Transcript: Couch Talk with Nicola Browne

Couch Talk 162 (Play)

Guest: Nicola Browne, Former NZ Women’s Cricketer

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ)– Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. The guest today is former New Zealand all rounder, Nicola Browne. She talks about her playing career for the White Ferns, the current status of women’s cricket in New Zealand and around the world, her memories from losing a close final to Australia and her retirement from the game earlier this year, among other things.

Welcome to the show, Nicky!

Nicola Browne (NB)– Thank you, Subash!

SJ– It is my pleasure having you on.

New Zealand is a rugby country. What got you motivated to choose cricket as a profession, because I read in an interview that you didn’t really want to be a cricketer growing up?

NB– I just grew up in a small country town. As is with many other New Zealanders have come from rural background, you play every sport because there are only so many kids in the schools. I played every sport including rugby, cricket, netball, tennis, football. Because of the numbers in the school, you were in every team as well. I always did play cricket but never in an organized fashion. It is a part of week in, week out team.

SJ– Then, what got you to focus entirely on cricket and become a professional and play for the nation eventually?

NB– It was just through people selecting me. Pat Malcolm from Northern Districts [Cricket Association] just saw me play in my school game and college, and basically picked me up there. Byy the end of college, I was in the national team. So, that caught me a little off-guard.

SJ– That explains you becoming an all-rounder too – trying out everything and eventually picking up cricket and you were good with both bat and ball, I suppose?

NB– I started as a bowler, as you can envision grabbing the ball and having a bowl was a more of a simpler task than the range of different cricket strokes that you need to master. However, after the first few games, I must admit, waiting 3 hours on the sidelines, I got bored. So, I was like, “I think I need to learn to bat as well.” that is how the all-rounder thing developed.

SJ– New Zealand, along with England and Australia has been at the forefront of the women’s game. Recently, I think last year or towards the end of 2013, New Zealand announced the first set of professional contracts for women cricketers. Initially there was a small group and then they have expanded it further. How have you seen the maturing of women’s cricket in your time of playing it, in New Zealand?

NB– When I first came into the team, I had the likes of Debby Hockley, Emily Drumm, and Rebecca Rowles; and they were some of the most professional athletes I have come across, I am being completely honest. In the recent times, some of the girls haven’t had that same….they all have the drive, but the ones like Drumm had completely dedicated to cricket, had set very high standards for themselves. The other thing that impacted the game was T20 cricket. The introduction of T20 cricket probably appealed to the New Zealand female athletes, and has brought a lot of natural sportswomen through and that has been the biggest impact on the game and has attracted and maintained the likes of Suzy Bates and Sophie Devine, who could quite easily have pursued their other sporting codes.

In terms of the contract side of things, it is not enough to make a significant difference. I hear Alex Blackwell – one of the other Australian Southern Stars who has gone to spend 2 months or 6 weeks in a row in an academy in England. The school level is not going to improve, but the consistency is. The difference between a good and a great player is someone taking the highest level of natural talent and learn the skill set and consistently play at it. Like Brendon McCullum playing consistently at that level. Consistency is what is going to be gained from these contracts. That is where I think the secret lies.

SJ– As you mentioned, there is schools cricket and the domestic game and then the international game. When it comes to the men’s side of things, you hear about the international stars, but you also have sizable following for the [men’s] domestic game. But we never really hear about the domestic side of women’s cricket. Could you talk a bit about that side of it with respect to New Zealand?

NB– The domestic women’s competition is well supported, and it is one thing that cricket does have [in New Zealand]. It is for the females apart from netball and to a degree hockey and rugby, but generally cricket is well supported. Domestic players do not have to pay to play. That is really a great pulling point. The biggest one is that numbers attracted to the game. For females the national game is netball, and for men it is rugby. There is not a huge number of young females playing cricket. That is going to increase, as always. It is generally that the game becomes more attractive with contracts and the likes.

There is still such a vast drop off. There are girls that make to the team in 13-15 years old, and then you have 31 and 32 year olds. So, there is such a dramatic drop off there. To have a quality competitive competition, it still hasn’t got that stature quite yet, but with the big names stepping up and producing results, [that could happen].

The top [domestic] players can afford to make mistakes and get away with it at domestic level because you are playing against weaker opposition. When you step up to the international level, what was working at domestic is suddenly not working at international level because you don’t get the loose balls and the second chances.

SJ– In India, I had interviewed a player that represented India and now she is playing for a domestic side. A lot of them have day jobs with a government concerns, like the Indian Railways. Does that sort of thing exist for domestic cricketers in New Zealand? They can come to office and do some work, but they can go and train and don’t have to worry about making ends meet?

NB– No. i really enjoyed this set up when I heard about it from Amita Sharma and Jhulan Goswami whom I played my whole international career with, so I know them quite well. We do have universities and scholarships to universities. As often, girls will start playing around 15-16. The average age of a White Fern is 18-19 year old. At that stage, they go to the university. For the first 3-4-5 years of their cricketing career, they are studying. That gives them the flexibility you talked about. After that, we struggle. Girls can often get [job] roles, often full time roles. This is where the girls should be making their most impact, but the game fades away.

SJ– Do you see, in the future, if that sort of thing can be corrected? What are the ways to correcting it?

NB– I started a charity with the intention of connecting and making businesses more aware of the athletes that are out there and what they need – like, part time flexible roles. We had to think more strategically – how they could integrate an elite amateur athlete into their business, which would require quite a degree of flexibility and probably a lot of teaching on their behalf. You learn a skill over a period of time, without consistency and the ability. In the end, they will be able to capitalise over their profile and help them with the transition later in the athlete’s life. it is a really difficult concept to make succeed. It is something that I would like to revisit in future. What you need is, to find a business person who is passionate about the sport and understands high performance and is willing to have them as a part of their business. However, New Zealand is made up of a lot of small and medium-sized business owners, so that is not always an option [just yet].

SJ– You played for the ACT Meteors in the women’s national cricket league in Australia. There is going to be a women’s equivalent of the Big Bash League starting in the 2015/16 season in Australia – a women’s T20 competition, replacing the existing states’ sides. How do you see any of that playing roles in not just developing women’s cricket in Australia but in New Zealand too because you are geographically close by, and maybe somewhere else too?

NB– I think it is something that has been talked about for a while. When the IPL first came on board, I was in Dubai in 2008, and the talk of an opportunity like that hit me. Australia has got the first jump on it, and there is a strategic focus of making cricket as the number one women’s summer sport. You can see their investment in the game and you can see the uptick of numbers. What they are creating over there is really exciting.

Going in line with the men’s team has both positive and negative. One, obviously to capture on the brand and the excitement in the following has already created. But sometimes the thing that you love the most – which is playing the game – can be affected. Like, if you are playing a double header, the women’s game has to start on time so all of a sudden your game can finish early or not even happen because of the men’s game is not ready. That has happened on a few occasions. That is going to be a positive step, though. Australia might lose out one a couple of things because their domestic competition is going to have to change.

SJ– I guess they have to spread out the players, as Victoria and New South Wales have the strongest teams. They have to spread out the talent around the 8 different franchises. I guess that too is good and bad, eh?

NB– Correct. Teams, as we know them, have to change. People are going to have to shift. I think, the introduction is an opportunity to New Zealand, you are right. It will be interesting to see how New Zealand reacts to it as the timing is when we play a lot of our domestic competition, because of weather and ground availability. The injection of English players last year in the competition was evident, eventually becoming full time contract players. I think we will see a lot more of them. As you mentioned earlier, Australia, England, New Zealand and to an extent, West Indies hold the most top players. This is becoming a bit of a super league with the top players from around the world. It will be exciting to see how the first season goes and see what changes they make for the second. I will be watching with keen interest.

SJ– I want to talk about your career. You were the Player of the Tournament in the 2010 World T20 that was held in West Indies. New Zealand lost to Australia by 3 runs. You took 2/11 in the final and came in and scored 20-odd runs coming in at 5/36 chasing 100+. Your memories of that final? Does it still hurt that the world title slipped from your grasp?

NB– It was quite a pivotal game for me. We touched on the effect of the domestic competition not being too strong. In such pressure games, you must know how to play finals. That was our third final we’d been in. We had taken great lessons from the previous finals. The one thing that sticks to my mind is that it took a while for me to crack on my career. Whether to say I got a run or not…. In the run chase, in staying with the score, there was a period of time that the boundaries were bigger and the previous games were played where you could just hit out. There was a bit of a risk in hitting out. Rather than backing myself, I just worked it around and then potentially before Sophie went…. We both knew we had the power, but we waited too long.

Definitely, it still hurts. May be, people in life have to learn certain lessons, and sometimes, it might take ages to learn those lessons [laughs].

There are two things that I learnt. One was resilience, especially in the latter half of my career, when the White Ferns tended to lose more than we won. Certainly, in my domestic cricket that was the case. I learnt resilience to get back up every day and keep the passion to be the best you can, despite the results. I also learnt, probably still need to learn, to completely let go, and trust, and not overthink and completely listen to your gut. That steers you in good shape.

SJ– I went to watch back-to-back T20s – one of women’s T20 and then men’s T20 in Australia. It is strikingly different the strategies involved. The strategy and flow of the game in men’s T20 is very obvious; There is a lot of pace, a lot of big hitting. Whereas the women’s game is – you have to involved yourself as a viewer to understand the finer things that are done. You don’t have people bowling at 90 mph or people swinging for the fences all the time. People say “I prefer men’s T20 because it is more fun.” Whereas, there is a lot more to understand and enjoy in a women’s game as well. In terms of strategy, how does it work in the women’s game with respect to the men’s?

NB– I think you have probably hit the nail on the head, Subash. It is probably male counterparts, whether the commentators or the journalists, describing to the public that this is the difference between the games, and we can liken it very much to women’s tennis. Men’s tennis game is about aces (and power) and there could be a whole set where a female’s rally could go on for a long time. There is the finer detail, we have to showcase and describe that to the less knowledgeable cricket viewer.

That is the thing that captures you, about cricket. I learned to love cricket. The more I knew about cricket, the more I loved it, because of all the intricacies with the different elements. It is almost like all sports wrapped up into one. There are so many different things. When you used to write out skills that you wanted to work on in each of the different disciplines, it is so meaningful to work on. That is the magical part about the game. The females have to dive a little deeper into that and have a more 360-degree game and create pace on the ball.

I won’t lie, I must say the boundaries are smaller (in men’s T20). It is not a take off from females, but just in relation to power. Female cricketers with this period where the girls can train for longer [due to professional contracts], they are going to get timing and rhythm and collectively, with bowling rhythm and batting timing you will see dynamic shot making. We will have elements of both, and can lead often as you hear long term patrons of the game who eventually comes to watch the females’ game go “Ah, didn’t know they played like that. That was enjoyable!” That is probably the snowball effect, and the numbers and the opportunity to play that in front of them and create a lover of the female brand of cricket.

SJ– You retired when you were 30, and you played more than 180 games of cricket for New Zealand. Are there any fond on-field memories that still stay with you? Anything that you look back on and say, “Yes, that was fun” ?

NB– Sure. it is probably three parts that come to mind. One, early in my career, when we came on the back of the World Cup winning team in 2001. There were a lot of players that were, as I said earlier, played at a very high level. They set the standard for my career. They won a lot of games in their career and we won a lot of games that time. I enjoyed that part of my career coming in and having a lot of wins with the White Ferns.

The second part is the period between 2008-2010. As with all players that experience the highs of their career, they finally work it out before the opposition work them out. That is when you see yourself playing at your best and all the hard work pays off. It is such an exciting time as you are learning and discovering and finally putting it out together. That is always an enjoyable time for a player. And then they work you out, and the improvements become incremental.

In the last phase of my career I did something different. There were magic moments, moments that you can’t train for. As I talked about, from the 2010 final, the lesson I had to learn about letting go. There were two occasions where I completely let go. One was this catch in 2013 World Cup versus England, where i took this catch running in from the boundary that shouldn’t have been a catch. I had a sort of out of body experience where I saw myself running in and catching it from a distance, and that was the most incredible feeling that I have experienced of complete freedom. Another highlight I remember was – often we found ourselves in a situation against Australia where we needed a lot off not many. Being in the position I always was in, that may have been due to my inability to keep up with the score, we needed a lot of runs. We needed 36 in 2 overs. I completed that in 8. That was a surreal feeling when I hit 6 after 6 and they moved the field and i placed it for four, and then hit a six to win. That was probably a healing thing from the [loss in the] World Cup game. I finally chased down one of those unattainable scores. That was enjoyable. Those were some fond memories!

SJ– Wow!

You had retired in January of this year, but there was another time when you had previously retired as well, but made a comeback later, because of a medical condition. Could you talk about that?

NB– That was shortly after the 2010 World T20. I had achieved a lot over that period and I came away really tired. I kind of felt that I would talk to a few people about when it would be a nice time to retire, and they said, you probably let the motivation to train at the level you once did. That is when I gave myself a 9 months to come around, but I never picked up the energy to train. So, I made the call to retire. But unfortunately, 2 weeks later I found out I got diagnosed with Celiac’s disease, which is an intolerance to gluten, a reaction to gluten which does not allow you to absorb the nutrients from food, and hence the tiredness. Once I was on a gluten-free diet, I sprang back to life and loved life more than I had in a very long time. I thought it would be a good idea to give cricket one more crack. Plus, I was still quite young and there were a few things left to achieve. So, reflecting on it, I haven’t had the same ambition for the game that I did after 2010, the last 4 years have been more like a transition into another phase of life after I gave my whole self to cricket for 10 years. When I did retire, I simply looked around and didn’t see many other pathways, as I was so entrenched in cricket. So, the kind of life in those 4 years gave me an opportunity to create some new pathways for myself.

SJ– You are still quite young.

NB– I am. Yes.

SJ– And, you have already had a whole professional sport career and moved on. If, say, the ground realities of playing a women’s professional sport were to be different, where it is a little bit more financially rewarding and a bit more security around your future, would you have continued with cricket?

NB– I think, yes. I definitely would have had few more years in me. i also would have done things other ways to capitalise on the money that I had earned to ensure some longevity out of it. The path would certainly have looked different. The money side is difficult. There were a number of things it came down to. There were three mainly.

The financial side. there was – not frustration exactly with New Zealand Cricket – but I wanted it more badly for there to be more female players in the game and for the domestic and international scene to be more competitive. Secondly, I have got to play a part in that. It was probably more frustration in myself on not knowing how I could impact on that. The third thing is – new experiences. When I got back from a tour and went to the gym to train, there was a new experience, or a road trip for example – I got more excited about that.

What I love so much about cricket is that it gave me so many experiences, whether positive or negative, you are able to grow and develop a deeper understanding and an awareness of oneself. That is what I truly loved, and that is why I am so thankful to cricket for all those amazing experiences. I am keen now to probably have more different experiences in life so I can learn and grow in other aspects of myself. That is also what it came down to.

SJ– When you look back at your career, as i said, you played more than 180 games. but there were only 2 Test matches. There was an 8-year period when India didn’t play a Test match until they went to England [in 2014] recently. It looks like only England and Australia play any kind of Test match cricket. Why is that? Is there not enough players willing to play Test cricket? Or, is there not motivation from the people administrating the sport? What seems to be the issue there?

NB– There are two things that pop up. One is, this is still belief that females can’t play a good brand of Test cricket. That is what was given to us early on when we were asking the question. I think that is less likely to be the case now. Later on, with the introduction of T20 and the financial component, it was more worthwhile to play a series of 5 T20s and more marketable than one Test match. And obviously the finances to extend the tour to play one more Test match in addition to T20s was unavailable, and so that was unlikely. That were the two excuses I have seen so far.

SJ– The first excuse of women players not being good enough to play Test cricket – that sounds hollow. If anything, they should be quite equipped to play Test cricket, as it is a game of strategy. It is a throwback to an earlier time when the batters are trying to pierce the gap and you are manoeuvring the field around, moving the field around and not trying to bash everything. that is bogus in my point of view. Would you agree on that?

NB– It came down to this lot of young players, on that day. It is simply that they are extending their careers and in terms of loading on young females’ bodies and things like that… There are a lot of girls who would want to play a lot more Test matches, that is for sure.

SJ– Now that you have retired in January and you have been a part of the cricket World Cup in New Zealand, what are your plans for the future? And, also, when you look back on your career for New Zealand as a cricketer, what are your lasting memories of what you have accomplished?

NB– Moving forward, there is a FIFA Under-20 World Cup, which is a time to be part of a different sport, which will be very neat. Come July, I will have money and no commitments. Two new feelings. The kind of early commitments that I made myself to have this year is to make no commitments in these 6 months to allow new opportunities to open up and throw myself at different people to see what opportunities open up. So, after July, we will wait and see.

Looking back, I think I can be a little bit of a tree-shaker, bit of a stirrer, I know that and I am probably well known for that in New Zealand cricket with my somewhat different opinions to most. That, I am alright with. I know that in recent times I have been bit of a bee in the bonnet both in domestic and international cricket. They are probably pleased to see the back of me.

I am truly grateful for the sport of cricket. Even though I give them a hard time about support and resources, they compare well to most sports out there. The support was actually fantastic. All through my career, there is nothing to an extent that they didn’t give me, or make me the player that I wanted to be. There weren’t many things that they weren’t able to provide. During tough times and conditions, they supported me in many ways when I asked.

Looking back on my career, I am really grateful that cricket chose me. I was able to experience all the different wonders that cricket provides and learn all the lessons from the game because there are more bad days than good in the game of cricket. What it has provided me is that I am fearless going into life now – from giving up all those days with losses and failures, and then having the successes. I believe I have had a very successful career. As any high performance athlete would say, I could always have been better.

If I look back, one thing I would have liked to have done better – it was probably learn how to integrate into the team better, or really understand what a great team life culture felt like. There are a lot of unique personalities in the game, very unique. Probably I have yet to come across a coach who is really able to mesh all those personalities together to make everyone feel like a part of the team and not alienated in any way. I also know that my own personality can contribute to that as well. So, I look back at something that I still would like to understand and maybe learn that lesson in another environment.

SJ– Alright!

On that note, Nicky, thank you so much for being on the show. It was an absolute pleasure talking to you. All the very best.

NB– Thank you, Subash. It was nice to be able to have a chat reflecting back.

SJ– My pleasure. Bye!


Episode Transcribed by Bharathram Pattabiraman