Almanac Cricket: Joy in the Juniors

Balwyn twins Sunny and Nali Plant, 14, began playing team cricket just three years ago after their initial jousts in the backyard.

Sunny specialised in batting while Nali challenged her with her

brisk medium pace.

‘A friend invited me around and asked if I’d like to play club cricket,’ Sunny recalls. ‘I was doubtful, but they signed me up anyway.’

That was to Koonung Heights CC, based at Greythorn Park, North Balwyn. This past week, both sisters have taken their first, impressive strides on Cricket Australia’s lauded pathways.

Twins Sunny (Left) and Nali Plant with bat and ball. [Source: Author]

Stories like theirs are threads linking an estimated 1,300 girls and boys now playing for 73 male and 33 female teams in the Victorian Metropolitan Cricket Union’s annual junior carnival.

In a triumph of logistics, the segregated teams, selected from 12 metro and country cricket associations, are playing in their U12 to U18 age grades at dozens of parks around Melbourne.

The VMCU began in its present form in 2003 but has roots extending back to 1913.

It was only in the current season that the Plant sisters began playing with their own gender. Before that, over two summers, they joined a friend to tread the challenging path that often required females to share a dressing room with fellas and compete with them on an equal footing with few favours asked or given.

‘The three of us [girls] were in a Saturday T20 competition for U12 boys,’ says Sunny, who has since transferred to a weekly U14 girls’ league. ‘The boys made us feel welcome; it was fun and a good place to start.’

Girls as young as 10 are stepping up to the Melbourne carnival, their eager shouts feeling like an endorsement of dividing the game along gender lines, a development that paradoxically is unifying and enlarging cricket globally.

Selected from Koonung Heights, the Plant twins are now representing Box Hill Reporter District Cricket Association in the carnival, whose finals are on January 12.

A cricketing uncle gets most credit for coaching the sisters, who practise on their home tennis court, using a mechanical ball server to work on their batting and reflexes.

Last Wednesday, it was Nali’s bowling that alerted co-umpire Peter Rosenthal and I that we’d probably be granting her a 1, 2 or 3 ‘best-players’ mark on our post-match report.

Nali had taken 1/13 off her four overs and contributed 27 (retired, after the 35-balls per batter limit) in Box Hill’s Reporter’s 138-run chase set by a South East Cricket Association (SECA) eleven.

Box Hill Reporter DCA struggled to accelerate its batting in the pursuit and needed an unlikely 19 to win from its final two overs.

Up stepped Nali’s twin, Sunny, knocking her first six from a cow corner slog, skying a couple over gully, hooking for six, punching another over mid-wicket and, just for fun, belting another maximum off the final ball.

Over three days, so far, of umpiring my first-ever junior girls’ matches, I’ve heard no curse or swear word, but I didn’t expect to. And how refreshing that no girls copy the boys, who copy their elders in spitting endlessly as though they’d swallowed turpentine . . . and needed to assert their masculinity.

The girls in this tournament have come together in bespoke representative teams of gifted strangers, so thankfully the habit of long-term male friends going over the top with sledging was never going to apply.

Like everyone else, girls are known to drop catches. In the past few days, teammates’ response has been along the lines of, ‘That was a tough one, Sophie, good try’ rather than ‘Get yer eyes checked, for —-’s sake, Shortie! That’s ya third!’

After a few overs, the synthetic wickets they’ve played on usually reveal their unchanging character. In a pre-carnival men’s game this season, one machine-made pitch surface yielded the unpredictable pace, bounce and seaming of a turf, green-top seamer. Virtually 22 yards of lush grass.

But another match in this carnival brought together U12 girls from the North West Metropolitan (NWM) association and the aforementioned SECA, each team contending with a wicket like a padded mattress, the leather missile bouncing from it lazily like a tennis ball on bitumen. Attacking shots were completed before the ball arrived, resulting in a spate of skyers giving fielders ample time to get under them.

In this U12 game, at the compulsory 30 overs closure, SECA had managed a mere 8/56. Yet it was enough, with NWM dismissed for 40.

Much of that was due to the accuracy of Ishita Tiwari, aged just 10, who had a batter caught and three times knocked over the modified, connected stumps for figures of 4 wickets for 2 from the maximum four overs.

(Hinges at the joined-stumps’ base in these contests enable a spring-back self-resurrection. Apart from toilets, they’re a convenience nonpareil. Setting ‘poles’ in the usually sand-filled stump holes of synthetic wickets is like setting them in custard . . . and why I’ve added to my umpiring gear a bucket and trowel to gather textured earth.)

A feature of the girls’ matches has been the prevalence of run outs, usually two to four per innings. One reason is that fielders’ cries of ‘Chase it, Sophie’, ‘Bowler’s end!’, ‘Quickly, quickly’ and ‘Back me up’ tend to drown out the batters’ survival/run-scoring instructions: ‘No,’ ‘Yes’ and ‘Wait.’

It can be a cruel game. A leg-before-wicket claimed the very last North-West batter to fall. Amy had missed a fast-ish straight delivery headed for middle stump.

We umpires are told never to react too quickly to lbw appeals. Rummaging mentally through the criteria of proof ought to take a few seconds, creating a vibe of pondering that just might, but probably won’t, appease offended parties.

This time, I was much too quick, especially as the poor victim collapsed as my finger shot up, the ball having crashed into her knee. As she limped off, arms around teammates’ shoulders; her tears were mine. I managed not to show them, but I felt ashamed.

Taking a wider view, as I left each match of this carnival of shouting, laughter, team chanting and high-fiving, I concluded the girls’ sheer enthusiasm for the game was rekindling my own.

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