The youngest of the Barsby family may only be half joking when she says she “had no choice” about playing cricket. With a father who used to open the batting with Matthew Hayden in first-class games, and a competitive older brother, backyard cricket games were more heated than the Queensland summer. “But I really enjoyed cricket,” Jemma Barsby assures me.
Daughter of Trevor Barsby, a Queensland veteran of 111 first-class matches, Jemma has earned a name for herself as a talent and a fighter, on and off the field.
I met Barsby after she had just helped her WBBL team, Brisbane Heat, roll over Melbourne Renegades at the Allan Border Field in Brisbane. She rarely stopped smiling throughout the interview, which had little to do with the four wickets she had claimed. Alacrity is her default setting, her team-mates tell me. She may give the batters a stare, but always has a smile for her those on her side. Her attitude is astonishing, considering her time in cricket could be ended anytime by a malady. But more on that later.
Barsby was part of the Shooting Stars (Australia’s junior women’s side) development squad in 2015, and also top scored for Queensland Fire in the WNCL final last year, which they lost to NSW Breakers. In this WBBL, she is sitting pretty on fifth on the list of top wicket-takers after the group stage, and has been handy with the bat.
One of the highlights in her batting has been her penchant to switch hit; the shot has brought her some attractive boundaries – and the odd ugly dismissal. She can bowl with both hands as well, but that comes without the same element of surprise. “I need to tell the umpire, unfortunately. It’s a bit unfair, especially when batters can switch hit,” she says cheekily, sidestepping her own fondness for the shot.
Usually a right-arm offspinner, Barsby learned to bowl with her left because of her brother. “I could never get him out bowling right-handed. So I started bowling left-handed and landed a few.” Her father encouraged her to develop the skill. A few coaches, though, criticised it and she focused on bowling with her right, until Andy Richardson, head coach of Heat, encouraged her to revive the skill.
“It can be beneficial, especially with different batters,” she says. “It is different speeds, the ball turns a different way.”
But it has been through her off-field struggles that Barsby has proven what most of her peers already knew: that she is an intrepid fighter. In 2015, before her 20th birthday, Barsby was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). It started with shoulder pain after she attended a training camp with the Southern Stars, the Australian women’s team in Brisbane, where she bowled a lot of overs in two days. “I hadn’t done any lead up bowling and went into bowling 20 overs so it was a bit sore. I let that go for two weeks.”
It started getting worse, though, and the tips of her fingers went numb. The first MRI was not conclusive. The second confirmed MS, a degenerative autoimmune disease of the nervous system with no known cure.
“I definitely did not expect it.” She was concerned her career was over.
At its worst, MS can confine patients to a wheelchair. Even in its milder forms, symptoms can include fatigue, muscle spasms, blurred vision, and numbness and tingling.
But, incredibly, the morning after the diagnosis, Barsby was in the gym for a session with her state team. She was determined to take advantage of the fact that her symptoms were not as severe as some people’s are, and “get on with life”.
“People, especially young kids, are in hospital on a cracking day like today, while I’m here playing a sport that I love. So on days when it does affect me, I like to think about how I’m still lucky enough to play.”
The cracking day Barsby referred to was in the middle of a Queensland heat wave, with temperatures in excess of 35ºC. The conditions meant a drinks break was introduced after 10 overs, uncommon in a T20 game. With heat being one of the factors that can bring on an attack of MS, it was a potential nightmare for her.
Her response? To claim four wickets in three overs and pocket the player of the match award.
Barsby is on daily medication, which has helped keep the disease in check, and also uses an ice vest on really hot days. Her symptoms are mild, allowing her to train just as much as the others. “All I get is the pins and needles and stuff,” she explains.
But the biggest challenge has been learning to set aside the fear of a sudden onset of the disease, which causes her immune system to attack its own nerve cells. “I try not to [think about it]. If you dwell on it too much then your mind can’t focus on the game,” she says.
For the past two years, Barsby and her Brisbane Heat team-mates have been participating in the MS Moonlight walk, an annual charity event that raises money for MS Queensland. Then, last year, she cycled 100km for the same charity.
What the disease has taught her is to value the time she has in the game for as long as she can. “Especially early on, I took playing cricket for granted,” she says. “Once I got diagnosed, I realised that anything can happen at any minute and I’d have to stop playing cricket. So I really enjoy being around the team and playing.”