When Australia takes on India in the ICC Women’s World Cup 2017 semi-final on Thursday, Alex Blackwell will achieve another landmark in her career. She will join Karen Rolton as the country’s most-capped player in One-Day Internationals with 141 appearances. In fact there are only five cricketers across teams who have played 140 or more ODIs. Blackwell made her debut in 2003 and has been at the centre of the game’s evolution. She spoke to us about the future of the game, the batters she enjoys watching and the funniest memory of her career among other things. Excerpts:
You are in your 15th year as an international player. How would you summarise the evolution of women’s cricket?
I see the game being played more aggressively. We have seen in this tournament that getting close to 300 in a 50-over game is not unrealistic. That has changed over time. In my first World Cup, if you scored 220 you would be quite confident to win the game. We have seen some very good run chases in this tournament, and we have seen some great depth in the teams. The teams are much stronger and people throughout in the batting order, even when you bat at No. 7 or No. 8, are able to contribute.
Things will only get bigger and better from there. There has been exponential improvement. It is happening quite fast. The athleticism and the strength in the players to be able to hit the ball further, the skill level in their bowling to bowl with variations, multiple slower balls for example. Physical improvement as well as improvement in skill is happening very quickly, and it is probably in response to greater support from the home cricket boards. For example, Cricket Australia have shown great support for the women’s team in recent years. Also the ICC have given great indication that they are treating women equally in the game of cricket.
All those things are showing in a shift in the attitude, in terms of the great potential women’s cricket has, in terms of the growth of the game, and the growth in more and more fans interested in tuning in. Also the commitment to broadcast this product now, it is showing to be an engaging product. People are very interested in knowing what is going on in this tournament. There is a lot of commentary happening around the world for both good and bad performances, which is what normally happens in elite sports.
Would you say Women’s Big Bash League has been the biggest gift to women’s cricket in recent years?
I can speak from my own experience. I was really excited for the introduction of the Women’s Big Bash League in Australia. We saw in the result in the first four years of the Big Bash League for men, it brings cricket to a new audience. That template was laid down and in the fifth year the Women’s Big Bash League came on board. To see how the fans of each of the franchises have embraced a new team to their club -- they now don’t have just one team to follow but two teams to follow. It has just doubled the interest. To have played domestic cricket in Australia over 15 years, and to then have a new challenge was really exciting for me. I recognise that I still had more to give in terms of how to bat in T20 cricket. I was really excited to score more off lesser balls and be aggressive from the very beginning of my innings, and access 360 degrees around the field.
It also means now women cricketers almost have a responsibility to entertain people who pay money to watch you. How has that changed the mentality of players?
You are right. We have got this opportunity to entertain and engage new fans in the game. When I was made the captain of Sydney Thunder and brought into the concept of what the Sydney Thunder franchise means to fans, I was told that we are here to introduce new fans to the game. I really got on board with that and understood that it is all about showing a pathway for young girls, to sort of go out there and show them how much fun cricket can be and how exciting it is to watch. And also be accessible as a player to those fans, after the game to go up to the crowd and sign autographs and be able to take photos with young cricketers or young fans, even adult fans. We understood that it was a part of it. It was great to play an important role because we have only just begun with the growth of women’s cricket. It has great potential, which has not been realised yet. The WBBL revealed that there is a lot of interest out there to watch women’s cricket.
Australia, and to an extent England, have always held the advantage over other teams, but with the gaps closing between teams how has the language in the dressing room changed?
As an Australian player I really enjoy going out there and being tested by exceptionally strong national teams around the world. I love to see a team like India improve so much. It would be not really very interesting to be a part of an exceptionally strong team that dominates, and then the competition does not rise with them. I think the fact that we have played each other in the Championship have helped the other teams increase their standard. That exposure to play the top eight nations in different conditions over a two-year period has played a huge role in lifting the abilities of those top eight teams. For us as an Australian team, yes we are No. 1 but we were challenged by the likes of Pakistan and South Africa at home and even West Indies. To be constantly reminded that the game is moving forward is a great incentive to continue to be No. 1. It keeps you really interested as well. It would be not much fun to know that you are going to demolish every team you come up against. I don’t think, in my career, that has ever been the case, but we know that every team is going to be tough. Against the Sri Lankan team, we had to chase the record number of runs in this World Cup to win. They are also a team that put pressure on the No. 1 ranked side.
Who are five batters that you enjoy watching from around the world?
I do enjoy watching the Indian batters generally. I don’t know old she is, but Poonam Raut has been playing for a long time. I just think she is a very quiet player who continues to show her value, and she is able to play in different gears. As an opening bat, that is really valuable.
I do like watching Harmanpreet Kaur in full flight, and I was able to see that at Women’s Big Bash in Sydney Thunder. In my team, I really enjoy watching Nicole Bolton. She was someone I had thought would have a big impact in this tournament. She is a solid opener with a great technique, and she is very consistent and is also able to bat in different gears like Poonam Raut. Someone to look forward to is Ashleigh Gardner, an all-rounder. She has shown her ability with the ball as an offspinner. Because of her ability to hit the ball long way, she is batting lower down the order for this Australian team. But in the long term she will be a prolific run-scorer.
Sarah Taylor is someone who is always good to watch. She is a fluent, aggressive batter and she has sort of got all the shots in the book. Sometimes it looks like she gets out when she gets a little bit bored, but she is an outstanding, world-class batter. When it comes to people you like to watch, you cannot really go past Meg Lanning. She is surpassing records in quick time, and she is different because she has got such a strong offside game. (Laura) Wolvaardt is just 18, and showing that classical approach with her offside game. Right now she has a long way to go in her career, but there are similar elements where you have got Meg Lanning who can hit the ball anywhere she wants to, in particular through the offside. I saw little bit of that offside strength in that young South African player.
Do you recognise that Lanning is setting new bars like Sachin Tendulkar did in men’s cricket?
Lanning will be remembered as Lanning. She is creating her own history. She has a long career ahead of her, but in a relatively short time she has been playing, she is well renowned. I would dare say that young cricketers -- boys and girls -- would see her play and emulate her. She is a role model and not just for female cricketers. I think with the accessibility of our game on TV and live streaming, there will be many young cricketers, even young boys, looking up to her and wanting to emulate the way she plays. That is quite groundbreaking.
In your long batting career, which would be your best innings?
I guess I have had quite a lot of success against India. Two of my three centuries have come against India. I take some confidence out of that, but in terms of my best-ever innings, I guess one of them that stands out is a 50 (54) not out at Lord’s to beat England. This is going back to the World Series among the top four nations (in 2011). I remember I had a poor innings the game before that, possibly my worst-ever innings. To be able to turn that around and produce a run-a-ball 50 (off 68 balls) and win the match at Lord’s, to beat England at home, that innings stands out. I was able to turn around my form within two games and entertain the members at Lord’s, all of whom were male. To walk off the ground and receive a standing obviation from the members, to have entertained them at the home of cricket, that is very vivid in my memory.
Lastly, what is your funniest dressing room story?
One of my teammates, Leonie Coleman, former wicketkeeper for Australia, she actually hid in my cricket kit. She removed all my bats and pads and helmet and got zipped up inside my kit bag. She exploded out of the kit bag and surprised me when I sat down in the dressing room. There are not many people small enough to fit into a cricket bag, but she was one of them.