She was the premier all-rounder of her generation and one of the key architects behind Australia’s emergence as juggernauts in women’s cricket. In her glittering twelve-year-long international career, Lisa Sthalekar won two World Cups (in 2005 and 2013), two World T20 titles and holds the distinction of being the first woman cricketer to achieve the ‘rare’ double of 1000 runs and 100 wickets in ODIs.
But it is not solely her cricketing exploits that make the former Australian women’s captain such an interesting person. Her life, in ways more than one, is akin to that of the protagonist of the 2017 Academy Award-nominated film ‘Lion’, who undertakes an extensive journey (both physical as well as spiritual) in quest for ascertaining his ‘true’ identity and eventually settles for the realization that ‘true’ home is where one’s heart lies. Like Saroo (played by Dev Patel in the film), Sthalekar—by her own admission—had never been subject to the dichotomy between ‘home’ and ‘identity’ until her visit to Shreevatsa in 2012—the orphanage in Pune where she was left behind by her biological parents as Laila and whence adopted and renamed by the bi-racial couple Haren and Sue as Lisa—and felt a gush of emotions jostling within.
In hindsight, one might imagine that the visit was pre-ordained—so meticulously scripted by Providence—and indeed, essential to her self-discovery, which engendered a burning desire to do something meaningful to espouse the cause of orphans. This desire found a perfect channel to manifest itself in the form of Adopt Change—an organisation devoted to raising awareness of adoption and the importance of permanency for children, along with providing support for families who care for these children—of which she is the ambassador.
Besides her fervent advocacy for such social issues, Sthalekar—who hung up her boots after the 2013 ICC Women’s World Cup—is an eminent figure in the field of cricket broadcasting today, a role she thoroughly revels in and which gives her the scope to travel, explore and interact with new faces and come across newer stories with each assignment.
A week before the commencement of the sixth edition of the ICC Women’s World T20, Sthalekar, who is there in the commentary team for the competition, spoke about Australia’s chances in the tournament, the teams that could possibly challenge the Southern Stars in the title race, the infamous sandpaper-gate, why the Aussie women’s team has done better than the men’s team of late, her assessment of the Indian squad et cetera in this exclusive conversation with our correspondent Ritam Basu.
Q: Just a couple of weeks ago, you were approached by the Australian A team to help them with their training ahead of the series-deciding T20 against India-A in Mumbai. Having played your cricket with such competence over a decade and then forged a successful career in broadcasting, does coaching feature among Lisa Sthalekar’s future plans?
Sthalekar: Some people may not know that I had a full-time job at Cricket NSW whilst I was an active cricketer, where I oversaw all elite junior female programs across the state. I coached the NSW U-15, U-17, U-18 and U-19 women’s sides and so, when I finished my playing career the natural progression would have been to continue in that role and coach the senior side, but I wanted a new challenge.
Plus, all the players whom I had coached when they were thirteen-year-olds were all playing in the senior side before I retired and became my teammates. I didn’t want to coach them again.
Q: Australia head into the ICC Women’s World T20 as the number-one ranked T20 side in the world. Given the form of the individual players as well as their recent track record, are they the ‘favourites’ to win the competition?
Sthalekar: I certainly feel that they have found a formula that works in the shortest format and having lost only one T20 match in 2018, they do go in as favourites.
Q: Any area, according to you, which is a cause of concern for the team at the moment and which calls for improvement?
Sthalekar: The only concern is that they play their best cricket on pitches that provide bounce and pace. They may not be able to get those same conditions in Guyana and hence, I feel their success in the tournament will depend on how quickly they can adapt to the conditions in the Caribbean.
Q: Meg Lanning was ruled out of the recently concluded third T20I against Pakistan—played in Kuala Lumpur—owing to a minor lower back injury. How imperative is it that she becomes available for Australia from the very first match of the World T20?
Sthalekar: That the team was able to win the Women’s Ashes despite her (Lanning’s) absence throughout the last Australian summer has allowed the group of players to grow in confidence that they can win without her. Given where she is now batting in the order—at number 5 most often—she may not be even able to bat if everything goes according to plans with the top order.
Sthalekar: The only style of bowling they are missing is a left-arm pacer, but everything else is covered. Even the young players who have walked into the side such as (Sophie) Molineux and Wareham have performed well right from day one.
Q: Which other team do you think would pose Australia a tough challenge in the title race?
Sthalekar: You always feel that the defending champions—the Windies—playing on their home turf may lift their performance and find the form they showed in 2016 when they won the title. Also in their pool is India who might like the conditions on offer for their spinners.
Q: What do you make of the Indian squad which has been selected for the World T20? Do you think Jhulan Goswami’s absence will affect India’s bowling in the competition?
Sthalekar: I think the squad is young and exciting. There are a number of players who could easily be match winners. They have explosive batters, but will be relying on Mandhana, Raj, Kaur and Krishnamurthy to be consistent batters. As for Goswami’s absence, she will certainly be missed with all her experience, but what it does is that it opens the door for a younger pace-bowler to put her hand up and lead the attack.
Q: With Cricket Australia having received so much of flak owing to the ‘sandpaper-gate’ earlier this year, do you think that if the Southern Stars go on to win the competition, it will be a huge solace to Cricket Australia, given all the criticism it has received on account of the men’s team in recent times?
Sthalekar: Whilst in recent times the Australian Men’s team and Cricket Australia have suffered bad reputation, the Australian Women’s team has gone about its business by playing positive cricket and winning. I don’t think there would be much of a difference in how our girls approach the tournament.
Q: What makes the Australian women’s team such a professional unit?
Sthalekar: The success that Australian Women’s Cricket has enjoyed over the last century has created a culture of success within the system. Also with the Australian team being the first group of female athletes to go professional in a sense of full-time pay, has meant that they can dedicate a lot more time to their preparation and skills which is showing on the field.
Q: How positive an impact has the Women’s Big Bash League had on the Australian women’s team since its inception in 2015-16?
Sthalekar: What the tournament has done is that it has allowed players such as Molineux and Ashleigh Gardner (to name two) a chance to play against the best players in the world. Therefore, when selected in Australian team, they have performed straight away.
I was fortunate to play in the first two seasons of the WBBL. However, I feel that the Women’s National Cricket League that I played in was the strongest competition in the world and we played more matches back then, so I was fortunate enough to play in that and develop my skills.
Q: What is your assessment of each of the following teams that are placed alongside Australia in Group B?
1. India: Strong chance of progressing through to the knockouts, given the conditions that will favour their spinners. They have attacking batters at the top and if they find form, they have a great chance of making the semi finals. Their fielding has been their biggest improvement.
2. New Zealand: Based on the results that I have seen of late, they rely too heavily on (Suzie) Bates and (Sophie) Devine to score the bulk of their runs. If they both fire, they certainly have a chance, but [I] feel [there’s] too much pressure on them.
3. Pakistan: They are a team on the move and have shown that already by beating South Africa in the warm-up match. Again, conditions may suit their style of play, but will have to keep their nerves as they come up against the top sides.
4. Ireland: As one of the qualifying teams, they will only continue to increase their skills. They now have a number of players who have the experience of playing in WBBL like (Isobel) Joyce, (Kim) Garth and (Celeste) Raack, so that will give them more strength.
Q: Suppose if there was a match contested between the Australian team of your generation and the Aussie team that is playing today, which side would you fancy to win it?
Sthalekar: It’s always hard to compare generations. I think that it would still be extremely competitive, but [am] not picking a winner.
Q: Did you find time to visit Shreevatsa while you were there in Pune to cover the third ODI between India and the Windies?
Sthalekar: Unfortunately I didn’t stay in Pune for the third ODI as I travelled from Mumbai just for the game.
Q: What would your advice to Meg Lanning and co. be ahead of their World T20 campaign?
Sthalekar: Ensure that you switch on as you can’t afford to take your focus off the game at any stage with the competition increasing in the shortest format as a result of other teams doing well. Plus, enjoy your time in the West Indies. It used to be one of my most enjoyable tours and hopefully all teams will enjoy what is going to be a special World T20.