The White Ferns’ latest star all-rounder, Jess Watkin, may have her first professional contract, but she can’t be lured away from her home town, Whanganui, and playing in the men’s club competition. Suzanne McFadden reports.
Like water off a duck’s back, Jess Watkin simply shrugs off the sledging from her male opponents when she’s at the crease in Whanganui club cricket matches.
The 20-year-old isn’t phased in the slightest by playing with the premier men in her home town. And if the aggro ever starts getting a little intense, her team-mate – and older brother – Kane will step in.
“I get a lot of sledging because I’m a girl. My brother gets worse than me, because I’m his sister. But he always sticks up for me,” Watkin says.
“A lot of women don’t want to play men’s cricket. But I’ve been around it all my life. I embrace it.”
This goes a long way to explaining why Watkin, New Zealand cricket’s latest star all-rounder, is almost fearless in her approach at the wicket.
In her very first appearance for the White Ferns, on their Northern Hemisphere tour in June, Watkin smashed an unbeaten 77 off just 38 balls in a T20 game against Ireland.
It was the highest score by a White Fern on debut.
When she came up against the much-stronger English side in the T20 Tri-Series, she used her off-spin to claim the scalps of both of England’s opening batswomen. Despite the seven-wicket loss, it was Watkin’s favourite game on tour.
Sophie Devine – who just so happened to be Watkin’s childhood cricket hero – was out in the middle with Watkin as she smacked a quick 16 runs off eight balls.
“It put the biggest smile on my face when she came out and absolutely whacked the English to all corners of the park. I was actually laughing at the other end – the English were stunned,” Devine recalls.
“Because here was Jess, who’d just come into the New Zealand side and had only played a handful of games, yet she had the confidence to back herself and hit it where she knew she needed to. It was so cool watching her.
“You could see she was starting to relax a bit, like ‘hey I can do this, I can play at this level’. I’m not sure she really recognised it – it was all too much of a buzz for her. But it was really cool being the old fart down the other end.”
Watkin’s gutsy tour debut has been rewarded with a full-time professional contract from New Zealand Cricket. It means she can now train and play the game she loves all year round.
And, despite the lure of big city cricket, and the chance to play more often with women, Watkin is happy to stay put in Whanganui – the place where she was born and has always lived.
She has her personal trainer, Ebony Kerr, who she works with five days a week. She has a daily training partner in Akash Gill, a teenage cricket star from Canada, who has his heart set on playing first class cricket in New Zealand.
She has her coach and mentor, Dilon Raj, who first recognised her cricketing talent when she was a 10-year-old.
And, of course, she has her family, who were directly responsible for introducing her to the game.
Growing up, Watkin’s substantial backyard was its own sporting stadium; an old grass tennis court transformed by a strip of artificial turf into a cricket pitch and hockey goal (Watkin is also a decent hockey player).
At first, she wasn’t allowed to play in the backyard cricket matches between her brother and his friends. So she’d sit and score their games for them.
“I kept asking to play, until one day my brother’s friend said ‘Just give her a go’. And I got someone out and after that I was allowed to play every day,” she says. “Kane and I used to be out there, playing after it was dark. We’d play day-nighters, under a big spotlight that lit up the backyard. We were really lucky.”
She has a lot to thank her brother for. “He used to bowl bouncers at me at home; I’d get hit, and cry. And he’d keep saying ‘Suck it up, get back in there’,” Watkin remembers. “He’s still a big influence on my career now.” They play their club cricket together, in the St John’s Tech team in the local premier men’s competition.
There were never any girls teams for Watkin to play in until she got to Whanganui High School. Even then, she was still playing in boys’ representative sides right up to under-17 level.
At the age of 15, she started playing for the Central Districts Hinds in the national women’s one-day competition. Her explosive batting and effective off-spin bowling caught the attention of the White Ferns.
But it was at last year’s national under-21 championships where Watkin truly captivated everyone in women’s cricket.
While she was the top run-scorer and wicket-taker at the tournament, and captained Central Districts to win the national title, there was a single innings that stood above the rest.
In a game against Wellington, Watkin slammed 200 off 123 balls. One of the bowlers she dispatched to the fence 31 times was White Ferns teenage phenomenon Amelia Kerr.
“It was one of those days where I was seeing the ball like a beach ball, so I could just hit it anywhere I wanted to. Those days don’t happen often. It was pretty surreal,” Watkin says.
After that tournament, she spoke to White Ferns coach Haidee Tiffen, who gave her some sage advice. “She said she was really interested in selecting me, but I just had to work hard on my fitness,” says Watkin. “She gave me the inspiration to do it.”
Watkin took a break from the sport and recreation degree she’d been doing through Massey University to concentrate fully on her training. Her dedication was rewarded with an airline ticket to Ireland and England, to play for the White Ferns.
In the first game of the tour, she opened the batting with another of her role models, New Zealand captain Suzie Bates. Together they scored 142 runs – an all-wicket partnership record for the White Ferns in T20.
“I had nothing to lose,” Watkin says. “I went out and played my natural game, which paid off for me. It’s a day I will never forget.”
Then two days later, she made her ODI debut and scored 62 in a 172-run opening partnership with Bates. She’d played her part in the White Ferns’ innings of 490-4 – a world-record total, for both men’s and women’s international cricket.
Bates described Watkin as “a massive talent” with both bat and ball. “She has a really powerful game,” the captain says. “She’s not the finished product by any means, but she knows there’s still work to do. But just having her in this environment will inspire her to work even harder.”
Every Wednesday, Watkin drives to Palmerston North, picks up her White Ferns team-mate Hannah Rowe – who first played with her in an under-11 boys team – and they continue on to Wellington to train with White Ferns batting coach Matthew Bell.
Watkin was one of four new players among the 15 women offered professional contracts for the coming year. She admits she hadn’t expected it – “you never know what they’re looking for”- but she’s thrilled to have it.
Her training is now focused on making the White Ferns for the Women’s World T20 championships in the West Indies in November.
She knows where she wants to go. “I want to be a world-class player like Suzie Bates or [English batting star] Sarah Taylor. When I was younger, I used to look up to Sophie Devine, and modelled my game on her a bit. But now that I’m older, I want to be my own person.”
She’s already well on her way there.