One misjudged landing ruled White Ferns batter Lauren Down out of two pinnacle cricket events this year. But the break has given her a new enjoyment of the game, she tells Merryn Anderson, on her return to the international crease.
Lauren Down was in the form of her life. She’d smashed her way into the record books, and after a strong domestic season with her Auckland side, she’d finally cemented her place in the White Ferns batting order.
Then a simple dive for a catch would change everything; ruling her out of two of the biggest tournaments in her cricket career.
Down can now talk openly about the break to her right thumb that first, ended her dream of playing in a home World Cup back in March, and then left her struggling – physically and mentally – to return to the crease, forcing her to miss the Commonwealth Games in July.
But now she’s ready again, heading to the West Indies this weekend with the White Ferns and feeling refreshed and raring to go.
“At the end of the day, you need to remember to think about yourself – the person first and the cricketer second, and that’s something I struggled to get my head around initially,” Down says.
“But now I’m very thankful I did that and people encouraged me to do that. Because I’m in a much better headspace and my thumb is back to 100 percent. I can just focus on cricket now and nothing else around it.”
It was just eight days before the White Ferns’ opening match of the Cricket World Cup when Down received the news no elite athlete wants to hear.
“I knew it wasn’t great straight away,” Down says, remembering landing awkwardly taking a catch during the final ODI against India in February.
“The doctor went and showed me the x-ray and said ‘You’re gonna need surgery, sorry’. It was a really tough pill to swallow and I guess something you don’t really prepare yourself for.”
The 27-year-old had just been part of the second highest ODI run chase in women’s cricket history, scoring 64 not out (off 52 balls), with a match-winning six to give the White Ferns the series victory over India.
“I’d really enjoyed the domestic season, playing Super Smash and Hallyburton Johnstone Shield with Auckland. Heading into the India series, I was feeling pretty good, I was enjoying my cricket,” says Down, a member of the Auckland Hearts team since 2011.
The White Ferns won all five ODIs against India in February, the clean sweep giving them confidence ahead of the 50-over World Cup that began in March.
“From a team aspect, it was really nice to see the team coming together. And all that training and hard work we’d put in over the past 12 to 24 months coming together – and actually getting some really incredible results on the field,” Down says.
“It was epic to be a part of that series. And it obviously just ended in a pretty average way for me, personally.”
Lauren Down hit the match-winning six to clinch a series win over India.
Surgery and recovery followed, with Down an admittedly emotional and nervous spectator at the World Cup – especially watching her friends and teammates in the opening game against the West Indies in Tauranga.
“It wasn’t an ideal outcome for the girls, in terms of missing out on the semifinals, but it was just incredible to see the New Zealand public getting behind women’s cricket,” she says.
Down returned to training a few months later, but found herself short of 100 percent – both physically and mentally.
“I’d been back training for about three or four weeks before the first White Ferns camp, and I found those first three weeks really tough,” she explains.
“Just trying to hold the cricket bat again and that sort of thing, my thumb was still really sore. Every time I was hitting the ball, it hurt.
“And then getting back into fielding as well; that was probably more of a mental thing for me – trying to have some confidence in my hand and my thumb and knowing it’s going to be okay.”
Down found herself in the headspace where training became a chore, and she wasn’t enjoying her time in the nets.
“In an ideal world, I would have had a little bit longer and been able to get back into things at my own pace. But I knew the Commonwealth Games were just around the corner and it was something I really wanted to be at,” she says.
A trip to Birmingham – for women’s cricket’s first appearance at a Commonwealth Games – was a chance for the White Ferns to make history.
“I went down to the first White Ferns camp and just found the whole week incredibly overwhelming. I saw where the rest of the girls were at and knew I wasn’t at that level yet,” Down admits.
“So I came back home to Auckland and had a few conversations with my family and my partner and we just chatted around where I was at with things. I just knew in my heart I needed a little bit more time mentally and physically just for my thumb to get right before I was back in that environment. So that’s when I had to make an incredibly tough decision.
“But sitting here now, I know it was the right one to not go to the Commonwealth Games.”
Down recently bought a house in Auckland with partner, Carl, and they have a new puppy – six-month-old German shepherd Nala shaping up as a future running buddy for Down. She also recently graduated with a degree in human nutrition, and hopes to find work in that field.
But for now, she’ll be trading the September chill for the 30-plus degree heat of Antigua, where the White Ferns will be based for a month for three ODIs and five T20s against the West Indies.
Back in the nets, Down is ready for her first game in almost seven months.
Down can’t wait to get back into the game, not having played a full match since February. It will be her first tour with new head coach, Ben Sawyer, who has a tough decision as to where to place her in the batting order. (Down has no preference, going from an opener to as low as sixth in the past year).
Sawyer was one of the many New Zealand Cricket staff who fully supported Down’s decision to miss the Games, with White Ferns superstars Sophie Devine and Melie Kerr both taking leave to support their mental wellbeing in the last few years.
“Initially I really struggled with actually saying to New Zealand Cricket that I’m not going to go to the Commonwealth Games, I need some more time,” Down explains.
“That was a really tough thing to say because for me, it was missing out on a second pinnacle event in the space of six months. But it almost makes it easier having seen Melie and Soph take some time away as well – they’ve come back and look how well they’ve done.
“I’m extremely grateful to New Zealand Cricket…everyone was super supportive and I felt no pressure either way, they just wanted me to do what was right for me.”
Down has a big summer ahead, potentially captaining the Hearts for part of their domestic season along with a White Ferns home series against Bangladesh for three ODIs and three T20s, before the T20 World Cup kicks off in South Africa in February.
The New Zealand-based players depart for the Caribbean on Saturday. Around 10 of them spent time at a camp with assistant coach Sara McGlashan last week.
“I loved being back in the environment and just enjoyed training, which as I’ve learnt over the last six weeks, is the most important thing,” Down says.
“That’s why I started playing cricket in the first place. I think back to out in the backyard with my dad and my brother, and I did that because I enjoyed it.
“I think that’s particularly important to remember nowadays with cricket heading in the direction it is. It’s more professional, you’re playing on the big stage, there’s pressure. So when you’re playing in front of a massive crowd in a final, it’s remembering why you started in the first place. That’s important to me.”