Sparkle and Gade: Wareham confronts her long road back
The Victoria and Australia leg-spinner is trying not to drive herself crazy during what will be more than a year on the sidelines, all while finding comfort in an inspirational rehab buddy and her own optimistic outlook
April 3, 2022. On either side of the Tasman, about 2,400km apart, two contrasting scenes involving some of Australia's finest cricketers are simultaneously being played out.
In Christchurch, Meg Lanning's all-conquering ODI outfit has just won yet another World Cup title, downing England by 71 runs. Familiar feelings of relief and euphoria are beginning to wash over a group that has viewed this particular trophy as a holy grail for almost five years.
In Melbourne, three other members of that group have come together for the occasion. All three are young, all three have showcased their ability on their international stage, and all three are viewed as key players in the future of Australian cricket.
However, all three – Georgia Wareham, Sophie Molineux and Tayla Vlaeminck – are also injured.
"Watching that whole World Cup just hadn't been very enjoyable," says Wareham, who ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee during the Big Bash last October.
"It's not like I was really bitter about any of it, it was more like, I just wanted to be there.
"And that didn't really hit until the final, or even after the game, when you see everyone, see how excited and happy they are.
"Obviously, I was really pumped for everyone – they're all my mates and I want them to go really well – but at the same time, it's like, 'Oh, I wish I was there'.
"I've had a taste of that in the T20 World Cup(s) and just being around that sort of elation after the win was so amazing, so I think seeing that again, that's when it hit.
"For me and Soph and Tay, we were just sitting at home and it was like, 'Well, we can just turn the TV off now'. And then that was it."
For Wareham, it put a definitive line under Day 165 without cricket. There had been no triumphant Ashes series for her, no World Cup travails. Nor will there be a Commonwealth Games campaign this winter, or a Big Bash to look forward to when the home season gets underway.
When all is said and done, the leg-spinner's time on the sidelines will have stretched well beyond a year – an incredibly lengthy spell for a contemporary sportsperson.
But she is adamant hers is not a sob story. Why? Well, it just isn't her style.
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The death of Shane Warne in March took Wareham all the way back to her childhood.
Specifically, to the house next door to the one in which she grew up, out in the country Victorian town of Mortlake, about a two-and-a-half hour drive west of Melbourne.
In an old three-bedroom home that had been renovated, Georgia lived with her brother Jordan and their mum Meg.
"When we were kids, mum hated watching cricket," Wareham grins. "She says she likes it now, but I think she still gets quite bored.
"But my grandma, who lives next door to us, is a proper cricket tragic.
"Gran would watch pretty much every ball of a day of Test cricket, so me and my brother would go up and we'd watch the cricket with her in the house during the summer, which was pretty cool.
"I have some memories of watching Warnie bowl, and Gran used to love watching him as well."
The loss of Warne carried more significance for Wareham than most, because, while countless kids dreamed of one day emulating the King of Spin, she actually committed her life to it.
"It was pretty devastating news," she says. "I modelled my bowling off him … modelled everything off him."
Nowadays, when Jordan is on hand to log her into the Kayo Sports app, Gran has become accustomed to watching another Victorian leg-spinner take centre stage. And while Warne owned that arena like perhaps no other cricketer in history, not even he was as successful at such a young age as Wareham, who stands as the only Australian spinner to have collected 50 international wickets before turning 23.
Wareham can't pinpoint an exact time or place when she turned her hand to what many consider cricket's most difficult art. It was probably in the backyard, she reasons, some time after realising she hadn't been "genetically blessed" as a fast bowler, and so she decided that Jordan, who is two years her senior, might be more susceptible to subtlety than speed.
"It must have come out alright," she says, "and someone must've told me to stick with it."
Stick with it she did. Recognition via representative teams, and a subsequent feeling of not being out of her depth at that level, were both factors that encouraged her to persist. State carnivals followed, then selection in Victoria underage teams.
It was around that time, and through those experiences, that Wareham, who puts her natural athleticism in the field down to having played an array of sports as a kid, first came across Molineux and Vlaeminck, who hail from Bairnsdale and Bendigo respectively.
"Tay I think was an opening batter back then," she smiles. "And Soph always dominated those underage tournaments; when we would play our pathway stuff, we'd be like, 'Oh, we're playing against Sophie Molineux today', and then whenever we went for Vic underage stuff, she was always the captain."
In 2018, Wareham bolted into the Australia set-up as a prodigiously talented 19-year-old. At the time, then head coach Matthew Mott explained the national selection panel had felt emboldened to pick the youngster based not only off her skillset, but its similarities to those of Afghan sensation Rashid Khan and Pakistan whiz Shadab Khan, who had both taken international cricket by storm as teenagers.
"Georgia is a really consistent bowler … she just bowls a lot of good balls, spins the ball both ways and asks a lot of questions of the batters," Mott told cricket.com.au.
"If we're following the men's trends, the bowlers who've done well in T20s are leg-spinners who bowl reasonably quick and who spin it both ways. That's what we were looking at mostly from her."
That same year had also seen international call-ups for both Molineux and Vlaeminck, and so we come full circle to 2022, when the three country Victoria kids are huddled around the television in the apartment shared by Wareham and Vlaeminck, watching their friends finish off an odyssey in which they had all been so invested.
Had they been fit for the World Cup in New Zealand, each would have presented a compelling case to be in the starting XI. Instead, they were propping one another up in their own ways, just as they had been across the summer, when Molineux and Wareham picked an injured Vlaeminck up from Melbourne airport after her Ashes campaign was cut short by a stress fracture in her right foot, and when Molineux missed a Cricket Australia (CA) central contract just four days after that World Cup final.
"It was really nice to be able to sit there and watch it with those two," says Molineux, casting her mind back to that landmark final.
"To see your best mates out there winning a World Cup that we'd all been after, we knew the importance of it, and that initial emotion was pure happiness for them, and we were so proud of them.
"But then I suppose it sunk in a little bit that we were sitting there on the couch … we turned the TV off, and yeah, it was a little bit empty."
True to her quiet nature, Wareham has shown support to her mates through their down times simply by being a presence, a shoulder to lean on, whereas she says Molineux is more likely to offer a pep talk or drag her spin-bowling buddy along to one of the many rehab sessions they have been completing together across these past few months as they plot their paths back to the playing field.
"That's nice of her to say but I think we're dragging each other along," Molineux says. "We've been good mates for a long time so I suppose the rehab side of it is another component of our friendship now, but we have seemed to time everything quite well – when we have our little slumps, the other one tends to be flying, and we've gone tit for tat with that, which has been handy.
"'Wolf' (Wareham) is pretty laidback. She's definitely been a special friend to me – she balances me out a lot, especially over these last six months where it hasn't been the smoothest of rides at times.
"She's got great awareness I think, with those close to her. She's definitely not the loudest in the group but she has this way of navigating through social situations and teams while making everyone else feel really important and special in her own little way. I'm very lucky to have her by my side."
Wareham insists the same is true in reverse. She has been leaning on Molineux's drive at times when the rehab has become repetitive, and the Melbourne days colder and darker with the onset of winter.
The eight months she has now been out of action have begun to blur together. She can't recall off-hand, for example, if the initial ACL rupture was in October or November. Nor does she remember whether her second surgery, which was required because of the need to firstly clean out the knee due to a reconstruction she'd had as a 15-year-old, was in January or February. In her mind, none of those dates are important, because she is fixing her focus firmly on what comes next.
In time, that will be a return to the bowling crease, working in different locations and squads with different coaches and mentors – Victoria spin guru Craig Howard, and interim Australia head coach Shelly Nitschke, both of whom she has worked with extensively – among them.
This week, however, what comes next is a change of scene, via a one-week camp with the CA contracted group at the National Cricket Centre in Brisbane. It is Wareham's first get-together with much of that World Cup winning squad, and she is feeling energised just being around them once again.
Next week, it gets better still, thanks to a turning point in her rehab: she will begin running again.
"Georgia's flying at the moment," Molineux insists. "She's taking this injury in her stride – the same way she deals with everything."
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The first days of her long recovery were tough. Amid the tedium of this period of her life, Wareham does vividly recall those early challenges, and particularly, the pain.
"Initially it's just all about straightening out my leg, which at the time felt like the hardest thing in the world to do," she says, before demonstrating the simple exercise she was tasked with.
"It was literally just like this – sitting here, I'd have to put my leg out and then land my foot on something, and then hang something on (her knee) to try to weigh it down and straighten it out.
"It's actually still pretty gross when I just think about it."
With time, she has found a balance between rehab and the resumption of life – not quite as she knew it, because she has never known this long without cricket, but something resembling normality. In that she has been working her way through various subjects in the digital media degree she is studying, while as a country girl at heart, she has also been making her way back to Mortlake regularly to see her family.
Wareham considers both things to be silver linings, and it is notable that Molineux considers a couple of her mate's great strengths to be her senses of perspective and balance in life.
There is cricket-related optimism, too. Wareham is enthused by the idea that the nature of her recovery means she will be able to bat in the nets before she can bowl. It means that, for one of the few times in her career, she will be able to train exclusively as a batter, a fact she hopes will help her realise her considerable potential as an allrounder.
"I want to figure out some stuff with my batting, work out what works for me," she says. "It'll be interesting to have this much time on batting, and I think Dulip (Samaraweera, Victoria batting coach) has got some cool ideas to work on a few things.
"I feel like I'll be sort of learning it all again, really stripping it back to basics and figuring out how to hold onto the bat again."
To date through Wareham's career, there have been only snippets of her batting potential, and at least part of that has come down to opportunity. In a talent-laden Victoria batting order and between injuries, she has batted just eight times across the past three years in the WNCL, making her two most telling contributions – scores of 51 and 67 – from No.6.
With Australia, time in the middle has been even scarcer. In her 58 limited-overs internationals, she has batted only 11 times, remaining not out on eight occasions. The sole innings in which she batted higher than No.8 came in a T20 against India last year when, batting at seven, her 13no from five balls at the close proved decisive in an Australia series win.
Samaraweera, a former Sri Lanka international and an astute enough judge to have forecast Ellyse Perry making Test centuries long before it happened, saw enough of Wareham through a handful of innings in WBBL|05 to be convinced of her capabilities.
Batting at five and six, the right-hander went 22no, 54no, 8, 13, 42 for the Renegades, her maiden half-century in that run coming at a strike-rate of 200 and peppered with four maximums.
All told it was 139 runs at an average of 46.33 and a strike-rate of 146.31 – a stunning glimpse of her promise before her tournament was ended by a bone stress reaction in her shin.
"We spoke about it last year, in terms of where we want to be with her batting," Samaraweera tells cricket.com.au.
"She's a brilliant leg-spinner, she's probably the best fielder in the country, and I reckon in T20s she can bat four, five or six, in a finishing role.
"She can really go. She's got the front-foot game, the back-foot game, and she can play all around on both sides of the wicket.
"She's only just turned 23, which is crazy; if you look at most players, they mature when they're 25, 26, so she has so much potential.
"She's got every attribute to become the best allrounder in the world."
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Wareham hasn't dared to look to deeply into next summer's domestic and international schedules. She thinks doing so mightn't be the wisest move at this stage of her recovery. Similarly, she has a rough outline for ways in which she wants to work on her bowling again but she is reluctant to expend too much mental energy on the granular detail right now.
"I go through phases a little bit," she says. "Sometimes I'm really thinking about it, but in the back of my mind I'm telling myself, 'It's still so far away'.
"I feel like I'll go crazy if I start thinking too much into the specifics.
"At the moment there are nerves about coming back, and what that will look like, but I'm just reminding myself that there's a lot of time between now and then to be able to calm those nerves."
Attitudinally however, Wareham is much more certain. She concedes the doubts and worries about ever again scaling the game's heights have surfaced from time to time – "I wouldn't be human if I hadn't thought about those things" – but she sees her choices as being binary.
"I can get really bitter about it," she says, "or I can use it to drive me back into that space. I feel like if I'm down in the dumps about things, I'm not really going to want to put the work in to get back."
Which is where Molineux returns to the scene, and another silver lining has emerged. Just the other week, the two were slogging their way through another rehab session in the gym. As it happened, they spotted a tennis ball on the floor. There was a cricket bat up against the wall, too, and so…
"Normally we'd see a bat or ball in the gym and you wouldn't even think about it because you were going in the nets afterwards," Wareham says. "But because we haven't played in so long we were like, 'Should we play a little bit of cricket?'
"We ended up being like two little 12-year-olds in the gym.
"When you're young, you get told to just have fun – that's why you're playing – and I suppose in that way, this time off has definitely reminded me how much I actually enjoy playing the game, and I think that – just falling in love with the game again – has been really cool."
Molineux laughs at the recent memory, and nods along to her friend's typically wider perspective on matters.
"I think we're very similar like that – both growing up in country areas, and just picking up a bat or a ball in front of you, or kicking the footy or whatever it was, that was just what we did," she says.
"So it just feels like we're little kids again in the gym at the moment when there's a bat and ball in there, which is really nice; just to be able to dumb it down a bit and swing a bat or half-bowl a ball, I know that's something that Wolf's enjoying as well.
"You can see that sparkle in her eye, that's for sure."