In part two of My First Game, a series leading into the Cricket World Cup, White Ferns bowling allrounder Jess Kerr explains why she’s grateful for her little sister, Melie.
It was a hug that lasted a little longer than most that you’d see out in the middle of the pitch.
An embrace between two sisters.
Jess Kerr had just smashed the ball to the fence, the winning runs for the White Ferns in their second ODI victory over India in Queenstown on Tuesday. At the other end, was her younger sister, Amelia; her unbeaten innings of 119 had anchored the White Ferns’ victory.
Theirs is a relationship built on respect rather than sibling rivalry.
A cricketing partnership that goes back to a kids’ camp in Napier, about 2011 the Kerrs reckon, when Jess Kerr first played cricket with her sister affectionately known as Melie.
Of course, there were countless backyard games together at home in the Wellington suburb of Tawa, with their dad, Robbie, playing wicketkeeper.
But the Hawkes Bay cricket camp was an annual summer pilgrimage north for the Kerr family. The tournament, still going today, has helped mould some of our greatest cricketers: Sophie Devine, Ross Taylor, Kane Williamson and Trent Boult (even English vice-captain Ben Stokes played there aged 11).
For the Kerrs, the camp was more of a family reunion. “The first time I played with Melie we were in a team with two of our [boy] cousins,” Kerr recalls. She was about to turn 13, and as a girl at a boy-dominated camp, was allowed to play down a couple of grades; Melie, then 10, played up one. They were the only girls in the team.
“We made some good family memories there,” Kerr says. “That’s been the best thing about always playing with Melie – the family aspect of it.
“From the Napier camp to now we’re in the White Ferns together, travelling overseas or being in a Covid bubble, it’s nice to have someone in your family there with you. So you’re not saying goodbye to everyone close to you.”
The Kerr siblings played in different boys’ teams until they reached high school, where their cricketing paths came together again.
“I don’t think I played many cricket games without Melie after that,” Kerr says. “It was Tawa College, then the Wellington Blaze and now the White Ferns.”
The White Ferns’ tour of England last September was an exception, though – Amelia Kerr withdrew to deal with mental health issues (she credits her family with saving her life when she was at her lowest ebb).
But the elder Kerr admits she wasn’t really that into cricket when she a teenager. Her absolute passion was running.
“Melie got forced to do athletics, and her attitude to running was like my attitude to cricket. We were quite separate as kids: I was the running girl, she was the cricketer,” Kerr says.
“It turns out I’m a more natural cricketer than I was a runner, but I just worked so hard at it.
“No one else in our family was a runner. Our family background is in cricket.” Both dad, Robbie Kerr, and mum, Jo Murray, played for Wellington, and grandad Bruce Murray opened for New Zealand in 13 tests.
So it was in her DNA.
Life has never been straightforward for Jess Kerr. In fact, she has one of the most amazing stories of resilience in New Zealand sport.
At nine, she developed Bell’s Palsy – paralysis on one side of the face (she wore an eye patch as she had difficulty closing her eye, and her smile is still a little crooked today).
At 13, she was diagnosed with type one diabetes, a condition she has to manage every day.
Determined not to let her illnesses define her, she ran a Wellington age-group track record for 3000m the following year.
But then at 16, her calves began hurting whenever she ran. She underwent surgery for compartment syndrome, but that didn’t resolve the problem. She continued to have more pain and eventually went to Australia for botox treatment in her calves.
“I love the quote ‘everything happens for a reason’,” says Kerr, who has the words in a tattoo. “If my calves didn’t get injured, nothing would have stopped me from running – I absolutely loved it.
“Now I look at it in a positive way. It was worth all the tears through the painful runs, because what if that didn’t happen? Would I be here right now playing cricket for my country?”
What happened next caught her off-guard. Kerr was 17, in her final year at Tawa College, and thinking about giving cricket away, when a great inswing bowling performance in a school match – four wickets for four runs in four overs – caught the eye of Wellington selectors.
Scrolling through the Cricket Wellington website searching for her sister’s name in the Wellington Blaze squad, she was shocked to see her own name there.
“Melie had already played a couple of seasons for the Blaze [she debuted at 14], so it was cool to already have her in the team when I walked in,” Kerr says.
Cricket became her new driver.
As she made her domestic cricket debut, she had two “sisters” in the Blaze side. “Melie was there and we had a girl from England living with us, and she became like another sister. She made her debut that day too,” Kerr said.
Their ‘adopted sibling’ was England international Fran Wilson, who won the World Cup in 2017, and played two seasons with the Blaze while living with the Kerrs.
Jess Kerr was at that last World Cup in England, but as a spectator supporting her sister.
“That’s where I’m so grateful for having Melie as my sister. She inspired me to go on that trip, watch her play and see a World Cup being played,” Kerr says. “That’s when I decided to take my cricket more seriously.
“Now I’ve been named in the squad for this World Cup, it’s crazy to think I’m not a spectator this time.
“I just hope with this World Cup, there’s hopefully a young girl or boy out there who might watch a game and think the exact same thing and find a love for the sport, too.”
As she poured her energy into cricket, Jess Kerr – dangerous with a new ball – became the top wicket-taker in the 2019-20 Super Smash and was called into the White Ferns that summer. She made her debut in January 2020, the week of her 22nd birthday.
Before the game against South Africa at Eden Park, Kerr received her White Ferns cap from two players who’d had a major influence on her life.
One was New Zealand captain Sophie Devine, who also grew up in Tawa and had become a role model to Kerr, as someone who also lives with diabetes. The other was Kerr’s sister.
“Melie wrote a speech, and it was really special. I’ve still got the notes at home somewhere,” Kerr says. “Usually it’s just one speech, but it was Melie who set the tone. Afterwards [White Ferns coach] Bob Carter said it was the best cap presentation he’d ever been to.”
She remembers that part of the day clearly, but what’s not so vivid is the actual ODI she played in, “which is funny, but nice in a way,” she laughs. “That’s what debuts are for – having everyone important to you around you.”
Kerr claimed her first international scalp in that game – no less than Lizelle Lee, who was just named ICC women’s ODI cricketer of 2021.
“Sophie caught it too. We had to wait a little while it went up for review to see if it was a legitimate catch,” Kerr recalls. “I got her in the next game too.” (Kerr also scored a golden duck with the bat).
In Queenstown playing this five-game series against India to prepare for the World Cup, which is now just a fortnight away, the Kerr sisters have been able to spend some quality time together.
They have their own rooms, but often get together at the end of a long day to watch TV.
“That’s the beauty of having a sister in the team,” says Kerr. “Last night we sat there watching Manifest together.
“During the Super Smash this year, we got to room together for the first time and it was great.
“Because she’s my sister, we can sit there in absolute silence and it doesn’t mean we’re mad at each other. We both know where we stand. You can just be completely yourselves with each other.”