Saville strikes a chord with adopted home
Adelaide Strikers' batter Tabatha Saville has journeyed farther than most to live out her elite cricket dream
Susie Giese joined CA Digital this summer as WBBL content producer having worked as a sports journalist in country Victoria for the past six years.
The expansive desert and the wide-open spaces of the Northern Territory research station were the farthest thing from home Tabatha Saville could imagine.
Gone were the palm trees and the waterfront home just outside the Fijian capital of Suva. The dry heat and dust was a far cry from the tropical paradise that had been home for the first seven years of her life.
But when a new veterinary officer job with the Northern Territory Government cropped up for her dad Peter Saville, who was looking for “something completely different”, it was an ideal time for the family to move to Australia, escaping the political unrest that had been simmering away in Fiji and was threatening to boil over in the form of coups.
It didn’t take long for Saville to find her feet. The expanses of the research station soon capturing her young fancy, calling her to run, to climb its trees which were so foreign from the ones she had known back home.
Moving into one of the houses on the station was the first port of call for the family as they settled in their new country – for former Yorkshireman Peter, his third – and got their bearings before finding accommodation of their own.
For a seven-year-old who had only ever known the tropics of Fiji, it was a shock to the system.
“My first impression was no palm trees, no grass,” Saville said. “Everything was so ‘deserty’, and I don’t think I was ready for that.
“I think my was impression was reluctance with my surrounds, but not too much.
“I got over it in the end.”
She was just as quick to settle in at the local Catholic school, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. The schooling itself was “pretty normal”, if the classroom discipline was slightly different, and the only real sticking point early, Saville wryly notes, was a ‘Sunsmart’ policy.
“I remember distinctively, here in Australia, you have this thing, ‘no hat, no play’,” she said, a hint of laughter in her tone. “In Fiji, we didn’t have that.
“For a good two weeks, I’d always play without a hat and the other kids were like, ‘You can’t play with us’. I thought they were just being mean, but it was because I didn’t have a hat. That was the one thing I had to get used to.”
For budding athlete Saville, the school’s fondness for sport was the perfect fit, which thankfully carried through with her secondary school, St Phillip’s College in Alice Springs.
Learning swimming was a must – as much for safety as to escape the unrelenting Alice Springs heat.
What started out as just lessons for a young Saville soon became regular competition, and yet another sport the talented junior excelled at.
She had already picked up tennis and netball – the latter of which she showed promise in as a midcourter from an early age – and had made big strides in the world of athletics.
She represented the Northern Territory in netball at state level a few times and had been selected in the Australian under-17 development squad before an injury cruelled her aspirations.
It was May 2014 and Saville was playing firsts for her local netball club, Federal. But an awkward landing on the circle spelled the end for a promising career.
“I was trying to get back up and I couldn’t walk on it properly and it was just a little bit weird,” she recalled. “I didn’t end up getting my surgery until six months later, though, because we didn’t know I’d done my ACL – we just thought I’d hyper-extended it.
“There was a lot of bruising and, from the tests that the physio did, she couldn’t get my knee to ‘give’. I didn’t fail any tests to signify I had done my ACL. It wasn’t until I was forced to get an MRI that the specialist just went, ‘Oh, you don’t have an ACL, you need to get a surgery ASAP’. And I was like, ‘OK, let’s do it’.”
The timing wasn’t ideal for her netball career, but the 12-month recovery fell during her final year of high school, allowing Saville to focus exclusively on her studies.
Ultimately, it paved the way for her to shift her sporting focus purely to cricket.
Cricket had been a late bloom, comparatively speaking, for Saville.
Growing up in a territory where the focus was very much on netball for girls and Australian Rules football for boys, there had been little to sway her towards the national summer sport.
But a family holiday to the United Kingdom in the mid-2000s changed all that.
It was winter in Australia, but ideal timing to pick up the bat and ball in West Cornwall. The Savilles were staying with family friends before heading on to visit Peter’s parents when friend Tom Parker brought out some gear for a backyard cricket match.
“I was just hitting the ball a really long way,” Saville said, “It surprised my dad, he just wanted to see how I’d go playing normally, so I played against the boys back home.”
Being the only girl in the Federals team didn’t faze Saville, who described herself as “a really big tomboy”.
“I went to school with most of the boys, so it was kind of like play all day with them and then, on a Wednesday afternoon, go to cricket, so it wasn’t any different,” she said.
“In a way, I was just one of the guys again.”
Taking on cricket as a summer sport suited Saville just fine. She would spend her winters focusing on her main interest, netball, and then seamlessly make the switch to cricket when required.
Her skill in both codes saw her accepted into the Northern Territory Institute of Sports, where she honed her craft.
“My cricket load wasn’t as big because at the time netball was my main sport,” Saville said. “So I could only fit in two sessions of cricket a week, and I did that with the institute.”
But following her knee reconstruction, sport had been far from her mind as she was faced with the prospect of making some big calls about her future.
Studying law at Melbourne University had been the dream, and when offers came out, Saville had been accepted into a pathway program at her university of choice.
But with more than one option before her, the spirited teen felt an unprecedented pressure from her parents.
“My parents first started off saying, ‘You can go anywhere for uni, it’s fine, we’ll support you’,” she said. “And then all of a sudden, they kind of just kept pushing Adelaide for some reason, and they didn’t tell me why.
“I was very resistant, I feel, especially towards my dad, because normally he’ll be the one to be like, ‘Do whatever you want, do what makes you happy’. But for some reason, he was like, ‘No, I want you to go to Adelaide, I really think you should go to Adelaide’.
“It wasn’t until the end of all our arguments that he was like, ‘I really think you should go for your cricket’.”
Saville admitted she hadn’t factored cricket in when weighing up her scholarly future, but as soon as the words were out of Peter’s mouth, the possibilities opened in her mind and she was on board.
It could almost have been lonely, being the only female in a team of young cricket enthusiasts, but it never bothered Saville.
She jokingly says she started out as “a really good fielder”, but it was with the ball that the she first made her mark as a cricketer – even if it was out of necessity. Peter had first seen her potential as a batter, but when faced with the prospect of an actual match Saville found she was happier to be on the sending end of a delivery.
“I reckon, when I first started, I was a bowler – just because I was really scared of the ball when batting,” she said with a laugh. “It wasn’t until later that I became more of a batter.
“When I was 11, I did my first school sport carnival. At the end of that carnival, the boys get picked for the NT team, but there was no girls’ team.”
Happily for Saville, there was still a national girls’ tournament, and her impressive performance at the schools carnival earned her a spot on the Australian invitational team, made up of players who didn’t secure a spot on their state team but were still good enough to play at the national carnival.
“We kind of made up the extra team that the carnival needed,” Saville said. “That was the first time I played (at national level); that was at Toowoomba.
“Then I did it again the next year, when I was 12. After that, I kind of got picked up by South Australia.”
The talented allrounder from the Red Centre caught the eye of South Australian officials, and from there, the offer was open to try out for the neighbouring southern state.
As Saville balanced her Institute of Sport commitments with studies – she notes her parents were adherent to the ‘school comes first’ philosophy – she also had the time to try to squeeze in trials and training with South Australia ahead of junior national championships.
“I still had to trial like everyone else, but I had to fly down,” she said. “When they had four or five trials, I could only make it to one. And then because I lived so far away, I’d have to fly for the training just before we left (for the championships), depending on how school went and how my schedule was with netball.”
But she found a way to make it work, representing South Australia twice at the National Under-15 championships and three times at under-18 level.
Having made the decision to go to Adelaide University, where she now studies a double degree in international studies and arts, majoring in politics, Saville was quick to strengthen ties with Southern Districts in the South Australian Cricket Association premier grade.
She had played the occasional game with the club when she flew down for trials and training with the junior state team. It was the home club of her best friend Kayla McGrath – younger sister of Australia allrounder Tahlia McGrath - whom Saville met through the national championships. Her move to the state meant more appearances for Southern Districts, and more chance to spend time with her friends.
Before long, she was asked to train with Women’s National Cricket League side South Australia Scorpions, but it was not a WNCL contract that would be her first big break in senior elite cricket.
“I had an OK under-18s carnival, and when I did move down to Adelaide, I got asked to train with the ‘Scorps’ as a kind of trainer-type roll,” Saville said.
“I guess through that I got a little bit of exposure with the coaches, but I feel like the contract was definitely out of the blue. I wasn’t expecting it.”
When the Adelaide Strikers contract first came through, Saville thought it was a prank. Or spam email.
She had been sitting in a tutorial room at Adelaide University in 2016, busily studying with exams looming, when the email from high performance manager Tim Nielsen dropped.
“When I called him, I was like, ‘Is this real?’ and he was like, ‘yes’. And I was like, ‘I’m Tabatha Saville, you do realise?’ and he said, ‘Yes, Tabby, you’ve got a contract’.”
For Strikers coach Andrea McCauley, Saville’s skill and potential was something she didn’t want to see slip through the team’s fingers.
The energetic Fijian-born batter had been on the elite cricket radar for some time as she made her way up through the junior pathways ranks, and McCauley had the short- and long-term in mind for the girl she notes is “a character”.
“She’s got a bit of the X-factor about her as well with her batting,” the Strikers coach said.
“We just thought, she can whack the ball, she likes to play the funky shots. She’s good in the field, she’s quick, she can catch and throw better than the average player.”
Saville’s burgeoning spin-bowling ability adds to her multi-faceted potential for the team, which McCauley says she could one day be an integral part of.
The McGrath household was welcoming and a handy temporary homeport for Saville during WBBL|02. The reality she was a WBBL-listed player took some time to settle in – until she was handed her Strikers uniform and bag alongside the likes of England stars Tammy Beaumont and Charlotte Edwards at the first team training for the summer.
The spectres of Beaumont’s and Edwards’ international careers may have had an intimidating effect on the young Saville, but in “absolute jet” and New Zealand star Sophie Devine, she found a good sounding board and teacher.
“Being a younger player in that environment, I just found Sophie more approachable,” she said.
This summer, she has already surpassed her WBBL|02 games tally, playing in all four Adelaide Strikers’ matches to date.
She has made a solid contribution from limited time at the crease, but it is in the field that she has drawn attention – as much for her celebrations as for her safe hands.
She has taken three catches and stopped plenty of runs, but she hopes to expand her role when the Strikers are bowling.
“I just want to play more games and then, when I do get my opportunity, make the most of it in terms of batting,” she said.
“But then also this year I think my bowling option comes into the mix of things which is pretty good for me.”
While she is establishing herself in the WBBL, Saville says she does not want to be “pigeon-holed” as a Twenty20 player and is keen to carry good form into the WNCL, saying she still needs to “earn her stripes” in the one-day competition.
Proud dad Peter is just happy to see his daughter reaching her goals and playing cricket on the big stage.
He can still keenly remember her debut, when she caught Sydney Sixers captain Ellyse Perry off Alex Price’s bowling.
“She caught Ellyse Perry at Adelaide Oval,” Peter recalls. “She ran across and took an amazing catch – that was the highlight of the WBBL.
“If we had’ve stayed in Fiji, she would’ve been a sailor, because everyone else in the family was – our house used to overlook the water.
“But then we moved to Alice Springs, and you couldn’t get more of a contrast if you tried, which was part of the reason why we came here. She settled in very quickly.
“She has a flair for everything, she used to represent Northern Territory in the Pacific School Games in athletics and she also played netball and rugby.
“She amazes me with how committed she is to her cricket … and how much effort she puts in.”