If there is one thing Alex Blackwell is known for, it is speaking up for what she believes in. When I interview her weeks on from the announcement of her retirement from international cricket, it is this that comes across most clearly. “I’ve got my own moral compass and values that make me as a person,” she says. “I can’t be anyone else other than myself.”
As still one of very few female cricketers who has felt able to be open about her sexuality – she married her partner, former England cricketer Lynsey Askew, in 2015 – Blackwell is keen to encourage others in the sport to follow in her footsteps. “What I’ve tried to do is break the silence. From my point of view I feel like while athletes are really comfortable to be themselves in their closed circles that’s wonderful, but there seems to be a bit of a silence about who people really are outside the sport.”
“It’s not always going to be possible for individuals to be completely transparent, but I do want to endorse that teams should continue to strive to be really inclusive and really welcoming, and celebrate everyone’s differences, because that gets the best out of those individuals and teams in terms of performance.”
This was one of the key reasons, she says, why she chose to come out publicly about her relationship with Lynsey. “I knew that being my whole, authentic and transparent self in every aspect of my life was going to allow me to perform better. And I honestly believe that without being my true self I wouldn’t have reached the heights I have.”
They are quite some heights. Blackwell first represented Australia in 2003, as a 19 year old. She was part of 5 World Cup winning teams and finished her career with 5250 runs to her name and 251 caps across all three formats, the most of any Australian female cricketer, ever. Just last summer she almost (but not quite) turned the 2017 World Cup semi-final on its head, in a record-breaking 10th-wicket partnership with Kristen Beams. She cites the 90 runs she made in that match as “probably her best ever effort with the bat for Australia”.
Recently ranked as the fifth best batsman in world cricket, her retirement rather took everyone by surprise; but she says it was the culmination of a lengthy thought process. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about for many years. Before the Ashes series in 2015 I was thinking, ‘could this be my last series?’ It could have been.”
She is, understandably, tight-lipped when I broach the subject of the appointment of Rachael Haynes ahead of Blackwell as stand-in captain for Meg Lanning during last year’s World Cup and Ashes series. She seems sanguine about the whole affair: “Captaincy’s not something that anyone has the right to,” she says. “It’s a decision that was made and the team just has to get on with doing the best job in whatever role they have.” But she was, after all, Australia’s official vice-captain, had done the deputy’s job for 7 years, and had led Australia to victory in the 2010 WWT20, standing in for Jodie Fields.
She says she is “very proud” of what she achieved as captain of both Australia and the New South Wales Breakers, who she captained to 7 state titles. What she doesn’t say is that her record as captain speaks for itself – which only makes last year’s decision all the odder.
I question whether she would still have retired, had the decision gone differently. “That’s an impossible question for me to answer,” is the response. It remains a baffling decision.
Retirement, though, seems to have opened up numerous opportunities for Blackwell. “I feel good about it,” she says. “I’ve been really busy. I’ve done quite a few speaking gigs and various events. I spoke at SBS, which is a TV broadcaster and they’re huge on diversity. I was on a panel with Matt Mitcham, an Olympic gold medallist, and Casey Conway, a former rugby league player, talking about the inclusion of LGBTI people in sport and the workplace. And I got 2 VIP tickets to watch the Sydney Mardi Gras. It was in its 40th year but also marriage equality occurred in the year gone by so it was particularly special.”
She was described in a recent interview with Gideon Haigh as a “quiet radical” – but how would Blackwell herself like to be remembered? “As a respectful agitator,” she says. “As someone who had strong views, shared them, and helped the sport ultimately get better.”
Wherever she goes from here, that legacy seems already secure.
Always found that captaincy thing bizarre. Haynes couldn’t make the XI as a batter alone, but stepped in as replacement captain and bat in the matches Lanning was not available for. For a while I wondered if it was a Superman/Clark Kent thing – you never see them both in the same team, so perhaps injured Lanning goes into a phone booth, spins around, and emerges as left-handed Haynes. I have nothing against Haynes, mind you – she ha sproven herself impressive with bat and with the captain’s responsibilities whenever she has been asked to perform those functions on the international stage. But…
Lovely interview here, Raf, and thanks for this.
I wonder if we could ask Schutt and Villani how, and if, they were influenced in their decisions to come out by the pioneering work of Blackwell. Both now seem well ensconced in the Aus team with (I hope) no friction or prejudice to deal with.
In fact (and I ask this from a position of absolute ignorance) are there any other women’s teams internationally (in cricket) that have out players like Australia does?