Women's Ashes T20s
Bowral kid with the world at her feet
Australia's coaches don't want to say it too loudly, but Lauren Cheatle could be her country town's second superstar
It's an exciting time to be a young, highly-talented female cricketer in Australia. The WBBL provides a national stage. The new MOU guarantees the best players a professional wage. And the support system is better than ever.
But with those opportunities comes the flipside; more expectation, more scrutiny, more pressure.
And if you're a promising fast bowler from a country town synonymous with Australian cricket, trying to simultaneously cement your place in the national side while completing your HSC, how do you keep it all together?
It's a challenge that Lauren Cheatle knows all too well. And for a while it got the best of her, but this summer she's back, and poised to be an X-factor in the Women's Ashes.
Matthew Mott is savouring each adjective as it rolls off his tongue.
Pace. Height. Left-arm. Swing.
A sweet caviar of fast-bowling characteristics. The BUPA Australian Women's Team coach nods his head in the direction of bowling coach Joe Dawes, a former quick himself and a seasoned pro who has seen wonderkids come and go too many times to count. There's a gentle thought that this one might be the real deal.
"He can't wait to work with her for an extended period," Mott says. "Her training ethic is great, she's looking strong, and she's holding her action well."
Australia's Ashes campaign is off and running. The World Cup in England didn't go as planned and there were issues thereafter. Primarily, the loss of their captain and the world's best batter, Meg Lanning. It left a gaping hole that could not be completely plugged; Lanning does things with the bat few people on the planet can do.
Head coach Mott and national selectors also had an issue with their pace stocks. They were a little greener than they'd perhaps have liked, with the burden falling on the experience of Megan Schutt and the all-round skills of Ellyse Perry. Beyond that, there was the possibility of an over-reliance on spin.
But then there's Lauren Cheatle. An 18-year-old fast-bowling thoroughbred and a potential Ashes X-factor, who has fought her way back from a challenge that would floor the most experienced pro.
No town in Australia has an affinity with cricket quite like Bowral. It's more than a century since George and Emily Bradman moved their young family to the quaint little village in the Southern Highlands, about 90 minutes south-west of Sydney, but the sport's most famous name continues to resonate as strongly as ever.
On approach, the BOWRAL sign depicts the the Don frozen mid-way through a lavish backswing. There's a green lushness to the place, as if rain is never far away, though the sun clearly shines enough for cricket; practice nets dot street corners like petrol stations amid suburbia.
Away from the main strip, between St Jude and Glebe Streets, is Bradman Oval, with the accompanying Museum and Hall of Fame overlooking the boutique ground. All of it is a monument to the greatest cricketer who ever lived.
All, that is, except for the flowers. It's Tulip Time, quite literally; that's the name of the floral festival that attracts anthophiles from around the country to Bowral every September. The town bubbles with retirees contentedly dividing their day between flowers and cricket.
Growing up, a baby-faced Cheatle only had time for one of those interests. A crash course in tee ball as a seven-year-old served as a precursor to participation in her town's greatest love, and soon enough, it became an affair to remember for her. In tee ball, Lauren would while away the hours sitting on the grass making daisy chains as she awaited her turn for a swing of the bat. But the flowers could never suffice; she needed action.
Cheatle's father, Giles, played cricket professionally for a decade, representing Sussex and Surrey in England's County Championship. There was an under-10s competition running in Bowral that allowed each player to bat for four overs and bowl for two. He suggested to Lauren that she give it a try.
She signed up, and wasn't dismissed for the season.
"It was others who spotted her talent – I just wanted her to enjoy herself," says Giles, who retains his genteel English accent despite three decades in Australia.
"The only thing I ever told her to do was, 'Smack it, Sweetheart'."
Cheatle played under-12s the following season in a boys' team and blossomed from there. Soon enough she was captain (despite being the only girl) of all her teams, as her reputation as one of the most promising players to emerge from the region grew.
"She used to refer to (her teammates) as 'my boys'," remembers Giles. "And they didn't mind; it was amazing how they just accepted her."
Despite his pedigree, Cheatle's father maintains his involvement in Lauren's development was limited, self-effacingly referring to himself as "a chauffeur".
The parental focus was on raising the person, not the cricketer, and the upshot was that, where other young sports stars can be saddled with the millstone of a 'tennis dad' around their neck throughout their childhood, Lauren benefited from balance.
"There's that danger, I suppose, that you get so immersed in the sport, you forget you're actually bringing up a human being," says Giles.
"But in the world of cricket, she pretty much brought herself up. She and I would spend a lot of time on the couch watching cricket, and the sorts of comments she would make, I was amazed at how advanced her cricketing brain was."
Matthew Bourke, her teacher and cricket coach at Chevalier College, nurtured the talent and encouraged Lauren to develop her skills as well as her match awareness.
When Cheatle was in year nine, he encouraged her to play in the senior boys' team. It meant taking on 17 and 18-year-olds from rival schools, some of whom were just about fully grown men.
She had her doubts.
"I really wasn't confident about it," says Cheatle. "High school boys are really competitive – they're going to put you under the pump."
Ultimately, she chose to play. She wasn't afraid, as many – including herself – suspected she might have been. And the lessons she learned have become ingrained in the way she approaches her cricket.
"I try to be really aggressive with the ball," she says. "And really competitive with every ball I'm bowling."
Cheatle is at the forefront of a revolution in women's sport. With long blonde hair and a bright smile, she could well be cricket's face in the changing tide.
At 18, she is in the first wave of young women to walk straight into a professional cricket environment, with full-time hours, world-class facilities, significant remuneration and increasing media interest.
"I've been in the New South Wales side for the past three or four years and the difference between the start and now is massive," she says.
"It's looking a lot more like the men's pathway now. Girls have female role models to look up to."
The flipside to the benefits of professionalism is the pressure and expectation that accompanies it. Last year, while studying for her Higher School Certificate, the full weight of those twin burdens hit Cheatle hard.
With the promise of a glittering career ahead of her, and the giddy excitement from an adoring home town following her steady rise to prominence, she stumbled badly before she could truly take off.
"Towards the end of my studies, I kind of fell in a heap," she says.
Cheatle is a competitor, and a high achiever. She was desperate to perform well in her HSC but she also had an eye on the opening rounds of the Women's National Cricket League season.
It was an unforgiving pattern: study, train, school, compete ... repeat. The stress and anxiety built up to a point that it affected her health.
"I know the HSC isn't the be-all and end-all but when you're doing it, it does feel like that," the teenager says.
"And when you're competing at the highest level in cricket, you want to do well for your country and your state.
"So there's pressure on both."
Mott was watching the Australians in the field during an ODI in New Zealand in March this year when he saw one of his players running up from third man, waving her arms to catch the bowler's attention. He didn't know what was happening, and nor did anyone else.
"It was Lauren," he says. "She was in the right position, but she brought the game to a halt, because she'd seen that we had one too many players outside the circle.
"Eighteen years old. That's the kind of awareness I'm talking about."
It was Cheatle's second ODI. She had debuted in Auckland a week earlier after missing half the Rebel WBBL season with chronic fatigue syndrome. It had been an unhappy debut and in the follow-up she fared little better, but there was no getting around the potential, as well as her maturity and match intelligence, particularly for one so young.
"She really gets it," Mott says. "She understands what she's trying to do out there.
"Her father has played first-class cricket and I think that helps. She understands what's working, what's not, how she can go about fixing it, and who she needs to seek help from."
When her workload conspired against her towards the end of 2016, Cheatle found help in her "support network", led by her father and Bourke.
It had been a difficult year. Following the highs of a T20I debut at the MCG and an ICC World T20 event in India, Cheatle had juggled her commitments precariously, at one point playing a T20 international one day and taking a mathematics exam the next.
In the interests of her health, she was advised against going on Australia's tour of Sri Lanka in September, with trial exams imminent.
"That was a tough decision, it was a soul-searching decision for her," Bourke says. "She may have missed her opportunity, but she saw the importance of staying."
Throughout, she had been regularly commuting to Sydney to train with the New South Wales Breakers. Ultimately, there were too many balls in the air, and Cheatle's body and mind were telling her she needed some time out.
It's a difficult thing for someone with so much ambition to accept, but begrudgingly, she began prioritising.
"It did get tricky, I will admit, but the way Cricket Australia handled it – I missed out on a couple of tours which I wasn't happy about, but looking back it was the best thing for my schooling," she reflects.
"Having such a supportive family, and my school and Cricket Australia really rooting for me to do well in both areas, they were all really accepting in what I had to do."
Mott was well aware of the multiple pressures Cheatle was placing on her shoulders, and he wasn't the only one within the cricket system.
"We put her on a contract and that was designed to take pressure off her in terms of her cricket," he explains.
"Cricket New South Wales were fantastic. We were determined to make sure the HSC was the most important thing for her at that stage. Like any 18-year-old finishing school, you're at the crossroads and there can be pressure there, so I think she'll be better for it."
Lauren's parents, Giles and Sandra, split up when she was still in primary school. She remembers it as a difficult period but a continued friendship between the pair ensured it was nothing more affecting than that for Lauren or her brother Oliver. Nowadays, they live up the road from one another. Lauren lives with her mum, having not yet taken the plunge to pack up her bags and head permanently to the city. It's a move that, on her current trajectory, won't be far away, but for now she takes comfort in the familiarity of her home, and the intimacy of small-town life.
"Bowral is such a beautiful place," she says. "And it's such a tight community; everyone knows everyone. It's like a big family, really ... I'm really glad I'm doing my little town proud."
Inside the home is a shrine dedicated to Lauren's sporting achievements. Pennants, framed certificates, mini-bats and medals. Dozens of items, all their own tangible tales of recognition, stacked on the shelves of a white bookcase at the end of a hallway, and hanging busily from the wall above.
They all speak to a journey that, in many ways, is just beginning. After a childhood of unending success, the true tests now await. Her father has been through it, albeit in another hemisphere and in another time, but the themes remain the same.
"She went straight from school into the world of professional cricket," says Giles. "It's going to be very difficult for her. Obviously she's earning a lot more money than her peers, but it could only be for a year or two; she might fall on her face, or anything could happen.
"There's nothing wrong with a bit of hard work. A lot of kids leave school and go into something which is arduous. It's going to be hard for her, but she enjoys it, and she's having a whale of a time, so good on her."
The headlines started coming as far back as 2014, when she was just 15.
'Schoolgirl Lauren Cheatle could be the new Ellyse Perry' ran one sports website, and that summed up the consensus. The long blonde hair (again), the dual sporting talents (Cheatle has also played rep netball), the all-round cricket skills and the tender years all combined to bundle her conveniently into the 'Next Perry' package.
The reality – as ever – has been starkly different.
Cheatle's promise as a left-arm quick was too enticing, her potential too great and her rise too sudden, that there's been little time for her to showcase her prowess with the bat.
Mott first laid eyes on her at the National Cricket Centre in Brisbane during an Under-15s talent camp, and considered her the standout batter in the group. But he was completely seduced by her bowling.
"In that way, she's a victim of her own success," he says. "Because she's gone through the pathways so quickly as a bowler, she's been in strong teams where the opportunity to bat hasn't been there."
Mott is confident Cheatle is well-equipped to have an accomplished career as a batter. Little wonder there's such excitement about her among those in the know; followers of Australia's men's team are painfully aware of just how rare a commodity a world-class allrounder is.
In Perry and Cheatle, Australia's women's team could be on track to have two concurrently.
"She's a tall left-hander, and a fluent, nice striker of the ball," Mott adds. "She's a bit of a David Gower type. She's definitely got the ability to bat in the top six internationally if she puts the work in."
When it comes to Cheatle, there's little danger of that not happening. A regular top-order batter throughout her youth, she is devoting equal amounts of time at training to the two disciplines – a habit she picked up, ironically, from Perry.
"I do want to be a genuine allrounder when I'm at the peak of my career," she says.
"I think 'Pez' is the prime example of a top-class allrounder. She'll spend hours in the nets bowling and then hours in the nets batting, and that's when I started to get the impression it was really important to be able to spend the same amount of time on each skill."
As if emerging from the same country town as Bradman wasn't enough, the Perry comparison also provide challenges. Cheatle labels such assessments "an honour" but the pressure and expectation is again there; Perry is the most recognisable face in women's cricket in Australia (and arguably the world) and among the absolute elite of the sport.
"It's a big weight on her shoulders," says Australia wicketkeeper Alyssa Healy. "It's probably something she doesn't need to be thinking about too much. 'Pez' is one of the best allrounders in the game.
"For us right now Lauren is really important with the ball, so if she can nail that down and perform like we know she can, she can worry about the rest of it later."
A shoulder reconstruction in May followed Cheatle's tour of New Zealand. It was a comedown of sorts but not an unexpected subplot in the life of a young fast bowler. And the timing, coming as it did after the most difficult 12 months of her life, could certainly have been worse in that it allowed her to get away from the game and refocus on what lay ahead.
Though Cheatle argues it could have been better, too.
"It meant I missed the World Cup in England," she points out. "Which I was really hopeful about playing in."
It also meant 14 weeks without picking up a bat or ball, instead slogging her way through the rehabilitation process with an eye on the Ashes. If 2016 had presented new and confronting challenges, 2017 was following suit.
"It's one of the toughest things I've gone through," she said. "Not just in my cricket career but in my 18 years of living."
Mott understands Cheatle's frustration at missing the World Cup but he also sees the bigger picture. The stretch of rehab was an emotional and physical recovery period for one of the most exciting young players in the Australian cricket stable. Cheatle was carefully managed back to full health at Cricket NSW and able to work her way into a full pre-season. She returned to action for the Breakers earlier this month (0-31 from seven overs) and was subsequently picked in the Ashes squad.
"She's looking really strong and fit," Mott said. "The key now is for her to be bowling enough overs, managing her loads and sustaining that (amount of work)."
While it remains to be seen to what extent Cheatle influences this summer of cricket, her ability to swing the ball at pace as a left-armer is expected to be vital to Australia's hopes of dominating world cricket in the coming years. And it's not simply the fast-bowling traits.
"Someone like Lauren, who is so level-headed and mature and knows exactly what she wants to do and how to achieve it, the sky is the limit for her," says Perry, who knows the meaning of success and the trials that accompany the journey there as well as anyone in women's cricket.
"In the next couple of years, now that she's finished school and she's got this wonderful opportunity as a full-time cricketer to really go as far as she wants to, I think she's going to be extremely successful and a permanent member of this Australian women's cricket team for a long time to come."
Commonwealth Bank Women's Ashes
Australia lead England 4-2
Australia squad (ODI and Test): Rachael Haynes (C), Alex Blackwell (VC), Kristen Beams, Nicole Bolton, Lauren Cheatle, Ashleigh Gardner, Alyssa Healy, Jess Jonassen, Tahlia McGrath, Beth Mooney, Ellyse Perry, Megan Schutt, Belinda Vakarewa (Test only), Elyse Villani, Amanda-Jade Wellington.
England squad: Heather Knight (c), Tammy Beaumont, Katherine Brunt, Sophie Ecclestone, Georgia Elwiss, Jenny Gunn, Alex Hartley, Danielle Hazell, Laura Marsh, Anya Shrubsole, Sarah Taylor, Nat Sciver, Fran Wilson, Lauren Winfield, Danielle Wyatt.
First ODI Australia won by two wickets
Second ODI Australia won by 75 runs (DLS method)
Third ODI England won by 20 runs (DLS method)
Day-Night Test North Sydney Oval, November 9-12
First T20 North Sydney Oval, November 17
North Sydney Charity Partner: McGrath Foundation
Second T20 Manuka Oval, November 19
Third T20 Manuka Oval, November 21
Canberra Charity Partner: Lord's Taverners ACT