CommBank T20 Series v NZ
The country kid ready to take on the world
Sophie Molineux has won plenty of fans in a short time and it seems the best is yet to come for the spin-bowling allrounder from Bairnsdale
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
"She was an Australian player at 13. I said, 'This girl can go anywhere'."
When it comes to recognising cricket talent, John Harmer is better qualified than most.
A former head coach of both Australia and England's women's teams, he oversaw a golden era for the green and gold from 1992-2000 that included the 1997 World Cup victory.
So when, 10 years ago, Harmer heard about a young cricketer in Bairnsdale, in Victoria's far east, whose budding talent had the locals talking, he needed to see what the fuss was about.
That young player was Sophie Molineux, a spin-bowling allrounder who has since soared up the ranks of Australian cricket: debuting for Victoria and the Renegades before playing her maiden international aged 20 in India earlier this year.
During his eight years at the helm of Australia, Harmer mentored a team possessing some of the best to have ever played the game: Belinda Clark, Karen Rolton, Cathryn Fitzpatrick.
And from what Harmer's seen of Molineux so far, he's thinking this country kid may just outdo them all.
"I was born on a Saturday and pretty much every Saturday after that, I was at the cricket," Molineux laughs when asked by cricket.com.au how she got into cricket.
"Dad was a good cricketer back at home (in Bairnsdale), he was my first coach – although I wouldn't call him a coach, I think I just hassled him a lot and he was always there to throw me balls."
So how did Harmer, biomechanics expert and World Cup-winning coach – who has been credited by Belinda Clark as the most influential mentor she ever played under – come to coach a teenaged Molineux in country Victoria?
"I had a friend in Bairnsdale who was keen on the cricket and we were at a local final there, where there were also some children playing footy," Harmer explained.
"Sophie was among the group of boys and I said to my friend, 'Who is the girl out there? She's getting more kicks than any boy.'
"And he said 'You want to see her play cricket, mate'. So I was introduced to her dad and it went from there."
Right away, Harmer noticed the potential in the left-handed youngster.
"She's very game aware, almost street-cunning," he explained. "She could read the game so well even then.
"She's leadership material too, she's an excellent leader. Her innate feeling for the game is amazing, she belongs on the cricket field. It's just incredible.
"She goes out to bat and you'd never think she was nervous, she's so cool. She's trained herself to be like that."
Harmer was engaged as a private coach who would prove a key influence on Molineux as she rose up the ranks of age-group cricket – a crucial influence, given her distance from Melbourne.
"I was really lucky he was living close to Bairnsdale and I was able to access him and build a relationship over the last decade," Molineux explains. "To have someone of his calibre, I'm lucky to have him in my corner.
"He's a bio-mechanic genius, he values technique a lot and to be able to learn through him – that gave me the foundation to be able to play at this level."
Originally a seam bowler, Molineux switched to left-arm orthodox in her mid-teens. Harmer had seen the potential in her slower ball, a delivery which brought to mind a certain other left-handed allrounder.
"She'd bowl her slower ball as an offie and it struck me, at that moment, that Shelly Nitschke was standing right here in front of me."
Molineux explains it more succinctly: "I haven't grown since I was 12, so it was probably a good decision not to keep bowling pace!"
Growing up more than three hours from Melbourne meant many long hours of driving – and time sacrificed – by the Molineux clan in pursuit of Sophie's cricket career.
She remained at home until she completed high school, before relocating to Melbourne where she now lives with several of her Renegades teammates.
"It's a tough call to be a regional player and to get involved in cricket or any sport in the bush," Harmer said.
"The one thing the bush does is teach you reliance, because if you want to do it you've really got to make a decision and sacrifice things."
In February of this year, Molineux got the phone call Harmer had prophesied all those years ago: National selector Shawn Flegler, informing her she'd been selected for the Commonwealth Bank Tour of India.
There, she became the Southern Stars' 48th T20I player – and fittingly, her cap was presented by Nitschke.
Congratulations to Sophie Molineux, who has just been presented with T20I cap #48! 👏👏👏 #INDvAUS pic.twitter.com/YUwvm7teGX— Australian Women's Cricket Team 🏏 (@SouthernStars) March 22, 2018
Harmer says he wasn't surprised to see Molineux debut for Australia aged 20, but he's not downplaying the hard work and sacrifice it took to get there, either.
"There's always luck and everything that goes into it, but I'm not surprised that she's made it," he said.
"When you've got talent and drive and wanting to play for Australia from ball one, and the drive to do it and the humbleness to do it and the parents to support her, it's a pretty good ingredient."
Growing up prodigiously talented has the potential to go to a person's head. But not Molineux, whose unflappable demeanor is paired with maturity, humility and determination have seemingly laid the perfect foundation for success.
The Victorian made a big impression on her maiden tour of India. While she only played two T20Is and has yet to secure her first international wicket, she slotted into the group as though she'd been there all along, and soaked up every piece of advice from coaches Matthew Mott, Shelley Nitschke and Ashley Noffke like a sponge.
Since returning, Molineux has been spending the majority of her time at the Bupa National Cricket Centre in Brisbane, training alongside the women's national performance squad.
Her commitment hasn't gone unnoticed and Mott can already see how Molineux could become a clutch player in his team.
"She's not in the NPS, but she's come up here to work really hard on her game," Mott told cricket.com.au.
"It's been noticed by everyone how much she's progressed, even in the last five or six weeks, so we expect big things from her this year.
"She was really impressive last tour, India is a tough tour as a young player but she fitted into the team seamlessly.
"She's got a real calm demeanor about her, nothing seems to faze her and that'll stand her in good stead, especially with ball where she doesn't get overawed when players are coming hard at her.
"Her potential role in the team is coming in when the team's under fire and that's where those skills will come to the fore."
Molineux batted down the order in India – in a batting line-up like Australia's, patience will be needed before she earns her spot higher up.
But Mott can see Molineux's powerful batting becoming a key part of the Southern Stars' top order in the future.
"Sophie probably sees herself as a batting allrounder, but one of the things we've spoken to her about is with the way our team is set up at the moment, she is going to play more of a role with the ball in the short term, but she's a long-term top-order player and a genuine allrounder."
Molineux has just one international tour under her belt, but after earning her first Cricket Australia contract in April, appears to be firmly in the plans of selectors entering a period that will see the Southern Stars play two World T20s and an away Ashes in the next two years.
It's only early days.
But if Harmer's instincts are correct, her influence may be felt for far longer than that.
"Belinda Clark was as good as you'd get as a player," he said. "Karen Rolton was a master blaster, Catherine Fitzpatrick played for 17 years without an injury and could bowl at 120km/hr.
"I had a wonderful group of top players (for Australia). And I think Sophie could out-skill all those girls.
"You just see her and think, she can go places. I'm really enjoying watching her do what she's doing."
Commonwealth Bank T20I series v NZ
September 29: First T20I, North Sydney Oval, Sydney
October 1: Second T20I, Allan Border Field, Brisbane
October 5: Third T20I, Manuka Oval, Canberra
Commonwealth Bank ODI series v NZ
February 22: First ODI, WACA Ground, Perth
February 24: Second ODI, Karen Rolton Oval, Adelaide
March 3: Third ODI, Junction Oval, Melbourne