Cricket writing elder Gideon Haigh recently wrote that an athlete being tagged with the words ‘talent’ and ‘potential’ is “seldom an unmixed blessing”. It could be a trampoline from which to spring ahead. Or it could be an ankle weight in the mud.
So it was for Elyse Villani, Australia Women and Perth Scorchers opening batter.
Villani, 27, touted from a young age as a future star, is only now starting to cut those weights from her legs and stretch into her international career, a full eight years after making her debut.
Villani found cricket the same way most young girls found cricket before all-girls teams were a thing: by tailing her three older brothers. “I started playing club cricket with the boys in the U-12s when I was nine years old. I didn’t bat, I didn’t bowl, I didn’t get a go at all. I just ran fine leg to fine leg,” she told Wisden India.
It was only after a letter arrived in the mail of her Melbourne home inviting her to trials for an Under-12 girls team that she played with the girls. Having got a taste of women’s cricket, she was soon putting up posters of Cathryn Fitzpartick and Mel Jones in her room. Her precocity meant that she always made a big first impression in games she played, and an Australia T20I call-up came in 2009, at 19.
An early baptism smelts the impurities off some players, but scars others. Villani scored just 28 runs in five innings in the Women’s World T20 2010. Her fitness levels were below par and she was dropped from the squad.
“I wasn’t ready for it,” she admits. “I got picked again just based on talent, but I didn’t have the self-belief that you need.
“I was picked on the fact that I was a young prospect, but I guess that changes as you get older. I sort of got found out a lot with my fitness,” she says, laughing. “I just wanted to hit balls, didn’t really want to do any of the other stuff.”
As women’s cricket got more professional, Villani realised she might miss the bus she had been huffing and puffing and scrambling onto for some years. “I basically got told that if my skinfolds (a test that measures the body’s fat content) were still the same, I wouldn’t get picked for Australia. So I had to change that.”
Now Villani is more conscious of what she eats, looking at her intake as fuel, not just food. Even on tour, she tries to cook as many of her meals as possible so she can control what she eats. A comparison between the Villani from three years ago and now shows she is leaner.
But the battle with her body was only half the story. After she was dropped, Villani found herself blaming those around her for her troubles. She couldn’t enjoy her cricket; the game that once had her laughing as she followed her brothers now seemed to bring furrows on her forehead.
“I had fallen out of love with the game. I was sick of not scoring runs and was getting really frustrated. I didn’t know if I wanted to play anymore.”
The flashpoint came in the 2011 when she had a loud and angry outburst at Fitzpatrick, Southern Stars legend and then Victorian coach. “I had been dropped from the Australian team, and slotted down the order in the Victoria team after opening all my life. I was sort of saying (to Fitzpatrick), ‘You don’t support me, you don’t believe in me.’ She was like, ‘I support and I give my energy to those people who commit to the program and you haven’t committed; and you’re kidding yourself if you think that you have.’”
“I remember having that conversation with Elyse and it was a difficult one,” Fitzpatrick told the Cricket Australia website in an interview. “She needed to decide whether she wanted to continue in cricket. She needed to get excited again.”
Villani’s telling of the incident is a less measured. “She said I needed to decide, else I needn’t bother coming to training anymore.” It was a shock for the batter, who suddenly was faced with the prospect of losing her very identity as a cricketer.
In the 2011-12 season, England’s Danielle Wyatt spent her winter in Melbourne playing for Victoria. She invited Villani over to play for her county, Staffordshire, the following season. And Villani accepted. There, with no Australian or Victorian selectors to worry about, she got a chance to explore the reasons she really played the game.
“I guess I was focusing too hard on trying to get back into the Australian set-up, rather than playing the game for my team-mates and for myself. When I went over there, I fell in love with the game again and came back and realised that if I relaxed a little bit then the runs would come. That was sort of a turning point for me,” said Villani.
In her first stint in T20Is, Villani had only two double-digit scores. But since earning a recall in 2013, she is averaging 34, five runs more than her career average. All of her eight half-centuries have come in this period. As a player who is happy to use her feet to both spin and pace, who hits predominantly down the ground, she is a good fit for the opener’s slot.
It is only in the last 18 months that she feels more at home in the Australian T20I team. While the time spent in the nets and the gym are the main factor, it is also partly due to her decision to be open about her homosexuality. “I always knew, and I was pretty open about it with my team-mates,” she said.
“Growing up in cricket, I did feel I was different and a felt a bit alone. I don’t want anybody growing up through the ranks feeling different. I decided to be myself. We’ve got so many different females playing the game, everyone’s differences should be celebrated. Everyone deserves that role model.”
The lack of any such role model was an obstacle to her early on, when conversations about homosexuality weren’t as commonplace as they are today. “Growing up it was pretty difficult, there was no one I could talk to or relate to,” she shared. “Especially in sports, there were no openly gay athletes who [showed me] I could be just like them.” This was partly why she decided to go public about being a gay athlete.
“It was uncomfortable at times thinking I’m different. The beauty of it now is that no one else has to feel like that.”
She does face some stereotyping though, on social media and in the real world; like being slotted into male queues at airports in India because of her short hair. “I felt quite self-conscious,” she said. “My teammates thought it was pretty funny, but I didn’t appreciate the joke after the tenth time.
“I don’t know how I’d go playing cricket in India if I could not be myself. It would be bloody hard!”
"There's a role model for every young girl."
— Rebel WBBL (@wbbl) December 9, 2016
Villani has since moved from Melbourne to Perth and now plays for Western Australia and Perth Scorchers. “I guess I’d always been like the joker of the (Victoria) team and always the younger kid, so it was nice to go to Western Australia and get some leadership opportunities that came about,” she said.
It was more a life decision rather than a cricketing one, as she made the move across the continent to be with her partner. “It takes a little pressure off cricket, knowing that if things aren’t going well on the field then you’re going all right off the field,” she said.
A balanced life on and off the field has been key to Villani’s recent success. She has been working closely with the staff who look after the players off the field. “I guess the main thing [I’ve done] in the last year or so is talking to the sports psychologist, talking to the player welfare, making sure I’m tracking well off the field.”
Judging by the runs she is scoring for the Scorchers – she is currently among the top 10 run-getters in Women’s Big Bash League 2 – and her Instagram feed – awash with photos of her new dog – she seems to balancing things pretty well.