Alex Blackwell’s new book, Fair Game, is not your standard cricket autobiography. Yes, it tells the story of her journey in cricket – from growing up playing in the backyard of her grandparents’ place in Wagga Wagga, to breaking through into the New South Wales team while at university, to her Australian debut in 2003 against England under the great Belinda Clark, to winning multiple World Cups, captaining Australia to glory at the 2010 World Twenty20, and taking home the inaugural WBBL title in 2015/16. It’s also a first-hand insight into the ways in which professionalism transformed the lives of a generation of players overnight. But the most important contribution which this book makes is to lay bare the ways in which cricket has excluded and continues to exclude those who don’t quite fit the mould.
Blackwell is one such player. An outspoken advocate for increased diversity and equity in cricket, she made history in 2013 as the first international female cricketer ever to publicly come out. Here, it is made clear how much she agonised about that decision – unsurprising when she describes the constant background of casual homophobic remarks which went on, including from Cricket Australia employees and sponsors. “I was not viewed by Cricket Australia to be a good role model for young girls,” she writes. This kind of casualised homophobia did not come as a surprise to me – it is rife within English cricket, too, as my book Ladies and Lords shows – but it is still shocking to read about some of Blackwell’s experiences, and the way in which her experiences in cricket caused deep internal shame about her sexuality, which endured for years.
Relatedly, Blackwell emphasises how CA favoured a particular “image” for female cricketers, which forced gay players permanently into the closet but was equally damaging for non-gay women who did not conform to the favoured “type”. One of the most revealing lines in the book is when Blackwell relays how during her early years playing for Australia, she and her sister Kate toyed with the idea of growing their hair long, in order to market themselves as “the golden twins”. Another damning anecdote relates to the three women chosen by CA in 2013 to receive their first ever “marketing contracts”: Ellyse Perry, Meg Lanning and Holly Ferling – all blonde, attractive and heterosexual. You would have to be blind not to have realised that this was going on – just look at which players were most visible in the marketing of the first WBBL – but Blackwell’s book lays bare the horrendous practice (which, if we’re honest, is still prevalent) of pushing forward players on the basis of their physical attractiveness rather than their cricketing abilities.
Why was Blackwell never chosen to captain Australia on a permanent basis? A convincing public explanation has never been given as to why she was passed over in favour of Lanning in 2014 – a player with no captaincy experience at any level of cricket – nor why Rachael Haynes (then not even an automatic pick in the XI) was handed the reins during the 2017 World Cup, when Lanning was sidelined with a shoulder injury. Blackwell says that she has never been given a reason, other than being told: “Meg had all the attributes they wanted in a captain and I didn’t”. She stops short of saying that those attributes included being heterosexual and taciturn, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to connect the dots.
The irony of all this is that CA’s treatment of Blackwell may well have ultimately cost Australia their chance of winning the 2016 and 2017 World Cups. Blackwell’s most damning critique of an individual comes in the chapters which deal with these two tournaments, in which she describes how Australia’s coach Matthew Mott stuck to a limited, basic tactical approach – “bowl at the stumps” – leaving the players without any Plan B in the 2016 WT20 final against Hayley Matthews and Stafanie Taylor, and more famously against Harmanpreet Kaur at Derby in the 2017 semi-final. Blackwell relays how, as vice-captain, she continually tried to raise concerns; but others simply parroted the party line. It’s a brilliant example of why diversity is needed within organisations: somebody needs to tell you the thing you don’t want to hear, or it becomes all about group-think.
Meanwhile, Blackwell’s alternative views about tactics were “shut down” and she was publicly criticised by Mott in meetings, to the extent that she was left in tears. “That tournament was one of the toughest periods of my cricket career,” Blackwell writes. “Throughout every day of it I felt undervalued and insignificant.” It’s rare to read anything critical of Mott, but this is one of the worst examples of player mismanagement I’ve ever come across. Let’s hope things have changed behind the scenes since then.
It’s rare that we get this kind of book in women’s cricket – an honest, wide-ranging critique – and Blackwell should be awarded for her bravery in writing it (credit too to Megan Maurice, who has done a brilliant job of making this book very readable). The timing is perhaps explained by Blackwell’s recent decision to draw a line under her involvement in elite cricket in Australia:
“Maybe I would feel more inclined to keep holding on and continue volunteering in cricket if I was confident that we were setting a high standard and being bold with our ambitions around female representation, inclusion strategies and the environment. Instead I still feel like raising these issues makes a lot of people uncomfortable.”
This is worrying not just as an indictment of the current culture of cricket in Australia. Part of the problem has always been that those IN the game right now don’t feel they can be open about the ways in which things are going wrong – there is a culture of secrecy, whereby those on the inside close ranks.
It’s important that we remember that this isn’t a book about a dark and distant past – as Blackwell writes, “there are still some barriers to inclusion and equal opportunity that remain unconquered”. Her book is a great first step to exposing some of those issues. The next step is for those within CA (and the ECB, and the other boards around the world) to listen, acknowledge, and act as a result – but will they? That would be the best legacy of this brave and revealing book.