Australia Women’s Alex Blackwell tells Kalika Mehta how greater financial support and an unabashed desire to improve helped her earn a 250th international cap – and that she’s not finished yet!
There is an element of disbelief for Alex Blackwell as she reminisces about her career after earning her 250th cap for Australia.
Having made her international debut in 2003, Australia’s most-capped female cricketer is only the fourth woman to play 250 international cricket matches.
The 34-year-old admitted she dreamed of earning a living as a cricket player as a young child but doubted if it could become a reality.
“I probably didn’t believe I would be a professional cricketer but I dreamed I would be,” she says. “I thought it would be wonderful to be able to train in the sunshine during the day, go home, have a good night’s rest and come back and do it again the next day.
“I feel really privileged to be able to capitalise on all the work that has been done before me to get to me to the stage of being a professional cricketer.
“It gives me that focus to make this time count, see how good I can be. I know it’s not going to last forever but it’s great fun at the moment.”
Despite the early success she enjoyed, Blackwell never looked too far in the future, fully aware of how quickly fortunes can change in elite sport.
Alongside training almost full time, she balanced pursuing a profession as a doctor during the early days of her Australia career.
The introduction of the first professional contracts for the Australian female players was a seminal moment worldwide – a tiered system was put in place with the players falling into three brackets of AUS $15,000, $10,000 and $5,000.
While accepting it was a great and important step, Blackwell explains her feelings in that moment a little different than one may expect.
“I remember the feeling of ‘well, it’s not going to change much but it’s going to ease the load a little bit’,” she admitted. “I knew for some of my teammates (who were only earning $5,000) it would mean absolutely nothing. It wasn’t a lot of money but it had to start somewhere.
“I chose to be a full-time athlete even though the remuneration was not going to be totally fair in a gender-equitable sense.”
The choice Blackwell speaks of came in October 2014, following an honest conversation with her mentor and former coach Kerry Marshall.
At the time the Sydney Thunder player was balancing being a professional cricketer and working as a genetic counsellor.
Being named vice-captain of the ODI side under the stewardship of Meg Lanning in 2014 added to her growing number of responsibilities within cricket and the pressures of holding down two full-time jobs ultimately became too much.
“She (Marshall) knew I didn’t seem myself and it was because I was being pulled every which way,” Blackwell explained. “She asked if it had to be that way, if I had to be working and I hadn’t contemplated the idea of not working.
“I’ve always had in my mind that I’m a cricketer but I’m also other things and having to cultivate that part of my life.
“While it’s not unique (for female sportswomen) to do both over a very long period of time and also take on leadership responsibilities, it got to a point where something needed to give.”
After talking it through with her partner, the pair felt their dual incomes – with Blackwell’s earnings now coming solely from her top tier of the previous Australian central contacts – they could make it work, just.
Despite earning a small income her passion for the sport drove her to try to maximise her abilities.
And, the two-time World Cup winner felt honoured at being able make the decision and not have it made for her due to financial pressures, like many of her compatriots before her.
“I have this opinion that I can be other things later but I can’t be an international cricketer later,” Blackwell admitted. “If there’s no money in cricket and you’ve got to work harder to hold on to your job, you chose work and that’s what so many women before me had to do.
“I felt like I owed it to them to really give it a shot, many women would have given an arm and a leg to have that opportunity. I’m pleased I made that decision in 2014 because I’ve become a better cricketer since.”
The landscape of Australian cricket has changed dramatically over the past few months after the new MOU, which was signed in August, saw female player payments increase from AUS $7.5 million to $55.2 million.
It meant the earnings across all three tiers of the international contracts almost doubled, while also offering greater protection for the players aside from just better remuneration.
And, Blackwell believes that the changing landscape of women’s sport enabled her to reach her 250th cap – a milestone she never dreamed of achieving – in the third ODI of the ongoing Ashes series.
“I didn’t anticipate playing this long because historically women have left the game far too prematurely,” she explained. “I’ve seen financial pressure and a pressure to pursue a career outside the game force a player to leave before they have seen how good they can be.
“I’m thrilled with the changes that have happened in this new financial year because to be treated fairly for the work that I do feels good. It feels like we’re a genuine part of cricket and seen as a valuable piece in the puzzle to be seen as Australia’s favourite sport.
“It’s a real bonus for me to continue to be a high performer in cricket at a time when it’s actually worthwhile financially, as well as the pride you have representing your country.”
The longevity of Blackwell has also seen her game evolve many times over and the creation of Twenty20 cricket posed a problem.
By her own admission her style of play, to bat through and be the rock of an ODI innings, did not initially suit the shortest format of the sport.
But versatility is rooted deep within her and after the top-order batsman found herself coming in at number eight in T20s for Australia, she knew she had to reinvent her game.
The fruits of the hard labour she did to adapt her game to fit the ever-changing landscape of the sport was most notable during her side’s World Cup semi-final loss to India – Blackwell hit a 56-ball 90 in an innings that she rates as one of her career highlights.
“As T20 came about my brilliant ability to bat all day in one-day cricket didn’t suit what was now needed,” she said.
“I batted as well as I’ve ever batted in the World Cup semi-final and what was heartbreaking was that it wasn’t enough to get us through. It’s what I’ve been working towards and is the blueprint now that I’ve achieved that style of play, I want to do it more and more often.
“I’ve really kicked it up a notch in terms of power hitting and my ability to hit 360 degrees. I’ve got a goal that I want to be a 720 batter not just 360, to be able to hit 360 on the ground and also in the air.”
With the women preparing to play in the first-ever Ashes day/night Test later this week, Blackwell is relishing the prospect of another new challenge.
Over half a million people tuned in to watch the third ODI against England on October 29 and the continued growth of the women’s game is a big drive for her to play on.
The thought of retirement is not one Blackwell is considering, with the standalone World T20 in Australia in 2020 remaining a realistic aim.
“The women’s series is happening first and it is a really interesting set-up for the first day/night Ashes Test match,” the vice-captain said. “Cricket has shown to be an innovative sport. Why not give us the maximum challenges to see which team can do best?
“The talk around what we are trying to achieve in cricket in Australia and global cricket for women is really exciting to hear. I’ve always played for the love of the game and I continue to do that.”
Australia will retain the Women’s Ashes if they beat England in the one-off Test match at North Sydney Oval from Thursday. Follow their progress across Sky Sports’ digital platforms.