Alyssa Healy takes the gloves off
When two outstanding cricketers celebrated their third wedding anniversary at home in Sydney on April 15, they clinked glasses and saw the humour in finally being in the same place on the date they had exchanged vows. Having met as nine-year-olds playing for the Northern District Cricket Club in Sydney, before sharing the wicketkeeping gloves in the under 11s, Alyssa Healy and Mitchell Starc are just the third married couple to play Test cricket, and Australia’s first.
Chances are you’ll know more about Starc, though, for sport is still a place where netball, gymnastics and perhaps Serena Williams are among the few exceptions to the general men-have-higher-profiles-while-playing-the-same-game rule. At time of press, the most recent of Starc’s 53 Tests and 222 wickets was last weekend in Brisbane as Australia routed Pakistan with an innings to spare. The left-arm fast bowler has also represented his country 113 times in the shortened forms of the game.
Not that Healy struggles for name recognition, helped in part because her uncle Ian Healy held the world record for Test dismissals by the time he retired in 1999. Alyssa has followed him behind the stumps, although the paucity of white-uniform opportunities for women is illustrated by the fact she has managed just four Tests since her debut in 2011 while logging 174 one-day internationals and Twenty20s. Since returning from a successful Ashes defence, the reigning Belinda Clark medallist has smacked a T20 world record score against Sri Lanka of 148 not out off 61 balls. Now a headliner for the Sydney Sixers in the first standalone Women’s Big Bash League, her summer will end with the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup and a possible world record crowd for a women’s sporting event of 90,000 in the March 8 final at the MCG.
So who is the best cricketer in the busy Healy–Starc household? “Ooh, interesting. Um, I think Mitch is. He’s been more consistent throughout his career, I’d say,” Healy concedes, before a typically mischievous about-face. “But I bat and wicketkeep, so let’s just go with me!” The pair, she says, competes at everything, and fiercely, from golf to PlayStation, but the limited cricket chat tends to be more emotional than technical. For the more diplomatic of the duo, anyway. “I tell him what I think all the time,” Healy laughs. “I don’t hold back. I’ll tell him exactly what he did wrong when he’s batting, that’s for sure.”
As to which of the 29-year-olds does more around the house shared with their two beloved Staffordshire terriers, longtime friend and Healy’s Sixers teammate Sarah Aley says there is no contest. “Oh, Mitch, definitely. He’ll do the cooking and the cleaning and mow the lawn and all that sort of stuff.” And “Midge”, as the 166-centimetre Healy is known, does what, exactly? “Midge’ll have a beer on the couch or be in the pool! Yeah, she’ll cook occasionally, but Mitch is the more domesticated one.”
If the wicketkeeping in her blood steered Healy’s destiny, it was not necessarily her choice. “I always wanted to be a fast bowler and my fast bowling career lasted two games in under 10s before the gloves got thrown at me and I got stuck there for the rest of my career,” says the player who grew up as the only girl in all-boys’ teams at club and then high-school level. The youngster also rose irresistibly through the New South Wales junior ranks with her great friend Ellyse Perry, and considers her journey to have been a fortunate merger of luck with “a little bit of natural talent”. Even so, it was not until she first represented her country that cricket emerged as a possible job.
“I was probably a reluctant cricketer in that sense; it wasn’t like I was dreaming I’d play for Australia or anything like that,” Healy says. “I was just enjoying my cricket and getting selected along the way. When I was learning the game of cricket I didn’t even know that there was an Australian women’s team … so at no stage did I think it was going to become a career. I played every sport under the sun, so I figured that potentially in one of those sports I could go on and play for Australia, but I assumed I’d be working nine-to-five in an office somewhere and still doing that on the side.”
How differently it has all worked out, and although her reputation – along with Perry’s – preceded Healy at state level, her name was an occasional source of sour grapes. “Especially when kids come in that young, there can be a few people that say she’s only getting picked because of her name and stuff like that, but I never saw it that way,” says Aley, who is six years older. “From what I saw in terms of her skill level, but then also the performances that she was putting on the board, I knew that it had nothing to do with the name.”
There was also, even then, what Healy brought to the group, personality-wise. “She was a cheeky little so-and-so, and always looking to have a bit of a joke,” Aley recalls. “Even coming into a squad with quite a few Australian players in there and players who had been playing for NSW for a long time, straight away she brightened up the squad and brightened up the room. Everybody was drawn to her immediately. She’s just a very infectious personality.”
Aley says she has also seen Healy mature and flourish as she has started to rely less on the natural talent that has always been her other great ally.
Healy admits the lightbulb moment came after Australia bombed out in the semis of the 2017 World Cup in England. It wasn’t that she then decided to make something of her career so much as the realisation there was finite time left to have an impact. Healy worked out that while her laid-back attitude to life would always flow into her cricket, “it occurred to me that I can flick the switch [and] switch on my competitive side; that I can still enjoy myself but actually make a contribution, especially at international level, because it doesn’t last forever”.
A conversation with coach Matthew Mott proved to be the game changer. Healy would be promoted from her spot batting in the middle-to-lower order for the next big series: a home Ashes the following summer. “He approached me and said, ‘Look, we want you to open the batting, we want you to get out there, take the game on, and we’ll back you 100 per cent with what you’re gonna do out there,’ ” she recalls. “I think that was the moment where I felt really confident in what I could do, and I knew that if I went out to bat and I played the way I wanted to, that everybody in the squad was behind me and the coaching staff as well. It sort of helped me kick myself into gear, and the next couple of years after that have sort of been a real blur, but something I’ve really enjoyed.”
With Healy, Perry and captain Meg Lanning among the standard-bearers, Australian women’s cricket is in something of a golden era, and it is hard to imagine that it was less than a decade ago that a T20 curtain-raiser to a men’s game was the first women’s international broadcast live on free-to-air Australian TV. But professionalism is the new normal, and Cricket Australia’s recently announced parental policy a significant recent breakthrough.
To help avoid the aches and pains that come with long days keeping and bowling, any Healy–Starc offspring will be advised to stick to batting, says Alyssa, who understands the inevitable interest in the so-called first couple of cricket and in the unusual set of challenges – including geographical ones – their schedules bring.
“It’s not an easy lifestyle, but in saying that it’s obviously really nice to have somebody in the household or on the other end of the phone that knows exactly what you’re going through…” she says. “So we are in a really unique position, and one that we don’t take for granted. We’re making sure that we’re enjoying our careers both together and separately at the moment … and we know that once we finish we’ve got the rest of our lives to spend in the same country and hopefully in the same house.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 30, 2019 as "Glove life". Subscribe here.