Wellington cricket’s rising star ready to take on the world

Wellington cricket’s rising star ready to take on the world

Wellington Blaze's Melie Kerr (pictured bowling) is the youngest member of the White Ferns World Cup squad.

Playing at a World Cup at just 16, Melie Kerr is one of the most exciting young talents in world cricket. Before she departed for the tournament in England, she talked to Sean Nugent about her journey to the top.

At 7.30am on an icy May morning, Tawa is slowly awakening from its slumber. The sun begins to peer over the hills ever so slightly, illuminating the near empty streets. A few walkers are getting in some exercise before their day begins. Cars coast through the town centre on their way to the nearby motorway and daily commuter traffic.

The outer Wellington suburb could be described as desperately normal, yet in the shadows of the unassuming community lies one of its brightest lights, Melie Kerr. By this time, the teenage cricketer has already begun an intense training session before she heads to school at Tawa College. She does not normally train this early, but today is anything but normal. In a few hours she will travel to Lincoln for the final White Ferns training camp before the World Cup squad is announced in a few days’ time.

At 16, she would be the youngest ever New Zealand cricketer to play at a World Cup. She tries to stay focused on the task at hand as she rolls her arm over, trying to drift the ball on to the perfect spot outside leg stump and turn sharply towards the off. It rattles into the top of off stump, sending a powerful echo around the deserted indoor training facility.

Melie started playing cricket 10 years ago after she and a friend watched their siblings play and were inspired to do the same. She says it has been a love affair ever since.

“I’ve just loved the aspect of it and how it’s different to other team sports. Playing with my friends, my family being supportive, and all the opportunities I’ve been given has made me love it.”

It’s no surprise she is attracted to the game. Cricket is strong in her family. Her grandfather Bruce Murray played for the national side, while both her parents Jo and Robbie played first-class cricket. Even her older sister Jess joins her in the Wellington Blaze side.

Although she started out as a pace bowler, Melie soon found her calling was in fact leg-spin.

“I was bowling [leg-spin] with Dad and he said it was quite good so he took me to see Ivan [Tissera] when I was 10 or 11 years old. Since then I just kept bowling that and enjoyed the challenge. Not many people did it which I quite liked as well.”

Back at training, Melie is joined by Ivan Tissera, her coach of the last seven years. Standing behind the bowling crease, he examines his student closely, checking to see if any technical deficiencies are lingering in the bowling action they have taken years to perfect. He yawns. Earlier, Melie had asked him whether he could make it to today’s session, given the time. He responded by reminding her of the hundreds of hours the two have put in together to get to this point – he isn’t going to quit now.

This process began barely two years ago, during the 2014/15 season when Melie made her first-class debut for the Wellington Blaze, coached, ironically, by Tissera. Despite being a big step for someone so young, Melie made an immediate impact, leading the bowling charts with 10 wickets in the domestic Twenty20 competition.

While it was a brilliant debut season, Melie and Tissera knew she would have to work twice as hard to match those performances. During the winter of 2016, Melie trained as much as she could to get ready for the coming season, spending at least 10 hours a week improving all parts of her game.

The hard work and dedication paid off. She backed up her initial promise with a sensational start to the 2016/17 season, leading to her addition to the White Ferns squad to face Pakistan last November, as well as winning four honours at the Cricket Wellington awards in April.

“It was probably one of the biggest winters I’ve ever had with training and then for it to pay off throughout the summer made it more special.”

She cites her teammates as being key to her success.

“It was a pretty good start for me for the season and I enjoyed it a lot. I was pretty shy during my first year but I think that was because I was so young and they were all so much older so it was quite hard to be confident. But I enjoyed playing alongside them and when I bowled I backed myself and the team backed me which helped me perform better.”

Now she quietly exudes confidence. She walks back to her mark with purpose, her long brown ponytail and small frame projecting a deceiving innocuousness to any naive batsman. As soon as she turns at the top of her mark, the perception changes. Her look tells you this is more than simply bowling from one end to another. This is a fight stretching the entire 22-yard pitch.

Suddenly she makes her move, darting in towards the bowling crease with authority and intent. She whips through the crease, her right arm a blur as it swings through. The revolutions on the ball are strong enough to be heard as it flies through the air. Again, it lands, spins sharply, and crashes into off stump. Satisfied, Melie lets out a wry smile. She’s ready to go.

Or so she thinks. At the camp in Lincoln, Melie falls ill and suffers a concussion after being hit by a ball while batting in the nets, leaving her unable to prove her worth to the selectors. It’s a disaster at the worst possible time. In a matter of days she has gone from feeling self-assured of her spot in the squad to now struggling to sleep at night.

Two days later, White Ferns coach Haidee Tiffen takes her podium seat at the press conference. Tiffen is one of New Zealand’s greatest female cricketers. She captained the New Zealand side to the final of the 2009 World Cup and was a member of the champion World Cup side in 2000. The former star knows what it takes to succeed at these tournaments.

She looks down at the piece of paper in front of her. On it are the 15 names that will travel to England and go to battle this winter. Slowly, she tells the nation each one. It barely takes a minute. But for one player, that was all that was needed. After the emotional rollercoaster of the last few days, it is finally confirmed, Melie Kerr is going to the World Cup.

Selection to the White Ferns World Cup squad has been a long-time goal. She says it is one of her best achievements.

As it will be her first experience at a major tournament, she has not tried to set the bar too high, although admits the team has high expectations. “I think we have a lot of belief and a lot of confidence to win it. I want to be a reliable player in the team and to be able to perform under pressure.”

It has been a rapid rise for Melie, who is seen by many to have the ability to go all the way to the top of the women’s game. When she walks out to play in front of the thousands of spectators and cameras, all eyes will be on her. It’s the kind of environment that can emotionally drain anyone, never mind a teenager. But despite the weight on her shoulders, she doesn’t let it faze her.

“I think I perform best under pressure. I like playing under pressure and I don’t get too nervous and I guess all I can do is try my best and just back myself and play normally.”

She points to her father Robbie as a great developer of her mental skills. After Blaze games they analyse what happened on the field, and work together to put a plan in place on what she can do to improve.

“Melie loves to talk cricket,” Robbie says. “She has always played in grades with boys. This has meant she is used to playing under pressure. Indoor cricket has [also] really helped her with the mental side of the game. It’s played in a confined space and it’s a pressure-cooker environment.”

Robbie, wife Jo, and daughter Jess, will be in England watching proudly from the stands, supporting Melie when she plays on the biggest stage. They hope they won’t be overwhelmed by it all.

Says Jo: “We don’t get too nervous watching as we think there is nothing you can do from the sidelines, so there’s no point worrying about what will be. So it will be interesting to see if that’s still the case when it’s a World Cup.”

While the experience will be amazing, Melie is wary of the time away from home, school, and friends. From a scholarly perspective, the World Cup could not have come at a worse time, landing right in the middle of her NCEA Level 2 year. She says she has become used to being organised with her assignments, and her teachers have helped her keep up with the heavy workload.

Similarly, spending a month in a hotel room on the other side of the world is not the dream of any 16-year-old. Given her busy schedule during the summer, Melie tries to make the most of her time in the offseason to hang out with her friends and live the life of a normal teenager. Now she will not have that luxury.

Despite those unfortunate circumstances that come with being an elite athlete, she is thankful that her family will be there to support her, allowing her to have a home away from home. They flew out for the tournament over a week ago.

Back home at the training ground, coach Tissera is not surprised with Melie’s ascension. He believes Melie is a special player and her talent is unique in the women’s game.

“She was a very natural leg-spinner,” he says. “Sometimes I feel she is too good for women’s cricket because of the way she’s bowling. If you look at other leg-spinners around the world they just throw it up and its very slow and difficult to hit, so that’s how they get wickets. But [with Melie] we are talking about real quality leg-spin.

“She has a great attitude. An amazing player. Her work ethic, her attitude, her goals and life plans. She’s got a good balance.

“She’s very different I would say. You can’t say she’s like Kane Williamson. But like Kane, you cannot say there is another player in the world like her.”

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Article by Sean Nugent

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