How Claire Polosak broke through the glass ceiling
The first woman to officiate a men's Test match, Claire Polosak's path into umpiring wasn't always a smooth one
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
When Claire Polosak talks about umpiring, it is impossible not to get swept up in her infectious enthusiasm for her craft.
The 32-year-old made history earlier this month when she added yet another 'first' to an already impressive resume, becoming the first woman to officiate a men's Test match when she was named fourth umpire for the third Test at the SCG.
For the former science teacher turned globe-trotting match official, it was a proud moment, and the latest achievement of a journey that started with an unlikely introduction to umpiring as a 15-year-old in the NSW town of Goulburn.
"Every year we'd go to the SCG Test and I had posters of the Australian men's players on my wall growing up," Polosak told The Scoop podcast.
"I loved cricket and followed it, I just never had the opportunity to play.
"There wasn't any girls' cricket and I guess I was too scared to play with the boys … so I followed it from a distance.
"Then when I was about 15, a friend came to school with a flyer that was advertising an umpiring course, which her dad had suggested (I should try) … and I thought, 'I'll try this'."
That five-night umpiring course was held a two-hour drive away at the SCG, and Polosak's father drove her in each evening after he finished work.
More than once, as it happened.
"I failed the exam at least two or three times … being 15 and never playing cricket didn't help," Polosak says.
"But every time I did the assessment, I got a little bit better.
"I can't really tell you why, but (passing that exam) was something I was determined to do ... so I'm lucky my dad didn’t say, You know what, you've tried it enough - let's find something else for you to do."
Polosak's umpiring debut came in men's club cricket in Goulburn and when she moved to Sydney for university in 2008, she started officiating grade cricket there.
After a self-described 'slow' journey through the ranks of Premier cricket, Polosak has been busy racking up the firsts since cracking the elite level.
In 2017, she became the first woman to stand as an on-field umpire in a men's domestic fixture in Australia, while in 2019 she became the first woman to stand in a men's ODI.
Last November, she and Eloise Sheridan were the on-field umpires for the final of the Rebel WBBL – the first time two women have officiated a national final.
Between those achievements, Polosak also became a regular face at ICC tournaments, standing as an on-field umpire at the 2018 and 2020 Women’s T20 World Cups.
Her call-up into the match official crew for the final two Tests of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy "summed up 2020", she says.
Not originally part of the roster for the four-match series, border closures and bubble restrictions meant a change in staff midway through, handing Polosak – who still lives in Sydney – her opportunity.
Her role as fourth umpire was largely based around supporting the on-field officials through managing the ground, weather and light, monitoring outside conditions and dealing with ground staff to maximise play, all factors that featured heavily during the rain-affected Test.
And despite not being an on-field role, it came with the usual bout of nerves that Polosak experiences before every match she officiates.
"It was a really good experience," she said.
"Nerves are good, because they mean you care about what you do, and they mean you care about wanting to do well.
"I get nerves whenever I go out onto the field, doesn't matter (what game it is), so I make sure I prepare as well as I possibly can."
Despite being the only female among "lots of older white males" when she first arrived on the Premier cricket scene in Sydney, Polosak said she has encountered very little pushback or negativity throughout her career, despite being very much in the minority.
"I don't think players care if you're male or female, as long as you do your best to get the decisions right," she says.
But the face of umpiring in cricket is slowly changing, and Polosak is playing a key role in that as an umpire education and female umpire engagement officer with Cricket New South Wales.
That job came along at the perfect time, when Polosak was finding it difficult to juggle her job as a high school science teacher with her bourgeoning umpiring career.
"School were really supportive of my umpiring, but it got to the point where they said, 'We like your umpiring, but we need you in the classroom'," she says.
"I totally understood, and at the same time I was approached by Cricket NSW (about the new job) … I thought, 'teaching Year 9 boys with Bunsen burners, or teaching people how to be an umpire?'.
"It was an easy decision to make … and I still do some casual teaching on the side in winter when it's quiet."
When describing what skills and characteristics make an international-standard match official, Polosak (unnecessarily) apologises for her enthusiasm – "I'm sorry, I just get so excited talking about umpiring," she says – but it is difficult not to get swept up by her passion for her job.
"So much of umpiring is match management and communication, so building relationships is really important," she says.
"Being a good communicator is definitely (important) because you can make a fantastic decision, an absolutely great decision, and then ruin it with a poor explanation. So you need to be able to communicate.
"Dealing with the players and when there's some tense situations, that match management becomes really important.
"Being calm and composed under pressure is also really important … those sorts of skills are transferable to other aspects of life as well."
Those transferable skills are something Polosak likes to remind aspiring young umpires of when they consider a career in officiating.
Another carrot is the life experience that comes with officiating ICC events around the globe. Polosak has travelled to more than 10 countries including Guyana and India, and rates meeting the Dalai Lama during the 2016 T20 World Cup in Dharamshala as the single best moment she has had in the job.
"If you'd told a 16-year-old Claire that by the time she was 32 she'd have travelled overseas 10 or 11 times for cricket, she'd have been like, 'no way'," she says.