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Sunday, May 22, 2022

Australia, the home of multi-sport women

Ash Barty & Ellyse Perry are only the latest exponents of a tradition of excelling in various codes.

Written by Gaurav Bhatt | New Delhi |
Updated: February 22, 2022 4:43:56 pm
(From left): Ash Barty & Ellyse Perry.

Like the rest of her compatriots, Jenny Williams spent a fortnight glued to the screen as Ash Barty went on a history-making run at Melbourne. Williams and Barty — the first home singles champion at the Australian Open in 44 years — both belong to Australia’s tradition of talented multi-sport athletes, or cross-coders. And while Barty is probably the most illustrious example, Williams helped set the blueprint decades ago.

Williams, 65, comes from one of the great Aussie Rules dynasties. Father Fos, Australian Football Hall of Fame’s inaugural inductee who ruled 40s through 60s as a player and coach, has a grandstand named after him at the Adelaide Oval. Her three brothers all played top-grade football.

Williams, meanwhile, represented South Australia at senior level in cricket, soccer, football, touch football, indoor lacrosse and lacrosse during the 1970s and ’80s, and was part of a world champion lacrosse team. She was adjudged the Australian Football League (AFL) Woman of the Year in 2003 for her contribution to the sport.

Jenny Williams’ father Fos (left) was the Australian Football Hall of Fame’s inaugural inductee who ruled the 40s through 60s as a player and coach.

“Many, in my dad’s era, they all played a summer sport, a winter sport, and took what they could from one game into another,” says Williams, who received a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) last month for her services to women’s sport and sports psychology. “Australian athletes have historically used different sports to be fitter for the sport they played.”

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Aussie Rules, in fact, was devised to keep cricketers fit during winter months before it was developed, codified and got its own league. Earlier, it was simply a variant of English public-school football which grew popular in Melbourne parklands thanks to cricketers, enthusiasts and schoolchildren; no better mix of sports-lovers encompasses Australia’s cross-code culture.

Another notable example is Australia wicketkeeper Alex Carey. Carey grew up in Loxton playing both cricket and Australian rules football. Named in the 2009 Redbacks squad, Carey instead chose the oval ball, siding with the expansion team Greater Western Sydney Giants. There, he was coached by Jenny’s brother Mark and when his footie career hit a dead end, both Williams siblings supported him in his return to cricket.

“Traditionally, you play a lot of different sports as a child here,” Mark Williams had told The Indian Express in an earlier interview. “It definitely helps athletes as they bring something from each sport and it teaches them collaboration.”

Cross-code culture

Still, there must be something in the water Down Under?

“I think growing up here, there’s a lot of opportunities to play a sport and not just one sport,” says cricket coach Andy Richards who helped Barty take up the bat in the Women’s Big Bash. “While we have a love for cricket, it was one of the things we encouraged our kids to play in wintertime. We understood the need to go play other sports to make other parts of your body function and acquire different skills through different sports. We always say India is a cricket-mad country. And I would just say Australia is probably a sport-mad country.”

Barty famously took a hiatus from tennis after feeling burnt out, played cricket in the Women’s Big Bash, returned rejuvenated and began her ascent to the World No. 1 ranking.

The next high-profile example is star all-rounder Ellyse Perry. The first cricketer to score 1,000 runs and take 100 wickets in T20Is, Perry represented Australia in soccer 18 times before famously choosing a T20 against India over a shield game in 2016.

Alongside Barty and Perry, at the elite level, it’s mostly a host of less-heralded Australian sportswomen who are thriving in multiple codes. Several of Perry’s teammates have played hockey or football. The culture can be traced back to Jenny Williams and Co in the ’70s.

The magnificent seven

For Williams, cross-coding began with the children’s game Brandy, where kids try to ‘brand’ each other with “the wettest ball they could find.”

“It hurt, so it taught you to be a little bit tough,” Williams says. “But it also taught you to catch the ball, dodge it.”

“I grew up with brothers and had a netball. Of course, they didn’t ever want to play netball. But they did love putting the ball on the ground. And then we’d play soccer. And having four kids was great because I grew up with twin brothers, so it was me in two-on-ones. Then with my little brother, it was two-on-twos, and what great development you can possibly have with that.”

Jenny Williams and the magnificent group of cross-coders formed a cricket team, represented Australia in various sports, and went to University together over a three-year span.

At the Adelaide Teachers College, Williams formed a cohort with six other physical education students. The magnificent group of cross-coders formed a cricket team, represented Australia in various sports, and went to university together over a three-year span. The group included Olympic basketballers Jenny Cheesman and Pat Mickan, squash world champion Vicki Cardwell, and cricketers Jill Kennare, Wendy Plitz and Lynette ‘Lefty’ Fullston, who were part of the Test side that toured India in 1984.

“I was fortunate enough to keep wickets to Lefty, who has the lawns named after her at the Oval,” says Williams. “In the summer, we would be playing cricket. In winter, I would be playing soccer and lacrosse. We would train for the state team and play one sport on a Saturday. The other sport we would play on Sunday, and then train for another sport in the morning. It was always doing things, running between games.”

At the Teachers College, the group once invited Australian cricketer David Hookes — described by Wisden as “a first-class destroyer of second-rate bowling” to bat — and bowled him out a couple of times.

“He got a respect for the group that we had, how driven we were,” says Williams. “We found that if the men could see we were really dedicated and wanted to try, they gave us opportunities to get better. They trained with us. We figured, well, if we could keep up with the best men, we were definitely in the ballpark, if not ahead of other great women.”

How it helps

Even before cricket and lacrosse, Williams fell in love with tennis. Mother Von “was an elite tennis player” and growing up, the siblings spent hours on the court.

“As a result, I was really, really good at hitting anything especially square of the wicket on either side. Tennis players-turned-cricketers had to learn how to play with a straight bat,” says Williams. “There are so many things that work between the two sports. Being able to catch, able to move well, understanding how to communicate during doubles or with the partner at the other end.”

Jenny Williams.

“By playing basketball, I learned how to run inside and do a drop-step, which was a perfect defence in lacrosse. The men played with both hands, while the women’s game had only evolved one-handed. Training with them was an ‘aha’ moment for us. So, it wasn’t only cross-coding, but also looking between the genders at times.”

During the 1986 world championship, Williams remembers the one-handed Americans saw Australia’s plastic sticks as a fad and their wielders “stupid”.

“Now you can’t find wooden sticks.”

Williams details the ‘intellectual’ side of playing multiple sports.

“The joy of actually being able to see how to cross-code sport also takes some intellect. The fact that the good people can actually work out what to take from one sport into another is often underestimated.”

A cross-coder off the field too, Williams has been an author, teacher, administrator and broadcaster. But it’s the perspectives as a coach and psychologist that bring a fresh perspective to cross-coding.

“The multi-sport movement is starting to be around a little bit more again, because people are seeing that overuse injuries can be a problem if you’re just doing one thing. It’s also about staleness and not feeling like you’re doing something fresh,” says Williams, the PE teacher.

Williams the psychologist, meanwhile, expounds on the reasoning, and how cross-coding helps in the holistic development of children.

“You are subjected to more ideas, more people. And when you come across gems, you learn to recognise them and keep them in your life,” says Williams. “We were willing to stand out and play whatever we wanted. People said ‘girls shouldn’t play that’ but we didn’t care. It was all about playing well and being really good friends. Even when I got married, I had seven bridesmaids and all of them were amazingly good multi-sports women!”

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