Think of the fastest, most feared bowler that you've seen on the cricket field: one whose mere sight marking their run-up induces shivers down the batsman's mind; one whose genuine pace and pin-point line and length makes the batsman regret they ever took up the profession. Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, and more recently, Dale Steyn, are some of the names that are bound to crop up in your mind.
Cathryn Fitzpatrick was the only name in women's cricket that induced similar thoughts in the minds of her contemporaries during her playing days. Bowling at a never-seen-before pace of 125kmph in the women's game, to say that Fitzpatrick terrorised batsmen during her 16-year international career is an understatement.
A veteran of 109 One-Day Internationals (ODIs), which is a lot if you consider that women don't play as many matches as their male counterparts, 'Fitzy' took 180 wickets — which still stands as a world record six years after she hung up her boots. She was part of two ICC World Cup-winning Australian team in her career, in 1997 and 2005, and was instrumental in both wins.
As she reached the twilight of her playing career, Cathryn was still a role model for younger teammates in terms of fitness. In fact, when she retired at the age of 39, she reckoned she could have carried on “for another year or two”. She went on to become the head coach of the Southern Stars and masterminded their wins at the 2012 ICC Women's World Twenty20 and the recently concluded 2013 ICC Women's World Cup.
Cathryn played in an era when cricket was not considered a profession for women (Even today, Australia's women's team players are semi-professionals). She did not earn any money for a major part of her playing career, which involved a lot of struggle; it involved taking unpaid leaves to play cricket, but she took it in her stride and said that “the investments were worth it”.
She was smart and took up jobs that helped her maintain her fitness. “I ran behind a garbage truck for four or five years early in the morning,” she told ESPNcricinfo in a recent interview. “I was on a pushbike delivering mail” for the Australian postal service. At the end of the day, it was a different high she obtained playing for her country. “You just played for the cap and the honour. For whatever reason, the desire to have the badge on your chest was always there and I never took it for granted. I am more than happy to have had it at a cost.”
As mentioned earlier, Cathryn was genuinely fast, and more importantly, she managed to maintain her pace throughout her career and give her younger teammates a major complex. However, she never thought too much of her pace and always strived for consistency. “All through my career, people have said I've been the fastest, but you don't live and die by it; you've got to be on the spot. There's no point being the quickest if you're not consistent enough with it,” she told the BBC in 2005.
So, how did she get into fast bowling in the first place?
“When I was growing up, my older brother and I used to play cricket. He would want to bat all the time, so I had to bowl all the time,” she told ESPNCricinfo. “When I got him out, he would say he did not want to play anymore. I would want to, so I would keep bowling. So it had something to do with my brother's unsportsmanlike behaviour in the front yard!”
As she grew up, she began to enjoy the thrill of bowling to batsmen and thinking of ways to get them out. She became an astute tactician, who tried to work out the weaknesses of the batters and “never stopped enjoying that challenge” throughout her career. “I loved the battle. I wanted the captain to throw the ball to me in any circumstance,” she said.
Finally, at the age of 39, after helping Australia win two World Cups, Fizpatrick called it quits on a remarkable career in 2007. She took two for 27 in her final ODI match, as Australia beat New Zealand in the final of a quadrangular tournament. Although admittedly reluctant on retiring, she took the decision keeping in mind her increasing age and injuries.
“You can't keep playing forever and there comes a point when you have to call it a day,” she was quoted as saying by the Australian Associated Press. “There are only so many pre-seasons you can do.”
It's a pity that Fitzy played only 13 Tests in her career, given the reluctance of the ICC in organising sufficient five-day games for women. Fitzy took 60 wickets in those 13 matches at a miserly average of just over 19. Even with two World Cups in her bag, she ranks the 1998 tour of England as her most memorable.
“World Cup wins are almost self explanatory for their significance and we had some good wins in India and South Africa, but I think the tour in England in 1998 held some special memories for me,” she said. “We played at Lord's, which is an amazing experience. We completed a whitewash against England but it was just the way we played that gave me great enjoyment and satisfaction.”
One can only imagine the feats she would have gone on to achieve had she played even a hundred Test matches. Fitzpatrick was in a league of her own throughout her career, spanning from 1991 to 2007, and the benchmark she set is still the ultimate one for young fast bowlers throughout the world.
(Jaideep Vaidya is a multiple sports buff and a writer at CricketCountry. He has a B.E. in Electronics Engineering, but that isn't fooling anybody. He started writing on sports during his engineering course and fell in love with it. The best day of his life came on April 24, 1998, when he witnessed birthday boy Sachin Tendulkar pummel a Shane Warne-speared Aussie attack from the stands during the Sharjah Cup Final. A diehard Manchester United fan, you can follow him on Twitter @jaideepvaidya. He also writes a sports blog - The Mullygrubber )
First Published: March 4, 2013, 1:10 pm