Life after Brian: Cricket's first female superstar
The cricket career of Zoe Goss changed forever on December 18, 1994. Twenty-five years later, she reflects on her time in the spotlight and how her life changed after THAT ball
Ahead of the 2020 Women’s T20 World Cup, we take a closer look at some trailblazers who were crucial to the development of women’s cricket in Australia
For almost a decade, Zoe Goss didn't want people to know her name.
An accomplished environmental scientist and an athlete who had reached the very top of her sport, Goss wasn’t ashamed of who she was. But when she met new people, particularly in her professional life, she would simply introduce herself as Zoe and hope they would never discover her last name.
After years of being the Zoe Goss, she knew how they would react if they found out.
"After it all happened, I became Zoe Goss," she says today, a quarter of a century since the night that changed her life.
"I'd always just been Zoe or Gossy before then. It was a strange phenomenon.
"And when I first retired from playing, I just needed a rest from that persona of Zoe Goss. I just wanted to be an environmental scientist. I just wanted to be Zoe."
But no matter how hard she tried, no matter how many years passed, she just couldn't shake that tag.
Her name became the very thing that defined her.
"Her name is just so recognisable," says broadcaster Glenn Mitchell, Goss's junior cricket coach and a lifelong friend and mentor.
"Zoe Goss is not like Jill Smith or something like that. It stands out. And her name is synonymous with that single moment in her life.
"She's never, ever been able to leave it behind."
Zoe Goss had always forged her own path in cricket, mostly because she'd been forced to.
As a child, she displayed an undoubted natural ability in backyard games with her two brothers, and against neighbourhood kids during timeless games of street cricket in Perth's inner suburbs.
But by the age of 10, she was a cricketer without a team; she couldn't play in a junior girl's competition simply because it was Perth in the early 1980s, and no such thing existed. She couldn't play with the boys in her school team either, because the headmaster wouldn't let her. And she wasn't quite yet old enough to play in the local women's competition.
So her mother Carole, desperate to nurture her daughter's undeniable talent, approached the Western Australian Cricket Association and asked them to help.
It was there that Goss met Mitchell, himself a talented player and a coaching mentee of former England and WA spinner Tony Lock. A visionary young coach, Mitchell believed cricketers – particularly female cricketers – had yet to properly understand the benefits elite fitness and sports science could have on the game. And in Goss, whose impressive skills and rapidly-developing physical prowess were matched only by a seemingly insatiable work ethic, Mitchell found what he was looking for.
So the pair developed an unlikely bond as training partners over many an off-season, the innate physicality of a teenaged Goss making up for the fact that Mitchell was both male and six years her senior.
Broad-shouldered and approaching six foot in height, Goss's dedication to Mitchell's training program meant that, by her mid-teens, she was simply stronger, fitter and faster than other girls her age, and some of the boys as well. She bowled at impressive pace, hit the ball longer and harder than most and was one of the first female players who could fire in a throw from the boundary to the wicketkeeper on the full.
"I could honestly say that she would have trained harder than any other woman playing cricket back in that era," Mitchell says.
"Her level of physical commitment in regards to gym work and running was something that young women weren't really doing at that stage.
"She was the closest in that era that I saw to the ability of a male."
Goss's startling development in her teens led to a rapid progression through the ranks. She first represented the WA senior women's side at age 16, played her first match for Australia just weeks after her 18th birthday, went on her first Ashes tour later that year and was part of the Australian side that won the 1988 World Cup.
In the seven years following her international debut, as she juggled cricket, a university degree and an off-field role with WA cricket, Goss was a key figure in an Australian side transitioning from names like Lyn Larsen and Christina Matthews to the era of Belinda Clark, Cathryn Fitzpatrick and Karen Rolton.
Clark remembers Goss as a genuine allrounder very much in the mould of Ellyse Perry; prodigiously talented, technically correct and exceptionally fit.
"There was no debating her power and her technical expertise," Clark remembers. "And her ability to read the game was first-class as well."
But off the field, Goss was far from a cricketing prototype. An introvert and a teetotaller, she had a strong passion for the arts and moved in those circles outside of cricket. She spoke passionately about the environment long before it became fashionable. She would go to the local markets to shop, and burn incense and sandalwood oil in her hotel room. And everywhere she went, her energetic black kelpie Jess would follow, riding on the front of Goss's motorbike to matches and charging onto the field at the end of play to greet her beloved owner.
Teammates remember one occasion that typified Goss's approach to life and to cricket; she turned up to a function wearing the team's official uniform as requested, but with casual sandals on instead of the mandated black dress shoes.
She didn't conform, but she wasn't exactly a rebel. She was an individual, but she wasn't selfish. She was just herself – a free spirit, a gentle soul, and a very talented cricketer.
"Zoe was just ... she was just Zoe," remembers Avril Fahey, a teammate at club, state and national level.
"She was very quietly and inwardly driven, but we used to think that she was almost on another planet sometimes. She’s very laidback, a bit of a hippy and she just did things her own way. She was good to have in the team because she was competitive, but it wasn't an outward, aggressive competitiveness. She had a great sense of humour and was quite relaxed.
"She was just a bit different. It was never a problem. She was just Zoe."
Australia's ODI tour of New Zealand in early 1994 underlined Goss's standing in the women's game at the peak of her cricketing powers. In a three-match ODI campaign, she scored more runs and took more wickets than any player from either side, averaging 9.11 with the ball and hitting the equal-highest score – 51 – in a low-scoring series.
Despite her success on the field, Goss relished the cloak of anonymity that was customary at the time for the leading players in the women's game.
But later that year, Goss was given a firm and unwelcome shove into the national consciousness that would significantly alter the course of her life.
It was December 1994 when the shrill ring of an old rotary phone broke the silence in Goss's new home in Perth’s inner north, and the familiar voice on the other end of the line had her grasping to remember where she’d heard it before.
It was only when that voice, coated in a thick South African accent, introduced himself as Tony that she was able to put her finger on it; that unmistakable voice had been a feature of endless summers from her childhood, beamed through the television of her family's modest brick home as her love affair with cricket blossomed into an obsession.
Any thoughts that it was a prank call were quickly pushed to one side when Tony Greig, legendary cricketer and iconic commentator, told her to pack her bags, fly to Sydney and be ready to play in a charity match at the SCG in front of thousands of spectators and hundreds of thousands more watching on the Nine Network, of which Greig was such an integral part.
The fact Goss was a last-minute inclusion for the Bradman XI v World XI exhibition game did little to dent her enthusiasm. The cast of retired players that had been compiled primarily by Greig to take the field was a list of her cricketing idols; the likes of Dennis Lillee, Greg Chappell, Sunil Gavaskar and Michael Holding had all signed on to be part of a fundraiser for the development of the Bradman Museum, and these iconic figures were now – suddenly – Goss's teammates and opponents.
But the headline act in Greig's impressive recruitment drive was none other than Brian Lara, the West Indian batting maestro who stood alongside Shane Warne and Sachin Tendulkar as the most recognisable cricketer on the planet at the time.
The year 1994 had been Lara's zenith; a new Test record score of 375 had come against England in April before he smashed through the 500 barrier in a first-class match for Warwickshire.
Lara's presence at the SCG topped off a group of players who were serious personalities in the cricket world, even if the action out in the middle was never intended to be so. The presence of Goss was in keeping with the novelty of the occasion, which also featured actors Gary Sweet and Ernie Dingo, a multicoloured ball, baseball-style uniforms and – in a forerunner to the T20 age – microphones on the players so they could commentate during the broadcast.
But the match took on an unexpected significance in the second innings, with the superstar Lara and the previously unknown Goss taking centre stage for a moment that shot the unassuming 26-year-old to stardom.
Having held her own in compiling 29 with the bat, Goss was handed the ball and told to bowl to the best batsman in the world, a moment that was made all the more daunting by the fact the great Lillee was stationed at mid-off to cast his expert eye over her seamers.
Even a quarter of a century later, Goss credits Lillee in no small part for what happened next. When she nervously asked her fast-bowling hero how she should bowl to the Trinidadian run-machine, Lillee suggested the fast-bowler's three-card trick – two in-swingers followed by an out-swinger.
"Batters always have to play the third ball – they just can't help themselves," Goss says today with a laugh.
"I know myself as a batter, you don't want to block that third one."
And even the best in the world can't help themselves; as Lara opened his shoulders to Goss's third ball and aimed one of his trademark cover drives, it tailed away just enough to find a thin edge, which was well held by former Test wicketkeeper Steve Rixon standing up to the stumps. Lara had been so deceived by the delivery, and had looked to hit the ball with such force, that he over-balanced and ended up out of his crease, so Rixon also whipped off the bails for good measure.
The best batsman in the world, at the peak of his powers, had been dismissed by a woman. Twice.
As the crowd leaped to their feet in applause, Goss stood with her mouth wide open, a beaming smile on her face as she accepted the congratulations of her idols. A hug from Rixon, a high five from Lillee and Chappell, and a shake of the hand from Bob Simpson.
She played out the rest of the game almost in a dream as the biggest crowd she had ever played in front applauded her every move, and even booed loudly after play when Greig announced South African Graeme Pollock was player of the match instead of the new crowd favourite.
It was a memorable night, one of the best of her young life, and one she was sure she would never forget.
But as she sat back in the SCG rooms that night and talked cricket with her new teammates for the next few hours, she was completely oblivious as to just how much her life was about to change.
The first clue as to the magnitude of what had happened materialised in the early hours of the following morning as Goss made the short journey back to her five-star Sydney hotel, when a street sweeper offered a simple 'G'day Zoe' as she walked past him.
Hang on – she remembers thinking – how does he know my name?
At 7am, after only a few hours sleep, she was woken by a knock at the door and handed a new Bradman-branded Slazenger bat. Then the phone started to ring, and it didn't stop.
Having been so inconspicuous just 24 hours earlier that a security guard had denied her entry through the players' gate at the SCG, not believing her claim that she was taking part in the match, Goss was suddenly hot property.
"It was on for young and old," she remembers. "I couldn’t move without someone knowing where I was. It was surreal.
"I had all these media interviews to do that day ... I just kept my head above water and did what I could, but it really took some adjusting because I really wasn't expecting it to go much further than the game itself. I thought I would just go back to my job as a development officer at the WACA and my life in Perth.
"But it really opened a lot of doors."
With the media spotlight shining on women's cricket more than ever before, Goss felt a duty to walk through those doors and help lift the profile of the sport she loved. So she embraced her new-found fame; she was on the back page of national newspapers, interviewed live on television, offered multiple sponsorships and asked to go on a speaking tour around Australia. She even got herself an agent to help manage the load.
For a female athlete in Australia, it was a level of fame normally afforded to Olympians like Dawn Fraser and Shane Gould, or tennis players like Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong. But in the mid-1990s, it was unheard of for a woman playing a male-dominated team sport to have such broad recognition. To be so famous.
Decades before the likes of Perry and Meg Lanning became household names, long before Sam Kerr achieved celebrity status for her feats on the football field, there was Zoe Goss.
But as her 15 minutes of fame rolled into weeks and months and eventually years, Goss started to slam those doors shut. The life of a celebrity, and everything that comes with it, just wasn't for her.
"I got a lot of attention just walking down the street," she says. "It was lovely because people just wanted to share their experience, but it wasn't something I'd expected or prepared for. I was only just coping as I went along. Sometimes it's nice to not be noticed and to just go and have a drink at the pub with your mates.
"It was very unusual and quite difficult for my personality type to cope with. I’m not exactly an extrovert.
"I wasn't really prepared for being famous. I was very prepared for absolutely everything else in cricket, but not that. I just didn't think it was ever going to happen."
As her inner turmoil grew, the weight of simply being Zoe Goss started to affect the thing she loved the most – her cricket.
Having been a mainstay of the national side since she debuted as a teenager, her performances suffered to the point that she suddenly found her spot under threat. And when the selection axe finally dropped, it came at the most inopportune time imaginable. After a string of middling performances, Goss was dropped partway through 1997 World Cup in India, a tournament Australia ultimately won in front of a crowd of 80,000 at Eden Gardens, which included Goss on the sidelines.
More than 20 years later, missing the final of that tournament remains one of the biggest regrets of her career.
The raw numbers underline just how much of a turning point the Lara match was in her life; having been picked for 42 of 44 ODIs in the almost eight years leading up to that night, she played just 23 of 51 in the ensuing six years.
Her career can be split into two clearly defined eras – before Brian, and after Brian.
"Being an introvert, I think I mostly tried to deal with all the attention by myself," she says. "So I think that impacted on my cricket and my performance.
"I became a bit self-conscious and it affected my game a little bit. There was more attention on me when I was on a cricket field and it took me a while to adapt to that.
"I lost my way a little bit, and my focus."
There were cricketing reasons for her decline, as well. While it would still be decades before the top female players were the fully-fledged professionals they are today, the game was heading in that direction. Where Goss had had an advantage early in her career because she was stronger and fitter than her fellow players, elite athletes like Clark and Fitzpatrick closed that gap.
Women's cricket also shifted its focus away from Test matches, Goss's preferred format and the one that suited her skills the best, as white-ball cricket became more popular.
But there’s no doubt the Lara moment, and everything that came after it, contributed to her malaise.
"It was something that she couldn't shake off for a long time," says Mitchell, who had a unique view of Goss's career as both her long-time friend and a respected broadcaster covering the game.
"Even now, if you mention the name Zoe Goss, there's the automatic connection to Brian Lara. People don’t mention that she was terrific allrounder or that she played in a couple of World Cups or that she captained WA and Victoria.
"There was no way, from a public perspective or a media perspective, that anything was ever going to surpass that one moment. And it happened to her when she was still quite young and as a result of that, it hindered her in some ways from then on. She never, ever sought the publicity and the fame that went with it, but it kept following her. And she just found that uncomfortable.
"She was very, very recognisable and she did struggle with that, no doubt about it."
Having drifted away from the international set-up after that 1997 World Cup campaign, Goss spent the next three years in the wilderness of domestic cricket as the national side continued their global dominance, including a record-breaking run of 17 consecutive ODI wins that was only surpassed earlier this year by Australia's modern-day stars.
There was to be an unexpected encore to Goss's days as an international cricketer at the 2000 World Cup, but in a microcosm of her entire career, the tournament progressed smoothly for the Australians before it was swiftly and unexpectedly shunted off course.
Having gone unbeaten in the preliminary rounds, the tournament favourites came unstuck against New Zealand in the final by just four runs, a heart-breaking defeat in the last over that handed the host nation their first world title and ended Goss's career with a loss.
"That would've been an ideal way to finish, but you don't always get the ideal," she says.
"Your career happens the way it happens. There are some brilliant bits, and some you ponder over."
It was the 77th and final time that she represented her country. And after five more seasons of state cricket for WA, the cricket career of Zoe Goss came to an end in early 2006, a couple of months after her 37th birthday.
From there, she drifted away from the game entirely. She embraced her environmental work, relished her time with family and friends, and enjoyed life outside the cricket bubble.
A life where she could be just Zoe again.
Today, 25 years since that life-changing night at the SCG, Zoe Goss is back at the WACA Ground in Perth, the familiar crack of leather on willow filling her ears once again.
After almost a decade adrift from the game that reshaped her life, Goss is officially back in the fold.
When the Women's Big Bash League launched in 2015, Goss was convinced to take up a mentoring role with both the Perth Scorchers and WA's one-day side that today sees her work closely with some of the top female talent in the country.
It's a part-time job, one that has allowed her to dip her toe back into the game that she's always loved, but one she was desperate to cast aside once her playing days were over.
The fact her role exists at all underlines the progression in the women's game since Goss and Mitchell pounded the pavements around Perth's Swan River more than three decades ago, their training regimen a rudimentary precursor to the sophisticated high-performance program that Goss's students now have at their disposal.
Typical of Goss, she's keen to play down her role in the surge the women's game has enjoyed in recent years, where Australia's leading players today are well-paid and recognisable stars compared to the passionate amateurs like Goss and her contemporaries.
But Clark, who has been a key driver of change as an influential Cricket Australia executive, is adamant that the ball that changed Goss's life also shaped women's cricket for the better.
"It was an important milestone in the history of our sport," says Clark, who was one of the 17,000 fans at the SCG that December night a quarter of a century ago.
"It was the first time it had been tried at that level, under that spotlight, and it worked. It was a really important catalyst that put us on the map, and let people know what we actually played cricket.
"It was a very important part of our history, not least for the people who played with her in that game, who wouldn't have necessarily come across female cricketers otherwise. There were a lot of influential people in that dressing-room.
"That ball had a role to play in how people think about our game in the future. Those things change people's biases and it did that at a time where we needed that done."
Mitchell too has no doubt that Goss, albeit unwillingly, played the lead role in a seminal moment in women’s sport.
"In a way, Zoe almost put the likes of Belinda Clark and Karen Rolton on the map through what she did," he says.
"All of a sudden, even sports journalists started looking into the women's cricket league.
"She helped pave the way very early on for the concept that girls, given the opportunity, can display skills that people want to go and watch, rather than just look down your nose at because they’re not men.
"It was a precursor to what we just view as an everyday thing nowadays."
And after years of fighting against it, after years of turning away from that one single delivery that reshaped her life, Goss herself has embraced the Lara moment – and everything that came with it.
"I don't avoid telling people my name anymore," she says. "The reason why I used to avoid it is still there inside, I'm just OK with it now. I'm at peace with it.
"It's not like I ever stopped loving the game. I just needed to get away from it. It's like when you break up with someone and you just need time apart before you can be friends again.
"But looking back now, having been retired for an eon, I really don't have a problem with it. It was a fantastic night that opened a lot of doors and I love talking to people about it now.
"It was great for the game and for women's sport in general. It changed the landscape a little bit and planted some seeds for the future."
Even before Goss joined the WA coaching staff four years ago, when she was happily living a life away from cricket, her name had been officially attached to the Western Australian game and the brightest young female players in the state.
For more than a decade, the leading women's cricketer in WA has been awarded the Zoe Goss Medal, an honour that will again be bestowed on one of her pupils at the end of this summer.
Ensuring the name Zoe Goss, that she herself had once shied away from, will forever be a part of the Australian cricketing landscape.
Thanks to the Bradman Museum and the Western Australian Cricket Association for providing vision and images for this story