June 4, 2017. A perfect sunny Sunday for a proposal, and an appropriately intimate plan in place.
Megan Schutt set out with her partner, Jess Holyoake, for a day of Amazing Race-style activities around their adopted home of Brisbane. They retraced footsteps taken on adventures from yesterday and yesteryear; places and experiences they'd shared as their relationship grew from social to serious to special. A favourite café, a one-sided game of ten-pin bowling, and lunch at the scene of their first date (according to Megan, though Jess disagrees) before a bike ride through Kangaroo Point. Each time, Jess had to complete a small challenge to open an envelope with a clue to the whereabouts of their next stop.
The sentimental trip down memory lane ended with a picnic under the Gateway Bridge. They sat on a blanket and reflected on the almost two years they'd spent as a couple. They cast their minds toward the future, too, dissecting how their lives together might look with the passage of time. Hiding in the surrounding bushes were two of Megan's close friends, acting as makeshift photographers for one last surprise. Megan wanted the day's crescendo – and the most significant moment of their young lives to date – caught on film, so that in fifty years they could do exactly what they were doing in that very moment; looking at their life together – past, present and future – through a shared lens. She blindfolded Jess and found the tiny box she'd stashed away. She told her partner to turn around. Jess pulled off the blindfold and there was Megan, presenting a ring.
"It took her about five seconds to answer me, so for a moment I was a bit worried," Schutt remembers, smiling. "And then she was like, 'Ohhh – yes!'"
A perfect sunny Sunday for a proposal. And the perfect response.
"If you don't like gay marriage, don't get gay married."
It's the quote Schutt believes best elucidates a subject that has become one of Australia's most discussed. It's little wonder it appeals to her; the straightforwardness of the line is a lot like Schutt herself. The 24-year-old makes no apologies for her lack of pretence, and why should she? Few sportspeople present as authentically and articulately as the Australia fast bowler, and fewer still are willing to dive headfirst into subjects as diverse and potentially divisive as same-sex marriage, religion and love.
"Sometimes I'm too honest," she says. "But if I get caught in my emotions and the moment, you're not going to get any sugarcoating whatsoever."
It wasn't always so simple.
Drive south from Adelaide for an hour and you hit wine country. Sprawling suburbs melt into a homogenous blur and eventually disappear in the rearview mirror, making way for the famous McLaren Vale region, home to dozens of internationally recognised wineries.
It was on the northern side of the Onkaparinga River though, before you cross the DV Fleming Bridge and amid that blur of suburbia, that Schutt and cricket first collided. Far (though not geographically) from the romanticism attached to South Australia's picturesque vineyards, Hackham is a nondescript suburb on the southern outskirts of Adelaide, understandably overlooked by the masses as they jump off the M2 and onto the A13 en route to wine-lovers' heaven. But the suburb's unwelcoming reputation is perhaps a touch unkind, at least from the perspective of surely one of its most famous products.
"Well it's supposedly rough," Schutt says. "But I've lived there all my life, and if anything, it's just boring."
St Vincent Gulf lies just five minutes to the west of the Schutt home, and growing up, Megan's spirit of adventure regularly took her to its shore, where she would escape the summer heat at Port Noarlunga or Christies Beach, taking classic catches in the water before lazing about on a pristine stretch of sand. The family's house was modest but homely. Three kids and three small bedrooms meant one had to be shared, by Megan and her older sister, Natalie. Little brother Warren got a room of his own. Later, their parents, Sue and Brian, saved up the money to buy a caravan that went out the back and became Natalie's retreat, meaning all three children had a space of their own. It was typical of the Schutt parents.
"They gave us everything they could," Megan says.
By the age of 12, Megan was playing for her local cricket club, learning the rules on the run after she was introduced to the sport in the driveway, facing up to Warren and the boys from down the street. Gender was irrelevant in their bitumen-based battles, probably because Megan tended to hold her own, anyway.
"We kinda grew up, as you do, playing all different sports," she says. "We'd change season to season, footy to cricket."
In virtually every way, she was the same as a million other Australian kids, though her athleticism and hand-eye coordination soon separated her from the pack on a sporting field. In fact, the cricket path perhaps presented itself too quickly – well before she had worked out where she was heading, or who she really was.
" I probably knew I was gay even then," Schutt reflects. "But I just didn't want to accept it."
Schutt is in a talkative mood. It's a fact that wouldn't surprise anyone who knows her well; almost de rigueur for the pace bowler. She was silenced in July though by Australia's semi-final loss to India at the World Cup in England, an outcome that left her "heartbroken". Post-match at the County Ground in Nottingham, Schutt was just one of a dressing room full of shattered cricketers, left to contemplate the emptiness of defeat. Months of toil, and an expectation and history of winning, counted for nothing on the day.
"We were waiting for that perfect game," Schutt says. "And it never happened."
Given the raw emotion still lingering, she's happy for the conversation to veer. So onto the hottest topic of the moment we go…
"All the stuff going on with the (marriage equality) plebiscite," Schutt says, "it's just bullshit."
Plenty of people around Australia agree. Even an overwhelming 'yes' majority in the outcome of the postal vote on same-sex marriage does not mean it will be legalised. A vote in the affirmative will serve only to take the debate to Federal Parliament, which is just one of the ambiguities that has made the process a widely criticised one. Australia trails more than 20 western countries in legalising marriage equality. As the situation stands, it's an unavoidable roadblock that frustrates Schutt.
"I'd rather not get married in another country," she says. "I love Australia and I know that politicians don't truly represent our people. I want to wait until it's legal."
But Megan and Jess aren't willing to wait forever, particularly when their fate is in the hands of a Government that refuses to acknowledge their love as the equal of that between heterosexual couples. Just a few hours across the Tasman Sea is New Zealand – a nation that legalised same-sex marriage in 2013 and one that Schutt believes is "a beautiful country with beautiful people; I think they've really got things right over there, if only we could learn from it".
But to truly understand the essence of her hurt, you need to put the marriage debate aside and instead examine the feelings she attaches to fighting a battle others within society aren't required to fight. Acceptance is something she has learned she can take or leave, but equality is another matter; Schutt craves to be considered equal. And right now, that isn't the case.
"It makes you feel sub-human, it really does," she says of the law as it stands. "No-one should feel that, whether it be for your sexual orientation or your race or anything else."
On some levels, Schutt put on a front to the boys in the street. She put on a front to her brother and her sister. And she put on a front to her mum and dad. Better to do that than to show weakness.
"As a kid, I never cried," she says. "At anything, ever."
It wasn't until she was 16 that Schutt finally let the tears flow, albeit behind closed doors. Still today, she hasn't dared let Jess see her cry. Megan suspects it comes from her dad, who has never shed a single tear in front of his children.
"And I'm very much my father's daughter," she says.
Though she's not sure why she chooses to carry the same burden. Her sister doesn't, nor her brother. Only her. Perhaps, as a child, it was a subconscious fear of what might follow; the opening of a door to other emotions she wasn't yet willing or equipped to confront.
The first person Megan came out to was her brother. She was 16, and he was 12.
"And he didn't give two shits," she smiles. "So I was like, cool, one down."
Truth be told, she didn't give two shits about much herself at the time. She was good at school but it held no interest for her. She could skip classes and still ace tests, and besides, she had no aspirations for university. Later, when her best friend got her driver's license, their world expanded overnight, though by then a sort of teenage apathy had set in, hemming in their imagination. Instead of exploring, they rebelled, routinely stealing from the local shopping centre, just for the hell of it, and binge drinking away their weekends. Soon enough, Schutt could drive herself, and the girls joined a group of boys in flogging their V8 Commodores through the hills, chasing something she could never quite grasp, or running away from a part of herself.
"Jesus," Schutt says, remembering. "We almost died so many times. And we didn't learn. It's only now that I have someone where I think, 'Wow, if I die, what's Jess going to feel like … and my family?'"
All the while a war was raging inside her mind. An inner-turmoil she was unwilling to share with anyone, save her brother up to that point. She'd had boyfriends through school, including a particularly caring one in her senior years.
"I tried to love him in that sense, but it just didn't happen," she reflects. "I knew I wasn't being myself."
Schutt maintained the façade through her schooling years, fearful of the reaction her revelation might provoke. It's a feeling she now knows thousands of others can empathise with, but at the time, she was alone with her struggle.
"As soon as I did come out, they were all fine with it," she says of her friends. "I was like, 'Damn, why did I wait so long?' But everyone has that worry in the back of their mind of how they're going to be judged."
Schutt told her sister, and more reluctantly, her mum; the hesitancy with the latter due to Sue's Christian values – a potential complication overcome due to the closeness and love between a mother and her daughter. Initially, Sue was taken aback at mere mention of the words 'gay' or 'lesbian', but time, and the loving relationship between Megan and Jess, whom she has accepted warmly, have served to soften her views.
Tellingly, Schutt never came out to her dad, for one simple reason.
"I didn't have to," she says. "I think he knew from (when I was) a young age, and if he's ever cared about it, he's never shown it."
Schutt has a quick wit and a cutting sense of humour. Her brown eyes sparkle with lively intellect, while 24 years of introspection means she also understands herself intimately. A playfulness takes the edge off the smarts; there's not a whiff of arrogance.
She is active on social media, a sometimes-dangerous public sphere where she is generally light-hearted but also political. She reads prejudiced comments – a habit she knows is unhealthy, but one she simply can't stop – and finds herself getting angry, bemused or sad, and often all three. In June, Margaret Court's pronouncement that she would refuse to fly Qantas due to its pro-same-sex marriage stance (and the media storm that followed it) left her wondering how such "hate" could be directed at love.
Schutt, too, has views that could be considered controversial, though she points out they're common in modern Australia. Specifically, she takes issue with religion, for the divisions she says it has created in the world.
"This is probably going to offend some people, but I think religion is just something to follow, or believe in," she adds. "I mean, I don't care if you are religious … but I believe you can believe in yourself and the people around you – your friends and family."
Schutt knows she is blessed in that regard, and describes her coming out experience as "smooth", despite the occasional rough edge, particularly in comparison with those faced by others who have acted bravely, only to be rejected or ridiculed.
"I think sometimes it gets to me more than I let on," she says of the attacks on gay people she hears or reads about. "As you get older and you become more educated about how some people have it and you learn about other people's stories, it does begin to affect you as a person.
"There's a lot more emotion attached to it for me now."
Schutt was born in 1993, the year Glenn McGrath made his Test debut. She loved the legendary fast bowler, a no-frills country kid who took the cricket world by storm with a simple recipe of attempting to hit the top of off-stump from just about every ball he bowled. More than his bowling feats however, young Megan was drawn to his character: what you saw with McGrath was very much what you got.
"I just thought he was a brilliant bloke," she says, before adding almost as an afterthought, "and obviously a good bowler."
The cricket landscape has changed enough in the decade since McGrath's retirement that girls growing up today can switch on their televisions and find female heroes in the likes of Schutt and her teammates and rivals. The explosion of the KFC Big Bash League, and the success of the Rebel Women's BBL that has followed, has brought cricket front of mind for girls looking to play sport in Australia. Schutt doesn't recall ever watching a women's cricket match on television in her childhood, nor was she even aware that an Australia women's cricket team existed. But now when she reads comments on social media, she is genuinely shocked by the progress.
"I love that we now have that exposure," she says. "People saying things like, 'I was watching with my seven-year-old daughter', or, 'my little boy looks up to you', it makes you realise how far it's come."
As with any professional athlete, fitness and form will dictate Schutt's future in the game but with 69 internationals already behind her – including a World Cup final win and an Ashes success – she is well down the road to a decorated career at the highest level. And with the significant increase in salaries for Australia's best female cricketers guaranteed in the new MOU between the players and Cricket Australia, Schutt is in a position where she can push ahead in her chosen field with virtual tunnel vision. She relishes the fact it makes her more accountable to perform and improve, while she knows the advancements will draw more young women to the game, making competition at the top level stronger than ever.
"Cricket for girls is now a proper career option," she says. "It's a profession. That's going to open so many avenues."
It's a broad, positive outlook and a far cry from the teenage Schutt, who was aware of her cricket talents but could have easily let that future slip through her fingers as she struggled to shake off the indifference that marked much of her adolescence. After school, she was encouraged to pursue tertiary education through the Australian Cricketers' Association, and did one year of a nursing degree before dropping out.
"It wasn't for me," she says. "I knew I was only doing it to try to please others."
By 19 however, the realistic possibility of representing Australia had sharpened her focus, and she did exactly that a month before she escaped her teens. Today, almost five years on, Schutt says she feels more than her 24 years, which is hardly surprising given the experiences she's savoured and endured. Certainly, the "ratbag" version of herself wouldn't recognise the mature, international sportsperson she has become: she scarcely drinks alcohol (save for the occasional celebratory beer on tour) for fear of a bad skin folds result, while it's cause for alarm when she goes 10kph above the speed limit when driving.
"I'm a normal kid," she says. "We've all done stupid stuff. We've all got into trouble or done things we regret. Some people are afraid to admit it, and I'm just someone who isn't, because screw it, I've changed."
Megan and Jess spent some time travelling through Europe after the World Cup loss in July. They soaked up the splendour of the waterfalls in Croatia's Krka National Park, and were moved by the experience of walking through the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. Megan did her research before they left, working out the countries in which they had to avoid holding hands in public, and she was nervous at times about booking a hotel room with one bed for two women. She wasn't prepared to travel to Russia, for example, and knows much of the Middle East remains a no-go zone for same-sex couples. In fifty years, when they're looking back at the photos from the day they got engaged, she hopes those will be long-forgotten worries, and not only for her and Jess.
She knows Jess draws strength from her, but the same can be said in reverse. It was Jess's ease with her sexuality, and comfort in their relationship, that encouraged Megan – who also had a public profile to consider – to come out to her friends and the wider world on social media. She made a post, with an accompanying picture of the two of them to underline the point, and hasn't looked back. Megan fancies the idea of having twins one day, and bringing them up in her native Adelaide, where they plan to relocate at some point in the coming years, depending on Jess's work situation. There they'll be surrounded by Megan's side of the family, and her dad will no longer have to pretend he's calling to check his daughter has paid her car rego, when in reality it's simply to hear the sound of her voice. Megan can watch her brother grow from the "sweet boy" into the "good man" she knows he is becoming, and she and Jess can find a patch of sand at Brighton or Henley Beach, closer to the centre of town but close enough still to her childhood. Theirs is a simple love story complicated by needless external factors.
"It sounds so corny, but I never thought I'd be 'in love' like I am," Megan reflects, her raised index fingers acting as inverted commas, and her cheeks taking on a light shade of crimson. "I didn't hate love but I didn't believe it could change you as a person, or do any of the crap that the movies bang on about.
"But it does. It really does."
Commonwealth Bank Women's Ashes
First ODI Allan Border Field, October 22
Brisbane Charity Partner: Lord Mayor's Charitable Trust
Second ODI Coffs International Stadium, October 26
Third ODI Coffs International Stadium, October 29
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