Sophie Devine: New Zealand White Ferns cricketer speaks exclusively to RealSport

Premier Women’s cricketer spoke with Ahmad Khawaja just before New Zealand’s home series against the West Indies, talking WBBL and transformation of the women’s game.

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Picture credit: Mike Lewis

With an international career now into its second decade, New Zealand White Fern’s cricketer Sophie Devine is without a doubt one of the premier all-round players in Women’s cricket today. Aged only 27, she is very much in demand, with her schedule getting ever busier. In addition to commitments for New Zealand and her Wellington province, she has also had extremely successful stints in the Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) where she represents the Adelaide Strikers and led them to a semi-final finish in the recently completed season, as well as for Yorkshire in the English T20 Kia Super League. 

Most recently she played a starring role in New Zealand’s T20 and ODI whitewash in their home series against the West Indies, and was named New Zealand Women’s T20 and ODI cricketer of the year at New Zealand Cricket’s annual awards. No one would argue against it when she has averaged 55 with the bat in ODIs and 31 in T20s, to go along with 15 wickets in the past 12 months. It is this all-round ability which makes her a commodity for these T20 leagues. Her role in the New Zealand team is to bat in the top order alongside her skipper Suzie Bates, and play her natural game, which is to go hard and aggressively at the ball which attests to her high strike rate. She can also be counted on to deliver her full quota of overs for her captain and pick up vital wickets.

Her schedule doesn’t appear to be letting up and there is a lot more cricket on the horizon for her coming up. Indeed, with the introduction of an ICC women’s championship back in April 2014, international women’s cricket has really taken off and transformed the way the game is marketed, promoted, perceived and played for all women’s players involved.

Before the Windies series, Sophie took some time out to speak with me about this ongoing evolution and her thoughts on T20 cricket, the WBBL and New Zealand’s preparations for their upcoming cricket.

Upcoming series’ preparations

RealSport: How is preparation going for the West Indies home series?

Sophie Devine: It has been pretty full on. Different preparations with girls playing for their major associations and myself being over here playing the last couple of rounds in the National Cricket League (one-day tournament) in Australia, which I have been fortunate to be able to do so, and the Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) before that. 

Some girls have had a couple of weeks break, so it’s been good to get together, get familiar with each other again and sort out game plans for the Windies.

RS: What are your expectations for this series? (consisting of three ODIs and five T20s). The Windies are the reigning World T20 champions, but their recent one-day form has not been great.

SD: The West Indies side on their day can be very destructive. They are pretty similar to the men’s side in that you don’t know what sort of team will turn up. You have to be cautious, because they can make those large scores, 350-400 on a good day. And like you said, they are T20 champions, and that doesn’t happen by accident. We certainly have a lot of respect for them.

Credit: Mike Lewis

RS: Are there other matches or series you have as you build towards the World Cup in the Windies this November?

SD: Following this we have a tour to the UK and Ireland in the English summer – around June/July. So we will play a few more T20/ODIs there as well. I’m not yet sure of the split.

There is also the potential to play a Rose Bowl series in Australia later in the year. We (ideally) want to play as much T20 cricket as we can before a big World Cup.

Evolution and transformation of the women’s game

RS: You have a pretty busy schedule such is the nature of the evolving women’s game – playing for the Adelaide Strikers in the WBBL and South Australia in the NCL, the Wellington Blaze in New Zealand, a home series against the Windies, an upcoming England tour and then the Kia T20 League (in England) before a World T20 to cap things off. Do you think this is the busiest you have been in terms of your cricketing schedule?

SD: The last 12 months prior I think overall it has been, especially if you count the ODI World Cup (held last year); it has been quite full on. There are a couple more tours to go and the World T20 as well. And I think that is just the way the women’s game is moving. With the introduction of the ICC Women’s Championship where the top eight teams play each other, it has been great.

There is a greater volume of cricket being played and that’s what we have been asking for back to when I debuted myself (in 2006 aged just 16). The only way we will get better is by playing more, raising the standard of the women’s game and playing in different conditions, which I think has been quite visible. The standard of the women’s game the last 2-3 years has been excellent, and it is due to playing in different conditions; Sri Lanka toured us a couple of years ago for the first time and we toured South Africa for the first time as well. Those opportunities and experiences are very valuable for us and other teams around the world.

RS:  The women’s game appears to be getting similar to the men’s game, in terms of more teams now competing with each other. What have you made of the transformation of the women’s game in the past few years and what do you think the reasoning has been for that?

SD: A bit of credit has to go to the ICC and all the national boards for their support of the women’s game. We’ve always had good quality players, but we just needed the support, resources and opportunities to improve. 

The WBBL is the best example of the professional nature of the women’s game; the standard is improving all the time. It is starting to get a proper following and is consistently kept in the public eye. Cricket Australia has done a great job promoting and marketing it, and it also helps that it has come off the back of the men’s BBL so there is loyalty there in that respect.

We have all wanted this as players. Cricket Australia and the England Cricket Board (ECB) are leading the way in terms of that way, to get the product out there and into the public, to the fans. If we can get it out to more people, the better it will be.

Credit: Mike Lewis

RS: With the rise of tournaments like the WBBL and Kia Super League, do you think the New Zealand women’s domestic cricketing structure could benefit from the set-up of a similar competition? One that could bring exposure from having more international players come over to New Zealand to play?

SD: We will always be in a tough position compared to Australia and England, (just by virtue of) not having the funds and resources they do. In saying that we still produce the same product and I think it is important for us to have something that is the same if not better.

Personally, I have been very fortunate along with some of my other New Zealand teammates (including Suzie Bates, Amy Satterthwaite and Lea Tahuhu) to be able to play over in Australia and England and that comes down to New Zealand Cricket. They could have easily said no and made it an imperative to play in New Zealand only. But they see these opportunities for us to grow as players, and it’s really important that we get those experiences. 

Playing in the WBBL has been one of the best experiences I have had. The structure, the players, everything has added up to one of the most professional environments I have seen. And if I can pass on some things I have learned there and those experiences back to New Zealand and Wellington, then that goes some way to helping our game.

RS: Another nice side effect would also be the pay on offer for playing in such tournaments. It wouldn’t be in the same range as the Australian women (who negotiated their new pay structure with Cricket Australia last year) yet it must still be a great incentive in terms of being a professional and actually forming a real career path for others?

SD: CA and the ECB have received good support from their home boards. NZC support us well but do not have the resources and funds to compete with that. But they will allow us to go out and compete in these overseas competitions on an ongoing basis which is what we need. 

Earning more money is great, but at the end of the day we just want to be playing more cricket. It is pretty cool to be able to call myself a professional cricketer and I am so lucky to be able to live off the wages I earn from playing it. We are not like the Australian guys earning millions but it is very encouraging. 

If you had told me 10 years ago when I debuted that this would have been the case, I would have laughed really. It’s great to go into schools now, talk about that and tell people that being a professional cricketer can be a career choice. It pays the bills, and it’s a good lifestyle. It is quite exciting to share that with the next generation.

At the time I debuted we used to get $30 a day for a food allowance, and I thought that was a very good deal! Now to see the numbers some girls are getting is mind-boggling; to reflect on where I started compared to now. (Former England Captain) Charlotte Edwards was involved with the Strikers this year; she started in the late 90s/early 2000s. She was saying they had to pay for their own flights and clothes, blazers etc. early in her career. That really puts it into perspective.

So I am in a privileged position, to be to travel the world and play sport, it’s just terrific.

The Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) and T20 cricket

RS: You’ve been with the Strikers for three seasons now since the league started. How have you found it? And there are encouraging signs for the team, coming from a seventh-placed finished to making a semi-final this season past?

SD: This season was a bit more pleasing. There was some inconsistency throughout the year though, where we would get on a roll winning games, then losing a couple on the trot. But overall it was good to make the semi-finals this year and hoping for us to improve on that next season.

I have absolutely loved my time in Adelaide with the Strikers. I originally went over because of the connection with Lauren Ebsary (former Australian Women’s International) who had came over to play for the Wellington Blaze. I’ve gone back every year from there and the environment is fantastic. Adelaide doesn’t get as much of a profile as the bigger Sydney and Melbourne franchises, but it works very hard.  And that’s behind the scenes too, not just the players and coaches but all the way to the administrative staff too. The resources and professionalism of it all has been fantastic.

RS: Your recent all-round form over the past while has been pretty impressive, both for the White Ferns and the Strikers. Were you pleased with your BBL performance this season? (Leading wicket-taker with 17 wickets at an RPO of 6.20. 355 runs at a strike-rate of 118, with one half-century and 17 sixes).

SD: I was quite pleased with my performance. The last couple of years not so much as the team had been quite inconsistent. I had been disappointed with both bat and ball.

In particular, it was great to play a role with the ball this time around. Taking wickets is definitely confidence boosting and just bowling in partnerships with the other girls, (like) Megan Schutt, Amanda Wellington and Tahlee McGrath (Australian Internationals). It’s great to have some young players there; fantastic but in a way scary as well with the depth of talent coming through in Australia. Hopefully, we can go one better next year and make that final.

Credit: Mike Lewis

RS: It must have been good to be playing alongside your New Zealand Captain Suzie Bates in the same Strikers side as well?

It is always nice to have Suzie there, and it has been superb playing alongside here, having her in the side. And that’s not just because they tease her accent more than mine! 

Her approach and style of the game has influenced the team considerably. She’s a quality player; the best player in the world with bat and ball and in terms of captaincy. She has been praised for her work ethic by the rest of her girls and she seems to take everything in her stride. She is calm and level-headed in her approach, especially in pressure situations. These are things you cannot coach – you either have it or you don’t. I am looking forward to playing with her again next year. 

RS: Congratulations on Wellington’s victorious T20 campaign this season. I’m surmising however with the volume of cricket you play for New Zealand and now steadily more overseas, you will probably won’t be able to play for them as much going forward?

SD: Yeah that is likely and I think it is sort of heading down the same path as the men’s game, where the BlackCaps barely play any domestic cricket. That is hard for me as I started out with the Blaze and have a lot of loyalty to them. On the other hand, the opportunities I have had in Australia have been great and I have received a lot of support from Cricket Wellington, especially our coach Christie Van Dyk, which has been very positive. They know this is the best thing for me as a cricketer, playing in the WBBL.

RS: You had your first taste last year playing in the English women’s T20 tournament – the Kia Super League. Did you find it much different to the WBBL?

SD: It was always going to be harder for the ECB to get their competition going straight away, compared to the WBBL which progressed off the back of the Men’s BBL. They had cities, team names, uniforms already set up, while the Super League had to set all that up from scratch. So they had to work a lot harder, but they also put in a lot of resources accordingly. 

It is into its third year now, and it’s a great concept. I have heard a rumour it will align itself with the men’s tournament which is encouraging. The quality is up there with the WBBL – it has the best international players and local talent playing with and against each other.

I think the best thing is you are sharing rooms with these international players, ones you hate on the field (!), but away from it you learn a lot from; sharing techniques and experiences. I say this to every team I play in – that I am happy to share techniques and everything else with them. I don’t care if it means they get better, it’s only good because it means I have to get better myself. If it will help raise the standard of the game, then it’s for all for the betterment of the sport. 

Following that you would think it be ideal for more countries to follow suit – for example the Caribbean Premier League in the West Indies. And obviously a Women’s IPL which many people are hanging out for. I thought with India winning the World Cup last year this might be more of a possibility; they have a big fan-base and love their cricket. So I guess we will just wait and see. 

RS: Do you find yourself with much down time now?

No, not really. And I think that’s been one of the downsides is that I have not been able to spend much time at home, just being able to chill out. Probably the last 4-5 months I have spent two weeks at home, in between flying to different places and playing. 

That’s part of what you have to buy in to if you are going to play. And it’s about the trade-off – getting a balance of playing and resting; being right mentally.

World T20 preparations

RS: There’s obviously a bit of time between now and the World T20 in the November, in the West Indies. Has the New Zealand team started to cast their mind to their preparations and strategies for the tournament? The pitches, being quite slow, will require some adjustment to what you have used to playing on?

SD: I’ve always thought New Zealander’s have been more suited to the T20 game. Not to say we don’t like playing ODI cricket, but we just have a lot of explosive players that can turn a game and with T20 cricket being quite short in nature, that aspect really works for us.

We’ve had a lot of success there in the past. Each tour we go on allows us to gather more information on teams, try out new players in the side and expose them to international cricket, and the more the better. We want more players battling for positions, getting better and raising the standard in New Zealand. Every camp, every tour is building towards the World T20, which is our pinnacle event for the year. 

It’s interesting because we haven’t been to the West Indies for a couple of years now, and as you say, the conditions are quite different, a bit like India, except slower. But in saying that we have played on some absolute belters in the Windies. I think we will get into some specific training closer to the time, but we are all really looking forward to it.

RS: Have you introduced some new players into the set-up, for the Windies series onwards?

SD: Yes we have a few. There’s two young uncapped players – Lauren Down, who’s an opening batsman from Auckland and Kate Heffernen from Otago, a left-arm seamer who had a really good domestic season. Kate Ebrahim, a middle-order batsman from Canterbury comes back into the side (she last played in 2015) and her teammate Hayley Jensen who has also been playing for the Melbourne Renegades in the WBBL for the last couple of seasons.

It is exciting to see more players enter the fold. Hopefully, they can step up and fight for those positions come World Cup time.

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