Women's Ashes ODIs
Rising for the Ashes: Bolton's inspirational return
After overcoming a challenging period in her life, Nicole Bolton is back in her rightful place at the top of the Aussie order, and happier than ever
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
Today, opener Nicole Bolton is in Leicester with the Australian Ashes squad, ready to begin their highly-anticipated series against fierce rivals England.
Sometime after 11pm Australian eastern standard time, she will walk to the middle at Grace Road to face England new-ball pair Katherine Brunt and Anya Shrubsole, attention firmly fixed on helping her team defend the coveted trophy.
It's a world away from the place Bolton found herself in six months ago when, feeling exhausted, confused and utterly defeated, the Western Australian walked away from the game she loved.
At that point in her life, she had no idea when – or if – she would return.
It started during Australia's tour of Malaysia last October.
Primarily an ODI player, Bolton had thrown everything at improving her 20-over game in the hopes of earning selection for the T20 World Cup the following month. After a successful stint playing for Lancashire in the UK domestic T20 Super League last August, that dream became a reality.
And yet, something was wrong.
"I was stoked to get on both tours," Bolton told cricket.com.au in Leicester this week. "I put in a lot of work to be able to get there, but something just didn't feel right.
"I was just really struggling, but I wasn't really sure what was going on … it wasn't until I came back from the West Indies after such a long time away from home that I was a little bit worried I'd started falling down the burnout track again."
The Australian squad had less than three days between their return to home soil and the start of the Rebel WBBL season in Melbourne.
Bolton certainly wasn't the only one to feel the impact of the scheduling – other players including Rachael Haynes and Sophie Molineux took time off during WBBL|04 to rest their weary bodies.
At first, she assumed she was suffering from physical burnout, something she had experienced following the first season of Big Bash in early 2016.
"I do have a tendency that when I do something, I do it 110 per cent," she said. "I've only got the one gear."
Telling herself to push through it – to make it to the next game, the next training session – the 30-year-old was bullish that what she was feeling would resolve itself.
Then came the Scorchers' match against the Renegades at the WACA Ground on December 23.
"I remember saying to (coach) Lisa Keightley at the time, 'I don't think I can play'," Bolton said.
Options were discussed. A shift down the order, cutting training sessions, anything to ease the load weighing on her strong shoulders.
But by the time their double-header against Sydney Thunder at Perth's Lilac Hill rolled around on December 29-30, it had become obvious not only to the left-hander, but also to her coaches and teammates, that something was very wrong.
"I got progressively worse to the point where I wasn't even warming up for games," Bolton said.
"I physically couldn't. All I could do was literally go out and play.
"I just remember Lisa saying to me, 'I can't watch you keep doing this to yourself'."
Acknowledging that this was different from her previous burnout – "there were too many symptoms I hadn't experienced before that were really unusual for me" – Bolton initiated a conversation with her doctor at the WACA.
Ultimately, the decision to stop was one taken out of her hands.
"He said, 'Let's just get through (the Thunder games) and then we'll pull you after that'," she recalled.
"I knew someone was eventually going to step in, but I needed it to happen quickly. And when it finally happened, I was at ease."
Remarkably, Bolton was named player of the match in that final game before her break, scoring 50 from 41 deliveries and collecting two wickets as the Scorchers pulled off a thrilling three-run win.
The next day, she found herself in the utterly unfamiliar territory of life without the highly-regimented schedule that comes with being a professional cricketer.
"I had a lot of emotions around it," she said. "I was a little bit nervous because I was thinking, 'I'm stopping now, so what's it going to look like?'."
As she contemplated her future, she received an abundance of support in the present, most notably from both Western Australia and Cricket Australia.
"I can't actually describe it … it's almost like your mum and your dad, working together to help their daughter through a really tough time," she said.
"That's actually what it felt like, like I had arms wrapped around me from both of them.
"They worked together and took me out of it, to allow me to just work things out and spend some time with my family, it was unbelievable really."
The wider cricket community reached out to Bolton, too.
Australian coach Matthew Mott passed on her contact details to NSW player Moises Henriques – who has spoken openly about his own mental health struggles – and he became an invaluable point of contact for Bolton as she worked through her recovery.
"Moises sent me a text and I was a bit starstruck really, because I haven't had much to do with many of the blokes outside the WACA program," Bolton smiled.
"I had so many questions and he was really open and honest about his journey and how he worked through things."
Looking back, Bolton can see how it was a perfect storm of events both on and off the field that culminated in her walking away from the game.
"There were a lot of elements," she said. "My life was changing, I was really burnt out, I was almost turning 30 – a lot of actual real-life events.
"For me I was like, 'Oh I'll just get through it and cricket's going to fill the void and that's my purpose', but it was to the point where I felt like I couldn't even do that.
"I've always been one to enjoy what I do and when the enjoyment started to go, I knew I probably needed to do something about it."
Despite taking a break from the game, cricket and her teammates were never far from Bolton's thoughts.
A self-confessed cricket nuffy, she remained glued to the live stream of the Scorchers' matches and when Australia played New Zealand in a one-day series in February, she not only caught up with her international teammates in the week leading up to the game, she was also sitting in the stands nervously watching on as they held their nerve to seal a five-run win.
"It's who I am," Bolton explained. "I wanted to still support the girls in any way, I could because I knew I still had their support."
But while she was still watching the game, picking up a bat remained a no-go zone.
Struggling to even lift herself of the couch – an unfamiliar feeling for an athlete accustomed to pushing herself to the limits at the gym or on the training track – Bolton needed to find another way to summon the energy to start living everyday life again.
The answer came in the form of an activity she'd always hated with a passion.
"I actually like being outdoors now, in nature," she laughed.
"I used to hate walking, (but) now back home, I just chuck the earphones in and put on a podcast and just walk the coast.
"I'm a massive golf fan, too, I brought my clubs on tour, so just trying to find little things I enjoy I can now bring into my life, I don't want to stop it now because cricket's the priority."
Through it all, there was a temptation for Bolton to push herself to rush back to international cricket.
Australia's ODI at the WACA Ground in February and the chance to play in front of a home crowd was a game the passionate Western Australian was desperate to take part in.
She even started the conversation with Cricket Australia around a possible return, before taking a step back to consider the bigger picture.
"To rush back for one series, what was the point of that?" she said. "I wasn't ready. That would only have been me taking a selfish approach."
Instead, Bolton returned to her roots. Her first match back was for club side Subiaco-Floreat and it proved just the tonic.
Over six weeks, she helped them win their first A grade women's premiership, scoring an unbeaten 84 in the final on the way.
"It was awesome," she said. "I'll be honest here, I haven't played much club cricket because you're away a lot and you just don't get that opportunity.
"I just remember every week I thought, 'I just can't wait for Saturday to get out and have a hit and a field'.
"Whether we'd won the premiership or not, it was probably the time I realised I still had a massive love for the game."
Bolton's record in one-day internationals speaks for itself; since scoring a century against England at the MCG on debut in late 2014, she's averaged 43.93 in 47 matches in the format.
All the same, she wanted to prepare herself for the chance that her time away could mean losing her place in the Australian squad – after all, in the series she missed against New Zealand, Australia romped to a three-nil win and Haynes excelled after shifting to the top of the order in her place, averaging 43.
"I remember sitting down with my psych and preparing for either way," Bolton said, reflecting on a process that brought with it a moment of clarity.
"I knew I was okay when I realised that if it didn't work out for me, I knew I was going to be okay.
"If you'd asked me 12 months ago (what would have happened) if I hadn't gotten back, it may have had a catastrophic effect on me."
She needn't have worried. In April, her Australian contract was renewed and the following month, she received the call she'd been waiting for from selector Shawn Flegler.
"I was almost shocked, but also really excited," Bolton grinned. "I think that's the first time in my career where I've gone, 'Geez, I'm pretty bloody happy' and I could actually sit and enjoy it rather than go, 'Thank God, I'm relieved – I've got another year'.
"It was more like, 'How good's this? All the work I've done and I get another crack at something I love doing'."
Now, Bolton doesn't believe 'back to her old self' is quite the right term.
Instead, she's embracing the version of herself that survived the past six months and came out the other side.
"I think who I am now and who I was is totally different," she explained. "At the time, I had started to accept this is just who I am.
"I feel for so long because I'm a little bit timid and shy, I haven't been able to really own my life or my decisions.
"I think I started feeling a lot like myself towards when I started transitioning back into club cricket and the Fury program.
"I felt like I was a lot more present with people, I was able to have a conversation, I wasn't trying to avoid anyone and I was actually listening to what people were saying.
"And once I was able to do that, I felt, 'I'm actually starting to get through this'."
Fast forward to July 1, 2019 and Bolton is in Leicester; laughing, smiling and joking around with her teammates on the eve of the first Ashes one-day international.
Balance has been restored and on Tuesday, she's set to open the batting as Australia look to draw first blood against England in the multi-format series.
"I've loved being back, I can't question the girls' support," she said.
"To get a gig on the Ashes and be back here … it felt a little weird to be back in the green and gold (in the practice matches), it's been a little bit of an emotional journey.
"But I'm really excited and I'm just glad I get to play cricket with these girls again."
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CommBank Ashes Tour of England
Australia squad: Meg Lanning (c), Rachael Haynes (vc), Nicole Bolton, Nicola Carey, Ashleigh Gardner, Alyssa Healy, Jess Jonassen, Delissa Kimmince, Beth Mooney, Ellyse Perry, Megan Schutt, Elyse Villani, Tayla Vlaeminck, Georgia Wareham
July 2: First ODI, Grace Road, Leicester
July 11-13: England Academy v Australia, Marlborough College, Swindon
July 18-21: Only Test, The County Ground, Taunton
July 26: First T20, County Ground, Chelmsford
July 28: Second T20, The County Ground, Hove
A Test victory is worth four points (two each for a draw), two points are awarded for ODI and T20 wins