There was a time Melbourne Renegades bowler Tayla Vlaeminck had decided to give cricket up.
She was 15 years old, a talented cricketer and soccer player, and leaning towards the latter as her sport of choice.
The Bendigo local had enjoyed a meteoric rise in cricket, with barely her first official match under her belt before she was selected for the Victorian under-14 team, and had progressed to represent her state at under-18 level.
But her commitments with Women’s Premier League soccer club Casey Comets all but ruled her out from training with the VicSpirit pathways team, and Vlaeminck decided something had to give.
“I was playing high-level soccer down here in Melbourne and it was just clashing, I couldn’t go to a training session,” she said.
“So I rocked up to one session probably three-quarters of the way through to tell them that I wasn’t going to keep going with the program, because I felt bad that I was kind of stringing them along, (but) couldn’t make it and anything like that.
“And (coach Duncan Harrison) just said, ‘Nah. Pick up this ball, you’re bowling this session and you’re coming back next time as well’. He didn’t really take up my opportunity to quit, but I’m very grateful for that now.”
Harrison tells a similar story, as he assured her they could find a way to make it work.
“She said, ‘I’ve just come to tell you that I’m not going to play’, and I said, ‘Nah – here’s a ball, have a bowl, you’ll be right’,” he recalls with a laugh. “I said we can work it out, it’s not too hard, so I said we’ll work around your other sport.
“I didn’t bully her, I just didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
The current Renegades assistant coach had first seen a young Vlaeminck in action when she was representing Victoria in the under-15 championships and he was coaching the Victorian under-18 side.
Under-15 coach John Hayes and Harrison worked to align their programs and smooth the transition through the junior pathways teams.
“Hayesy and I locked our programs together a little bit,” Harrison said. “I was still going back and doing some stuff with the under-15s. I saw Tayla within that squad. Hayesy was a big fan of hers – I could see why, really quickly. She had a lot of potential at a young age.
“She was really athletic and she bowled fast, so that quickly drew our attention to her.”
Injury played its role in finally forcing Vlaeminck to make the call on which sport to pursue professionally, but there has never been any doubting her love and passion for the national summer sport.
James Vlaeminck could well take credit for helping launch his older sister’s bowling career. Growing up, the middle of the three Vlaeminck siblings would regularly hone his craft in the net his family had set up in their Bendigo backyard.
When Dad Paul’s shoulder needed a break from sending down delivery after delivery to the budding opening batter, Vlaeminck would take over.
Those early spells, the now-19-year-old admits, were not her best. Recalling those earliest days of backyard cricket now, there is a constant laugh threatening to brim over as Vlaeminck notes that while her deliveries may not always have had the greatest stroke-play value, they certainly would have developed James’ reflexes.
“I used to be a bit wayward,” she said wryly. “I think I bowled him a few head-high full tosses at points.
“I was pretty ordinary at the start. But that’s alright, I kept him on his toes.”
But the more practice she got in, the better the balls were coming out of the hand. And when her brother went off to one-on-one coaching sessions with Bendigo local Barry Findlay to help his batting, Vlaeminck, who loved the sport, would go along to watch.
She would throw the ball around with Paul in the field, and soon Findlay was inviting her to send a few deliveries down “every now and again”.
But while Vlaeminck loved cricket and was happy training with her brother, she had never played an actual game.
That all changed when Northern Rivers region was struggling for numbers for its under-14 girls state championships team.
Vlaeminck was only too happy to help, and wasted no time making an impression.
“I played that tournament and then got selected into the Vic side,” she said. “At that point, I wasn’t even playing cricket, because my brother wouldn’t let me play in his team.
“I went to a few of these training sessions … and I was just kind of bowling and I was like, at that point, I probably should take it up.”
Luckily for Vlaeminck, James eased his stance on her not playing in his team, and she joined her brother and his mates at Strathdale Martisians in the Bendigo and District Cricket Association.
She continued to play for them during her junior career, and racked up state and national championships at under-15 and under-18 level.
She did all this while playing with the women’s soccer team at Casey Comets, before an ACL injury threw a spanner in the works.
It was the first of two ACL ruptures a teenaged Vlaeminck would have to endure. The initial injury, which occurred in 2015 at the start of the soccer season, prompted her to turn her focus to cricket.
But after going through the full recovery and rehabilitation, it took just two matches for the same knee to fail her.
Vlaeminck’s return from her first knee reconstruction brought her back midway through the cricket season, just in time to again be in contention for the under-18 nationals.
She put soccer on the backburner that summer, focusing all her energy on cricket to see where it would take her. And it took off, seeing her invited to talent camps and opening more doors in her young sporting career.
But the summer was spent on tenterhooks as she waited for her partially torn ACL to give way completely so she could have a second reconstruction.
“It just gave way when I was bowling,” she said. “It was probably a little bit more frustrating (than the first) in the sense that it wasn’t completely done.
“I went to a surgeon, who told me basically just to keep playing and he gave me one or two months before it went again, and then to call him and have another surgery.
“I played under-18s that year with it pretty much completely done – I think I had 10 rolls of tape on it at one point. So it was pretty much just a waiting game.
“It was kind of good in the sense that, once I’d done it, I knew how to approach it and what had to happen and the process. It was more just frustrating (with) the time out of the game.
“At the time, I’d been contracted to the Renegades and (was involved with) the under-18s, so it was really frustrating having so many opportunities to then have to just sit and run drinks and watch it all happen.”
But the fact the Renegades had enough faith in her ability to offer her a contract even when on the rehabilitation path was fortifying for the teen, who was more determined than ever to seize her opportunity when it again presented itself.
The news came through when Vlaeminck was in a study session at Catholic College Bendigo. She describes herself as “a bit of a nerd” and relished her studies as she strived to follow the path of, ironically, physiotherapy. It is a degree she will have plenty of personal experience to draw on, and she has never been shy to pick the brains of physiotherapists Gordon Pritchard and Megan Tucker, whom she has had plenty of opportunity to get to know through her time in cricket.
It was again Harrison, who’d played such a vital role in her junior development, who was part of a turning point in her career. He phoned Vlaeminck up with an offer she struggled to believe at first.
“He said something along the lines of, ‘I just wanted to know if you wanted to sign for the Renegades for this season?’,” she said.
“I asked him if he was serious first – I thought he was joking – but then I was pretty excited about it.
“At that point, I was still injured, I was three months post-surgery, so it was pretty good that they had a lot of faith in me and they believed I would get back. They didn’t know when, so to sign me at that point, I am pretty humbled by it, pretty happy that they did. It’s a great opportunity that I got and I’m very thankful for it.”
The first season in Renegades red may not have gone as Vlaeminck would have liked, sidelined as she was on the comeback trail from her knee injury, but she still grasped the opportunity to be involved in any way she could. She travelled with the team, carrying water and taking the opportunity to learn from those around her in a team led by White Fern Rachel Priest.
“It would’ve been incredibly frustrating to travel around all season and not play,” Harrison said.
“We were really keen to get her on our books with a small chance she could play last year because we just thought she was really good and we think we’ll get the benefits back going forward.
“She’s a great person, she’s got great character. I think what happened to her would’ve stopped a lot of people in their tracks. It’s pretty bad to have one knee injury, let alone a second, but she’s a really humble person and you wouldn’t know she’s had any adversity. She just turns up and does the work.”
The long, long wait might soon be over for Tayla Vlaeminck.
After a cricket layoff of about 700 days, she made her triumphant return during VicSpirit’s opening WNCL match against the ACT Meteors. She has also represented a CA XI against England in a first-class tour match during the Commonwealth Bank Women’s Ashes.
A little rustiness would have been forgiven and nearly two years out of the game, but Vlaeminck soon shook off the familiar nerves that often greet her leading into matches. In the WNCL opener, she took a catch off friend and Renegades teammate Molly Strano’s bowling for the first wicket of the day, and did likewise for the second, this time off the bowling of Hayleigh Brennan.
She also made the most of her seven overs with the ball, taking two wickets.
But her 2017-18 summer was cast in doubt after she dislocated her shoulder when playing in a match for VicSpirit against the SA Scorpions on November 26.
Injury update: After diving and landing awkwardly, Tayla Vlaeminck has dislocated her shoulder. She's receiving treatment now and will take no further part in the game.— VicSpirit (@VicSpirit) November 27, 2017
The injury looked as though it could write off the remainder of her season, relegating her to another summer of being the affectionately dubbed ‘Chief Hydration Officer’.
But when the Melbourne Renegades named their squad for two matches against Sydney Sixers in early January, Vlaeminck’s name was on the list at last.
Although she wasn’t named in the final XI for either match, the dream of a debut is closer than ever for Vlaeminck.
“I still have to prove myself and do a lot of hard work to break into the side,” she said. “We’ve got a pretty strong side this year, so obviously, I’m not expecting a game, but if I can do some hard work and break into the side, it’ll be a pretty amazing opportunity and something I really hope I get to do.”