“I like hard work”
A decade after she put women’s cricket on the map, Ellyse Perry talks to Jordan Baker about becoming a role model for young Australian girls daring to dream of a professional sporting career
Lyn Stathis has hit the parenting jackpot. Her daughter Chrissa could be obsessed with Kylie Jenner or Justin Bieber, but instead the 10-year-old chose someone who could not be a better role model if she had been custom designed. Cricketer Ellyse Perry is everything a mother could want her daughter to admire: wholesome, humble, hardworking – and far more likely to be wearing batting pads than boob tubes.
“I idolise her,” says Chrissa, who has posters of Perry on her bedroom wall and has memorised all her playing stats. “I talk about her every day,” she tells Stellar. “My friends get annoyed.” Chrissa’s dream is to represent Australia in the Southern Stars national women’s cricket team by the age of 16, as Perry did. “She was the only girl in lots of teams. That’s just like me.”
Cricket Australia has also hit the jackpot with Perry. Its move to pay women professional salaries may have made the sport a more realistic career option, but it’s the players who inspire girls to play cricket in the first place. Perry’s impact on recruitment will be seen for years, says Southern Stars head coach Matthew Mott: “She is an articulate, strong woman who plays a really exciting brand of cricket. She ticks every box.”
Perry, 26, ended up meeting her starstruck young fan at an exclusive Stellar cover shoot. She was friendly and kind, and gave Chrissa the same advice she has given many girls: love your sport, work hard at it and success will follow. “It’s easy to be a role model,” she told Chrissa’s grateful mother, “because all we have to do is walk out on the field and have fun playing.”
YOUNG GIRLS AREN’T Perry’s only fan base, or even her biggest one. If Facebook fan pages are any guide, blokes love Perry, and not always for her bowling arm. One page is titled “Ellyse Perry (Princess)”. Even on her official page, the comments left on pictures of Perry with white zinc across her nose read “u r so pretty” or “Perry is the most gorgeous lady on Earth”.
Perry hasn’t courted this attention. Yes, she is beautiful. But in the world of cricketing, with its torn hamstrings and broken fingers, that’s moot; a pretty face doesn’t win matches. Her shoot for Stellar is one of the rare occasions she changes out of activewear and Perry finds it all rather amusing. At one point between photos, she bends over in her red Alex Perry evening dress and begins stretching her triceps.
If success had gone to Perry’s head a little, no-one would blame her. She’s been fawned over by sponsors since she was a teenager, when it became clear she was a blue-chip marketing investment.at 16 years and 261 days old, Perry was the youngest Australian – male or female – to make their international debut in cricket. Just 13 days later, she became Australia’s first dual international athlete in cricket and soccer when she debuted for the Matildas in an Olympic qualifier.
Two things have kept Perry’s feet on the ground: her close-knit family and her personality type, which is best defined as “sports nerd”. Most athletes prefer matches to training. Not Perry. “Obviously matches are special, and it’s always great to see hard work go into practice, but I like training because it’s a constant challenge to get better,” she says. “I’m persistent with things. I like hard work and doing something over and over again and getting better at it. I find that a really rewarding and enjoyable process.”
It’s something her coaches have had to work on with her; apparently, there is such a thing as too much training. “It’s borderline OCD in terms of her preparation,” Mott says. “Ninety-nine times out of 100, she would ask for extra time. It feels like thousands, at times. She’s worn out a few coaches’ shoulders. We’ve tried to push her hard on the quality of her training rather than the quantity.”
For years, Perry continued playing both soccer and cricket for Australia. She was constantly asked which she would ultimately choose, but she insisted she loved them equally. In the end, the decision was made for her. Both sports began to professionalise their women’s game at the same time, meaning they needed full-time commitments from their
players. “I had more opportunity in cricket,” she says, “which meant I was more involved as those changes occurred.”
Each sport brought out a different side of her personality. Cricket nourishes her inner introvert, but she misses the intensity of soccer. “Cricket is played over a longer period, a fair bit more individual.there are more isolated incidents in the game,” she says. “There are often more introverts in cricket, a lot more thinkers, a slower pace, whereas soccer teams I’ve been in have had more extroverts and bigger personalities.”
Off the field, she lives a low-key life. “I would always choose to stay home and have a quiet night with a small group of friends rather than going out in big social situations,” Perry says. “I like to read a lot and think about things before I express opinions.”
Her perfect evening is spent at home, Facetiming with her husband, rugby player Matt Toomua, a former Brumbies fly-half now playing for Leicester in the UK. (He is based there year-round; Perry will join him after the season finishes in April.) Toomua introduced himself to Perry at the Qantas Club in Sydney Airport in 2012, partly because he fancied her and partly to taunt his teammate Nic White, who also admired Perry but didn’t have enough status credits to get into the lounge on that fateful day.white,who’s now happily married, joked he would stand up and protest at their 2015 wedding.
Toomua accompanied the Southern Stars on a recent tour, and won over Perry’s coach. “He’s a character,” Mott tells Stellar. “He’s quite cheeky, as Ellyse often says. He’s a really good fellow, an outgoing personality.”
The time apart is not ideal, says Perry, but “I guess both of us have the attitude that sport doesn’t last all that long, and we would really like to make the most of that. We don’t want to regret not doing that in the future, after we are both too old and unfit. We will catch up on that time.”
the way we play. It’s not just skill – players are fitter and stronger because they have more time to spend working on that. You have more complete athletes. They train during the day rather than work and rush to training at night. There is a real freshness. They put all their energies into being the best cricketer they can be.”
When the Women’s Ashes begins next week with a one-day match at Brisbane’s Allan Border Field, Australia will be aiming to keep the trophy it has held since 2015. Perry and her teammates will be playing to a sell-out crowd, a remarkable feat given this is the first time tickets have been sold for stand-alone women’s matches. The initial face-off between England and Australia takes place on October 22; tickets sold out nearly four weeks in advance. Perry says she expects the contest to be tight. “In the last couple of years, Australia and England have had a lot of close contests. They [England] recently won the one-day World Cup, so I think it’s going to be really close.”
With its increasing profile, Perry hopes people will also begin to appreciate women’s cricket for itself, rather than dismiss it as a watered-down version of the men’s game. Women don’t have the same strength, so they must play more strategically. “Girls can’t just smash it out of the park; you have to be really precise with where you place the ball,” she says. “They end up trying to find gaps in the field more often, rather than hitting through fielders and over fielders.”
Whatever the outcome of the Ashes, Perry has a long career ahead of her. Mott predicts the professionalisation of the sport means some women will play well into their mid-thirties, rather than being forced to retire due to financial pressure.and when their respective careers are over, Perry and Toomua have plans beyond nursing each other’s chronic injuries. (“He will be more crippled than me; he chose a stupid sport,” she laughs.) They’ve invested in a cafe in Canberra, and “it might be something we do more full-time when we finish playing”.
When that time comes, Perry might even invest in some new socks. She still wears the same pairs she was given while playing in her primary school team. “In a way, they probably remind me of why I began playing and how much fun I had.
“But,” she adds, “they are also just really comfy socks.”