commitment has earned her status as a club legend.
Her current role as a Coaching and Talent Development Specialist at Cricket Victoria underlines not only her superior knowledge of the game, but a rare commitment to it ranging from grassroots to the elite pathways.
In typically off-handed fashion, she dismisses the notion of a legacy as 'cocky', making it strikingly clear that nothing that she has done, or continues to do, is to receive praise or recognition.
Clark, however, offers an eloquent summation of Fitzpatrick's longstanding service to the game.
"That legacy goes well beyond what you see on the cricket field at the national level, and probably very deep into the community with her club in Dandenong," Clark says.
"She spent a lot of time there, and then at her state team as well.
"The highlights we see will be on the cricket field. The deeper legacy will be at the community end where she's impacted so many people."
One fleeting moment of introspection allows a glimpse past the steely exterior of Fitzpatrick as she reflects on a lifetime of dedicating herself to the game she loves.
"I remember saying to Lisa Sthalekar, 'When you retire, what's written about you won't matter. When you find out about what your teammates said of you, that's what you'll care about'," she says.
"I know because I bowled quick, people might have a certain view of me, but I think I'm a different person off the field than I am as a cricketer.
"When I reflect, I like to think how we've influenced people.
"There are people that not only play cricket, but they stay in love with the game, people that give back as well, which is a cool story."
Cathryn Fitzpatrick blazed a trail in every sense. A world-class athlete who played an instrumental role in elevating the women's game to the point where officials are hoping for a crowd of upwards of 90,000 fans at this year's T20 World Cup final.
Now in the back seat, she's content to play her role in the continuing boom in the game by passing on her invaluable knowledge and experience to the younger generations.
Just don't tell her how much better the game is today.
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, Tayla Vlaeminck, Georgia Wareham
February 15: Australia v West Indies, Allan Border Field
February 18: Australia v South Africa, Karen Rolton Oval
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