Monday, December 17, 2012

At the wicket with Morna Nielsen

22 year old Morna Nielsen’s game has undergone a major transformation. Entering New Zealand’s domestic game as a wide-eyed 17 year old medium pacer, she is now carving out a niche as one of New Zealand’s premier limited overs’ bowlers – as a left arm spinner. 
(Courtesy of

In her third year in the White Ferns, Nielsen has been a shining light with the ball in the two opening matches of the Rose Bowl series against Australia – some of the game’s most destructive batters struggling with her guile and accuracy. Though she battled against the power of Meg Lanning in the third match, her returns in the fourth match will likely have a large influence on the final series result.

Leading her Northern Spirit side from the front, Nielsen has a long future in our domestic game. New Zealand cricket fans need to all cross their fingers that her cricketing future isn’t cut short by a “real” career or the draw of a family, as is the case with so many of our promising female cricketers.

Morna talks to a cricketing Buddha about her start in the game, personal milestones versus team achievements, and basing herself across two different islands. She also wades into the debate of test cricket and T20 – not really, but they tell me that controversy sells…

A cricketing Buddha: For those who know little of the women’s game, tell us a little of your background – how you got started in cricket, what appealed in our great game, and what makes you tick on the pitch.
Morna Nielsen: I started playing as a five year old at Vardon Primary with coach Greg Barkle. Greg was awesome, he encouraged me to keep playing and let me play as wicketkeeper.  I have no idea why I wanted to play, or even why I continued to play - it wasn’t until I was about 15 that I began to understand the game and enjoy playing.

What makes me tick?  I enjoy the challenge. As a bowler I like to play the game with the batter and out think them. I also enjoy captaincy due to the extra thinking required. You need to carefully select your bowlers and set fields to try and out think the batters.

ACB: You made your debut against old foes Australia in an ODI as a 19 year old – how big is the step up from domestic cricket?
MN: At that time it was huge. I had only started bowling spin that season and it was all quite a blur going from domestic to Emerging Players and then onto the White Ferns so quickly. Since then I have been fortunate to train with White Ferns out at Lincoln on a regular basis. The chance to bowl at, and learn from, international players is invaluable and makes the step up to internationals smaller. The margin for error at international level is so small and it really tests your ability to execute bowling plans.

ACB: Regardless of the sport or level, earning your first cap is an emotional experience, though I imagine your first international is a world apart. Who presented you with your cap? Does the women’s game embrace the tradition that surrounds the ceremony of your male peers?
MN: To be honest, I can’t recall who gave me my cap. All I really remember is signing the flag in the changing room at some ground in Melbourne. I couldn’t even tell you much about the game itself. I think I bowled a few overs but not sure how it went (ACB: Nielsen didn’t actually bowl in her first match and was dismissed for 1 off 11 balls batting at 10 – an inauspicious start). It is a special experience to represent your country and that really hits home every time the national anthem is played before a game. Hearing the anthem, especially the Maori verse, sends chills through me and really sets my focus for the game ahead.

ACB: In the final T20 against England in Invercargill earlier in the year, you took 4/10 (the second best New Zealand bowling figures in a T20) in a losing effort – does the loss diminish the individual achievement?
MN: The loss really does diminish the personal achievement - we play to win, and we lost the game. More than anything I look for consistency in performance and being able to back up a good performance with another equally good performance – I’m still working on it.

ACB: Women’s test cricket is no longer played by the White Ferns, although your Northern Spirit team mate Nicola Browne got a taste early in her career. As a left arm spinner would you have cherished the opportunity to play the longer game for your country?
MN: I have only played one match longer than 50 overs. It was a ‘time’ game in England where I played for a touring MCC side against the School 1st XI where I was working at the time. Spending 65 overs in the field was more than enough and the thought of coming back to do it for a second, third or fourth day has very little appeal.

ACB: An Ashes test is still contested; do you think the format has any chance of a resurrection in the modern era?
MN: I think it will be very hard to market a women’s test and so am not sure how much of a future test cricket has in the women’s game. I don’t recall New Zealand playing a test for a very long time, Nic Browne talks of playing a test in India in the early 2000’s and I’m not sure if there has been one played since.

(ACB: New Zealand played against India in November 2003, before playing their last test match against England at Scarborough in August 2004.)

ACB: Your international T20 bowling average is lower than your domestic record – you obviously love the challenge of the step up, but can you explain the gap?
MN: I bowled pace. My first two domestic seasons I was a pace bowler and went without much success which may contribute to some of the difference in average. After making the change the first two seasons of bowling spin were a touch hit and miss and it wasn’t until the 2011/12 domestic season that I really began to understand and control my bowling so I was able to achieve more consistent results. From there I went into internationals and continued building on what I had done domestically, and had success. I think the international teams look to be more attacking and so more wicket taking opportunities are presented.

ACB: You list your residence as Hamilton and Christchurch and play for clubs in both cities – is there an intriguing back story there?
MN: I study at Canterbury University so during the academic year my club is East Shirley who I regard as the best club in Christchurch. They are a very friendly and welcoming bunch. However, I could never play cricket for Canterbury!

During the summer when I am back in “the future” (Hamilton) I play for Melville, which has not been as often as I would like to. The Melville club are fantastic and have been very welcoming to the idea of the girls playing in the men’s grade. Our team is called the “Green Machine” and play in the “B” grade.

ACB: You’re young, both in age and the length of your career at the highest level – how long do you see yourself donning the whites (or the coloured clothing)?
MN: I guess that comes down to the drive to succeed internationally but also being realistic about a career. I have one year left at university and then need to enter the working world of civil engineering. I am hopeful of finding an employer who understands the time required to play cricket, and may have had some success. Provided all that falls into place I would like to continue playing for a number of years.

ACB: As an outsider looking in, it seems there are a lot of younger women and students in the domestic playing ranks – do many of the emerging players choose to put work and family first, and are hence lost to the game?
MN: A few years ago there was a survey done of women’s cricket which found that the average age of retirement was 22. That indicates that most girls are choosing a career over cricket and realistically that’s probably fair enough. Cricket is a game that requires a lot of time and to play domestically you lose a lot of your summer and annual leave. Priorities change once you finish school and university which makes it hard to retain players.

ACB: There was a Twitter storm during the World T20 about the difference in the ICC’s daily allowance given to the men’s and women’s teams (the men received USD100 while the women were provided a stipend of just USD60) – was it an issue for the players?  Was it viewed as sexist, a commercial reality given the relative budgets or something else entirely?
MN: There was a little bit of chat about the difference in pay which was more to do with USD100 being a lot of money to feed yourself for a day. We ate very well and still had money left over. So to me, it is more do you need USD100 to eat?

ACB: Prior to the start of the domestic summer you travelled to Sydney to play your Australian counterparts as a member of the New Zealand Emerging Players side – how is it to do battle against any Aussie side? Armchair punters often view them as sport’s devil incarnate, is it the same for players? 
MN: It is awesome to play Australia. There is such a great sporting rivalry between New Zealand and Australia regardless of what code is being played.  The games are always played in good spirit and high intensity. I would say England is a more ‘devil incarnate’ opponent, if there was one.

ACB: Have you given any thought to heading overseas to develop your game? Suzie Bates recently played for the Western Australian women; are you tempted to follow her lead or spend some time honing your skills in the more established English set up?
MN: Yes, I would love a chance to play overseas. I think the Australian league is high quality and would probably look to play for South Australia as I have a lot of family that live there. It would be just as good to play in England. Maddy Green went over and played for Notts this winter and she has raved about the experience. Firstly I need to finish university as the timing is not fantastic for either of those leagues with university commitments.

ACB: What’s your best cricket memory – whether it be club, domestic, international or a knock about in the backyard?
MN: Ahhh, that’s a tough one. I think probably I have more off field memories than on field. In January playing Australia in a T20 we required a lot of runs off the last few overs. I came into bat and had a go. (ACB: batting at 10, Nielsen struck 21 off 12 balls, including two sixes, but New Zealand fell seven runs short of the Australian target.)

ACB: With the Emerging Players tour completed days before the domestic season started and the Rose Bowl played in the domestic break, you could play as many as 25 matches in two months – does it take a toll physically and mentally? Given you do it for pennies compared to your male contemporaries, would you rather the season was structured differently?
MN: So far, so good. It was really good to have a bit of a break after the World T20. I pretty much played no cricket from the beginning of October till the beginning of November when we went away for the Emerging Players, with the exception of some club cricket - then it was great to get away from exams and go and play some cricket! I have told everyone that I am a gypsy for summer and am looking forward to earning some good status points. It would be nice if the season could be structured slightly differently but it is hard with unpredictable weather early in the summer and then fitting around the international schedule as well. Maybe ask me how I am feeling in a month!

ACB: A couple of quick fire questions to finish things off – no deep thinking, just whatever comes into your head – let’s call it an honesty test…

How would you team mates describe you in three words?
MN: Good amounts of thinking (ACB: except that’s four words!)

ACB: Tests or T20?
MN: Tests to watch, T20 to play

ACB: Beige or black?
MN: Black

ACB: Day/night test cricket? 
MN: Day only

If you get the opportunity, get along to see Morna and the rest of the Northern Spirit do battle in women’s T20 and one-day domestic fixtures – it’s a good watch. You can follow her on Twitter - @Mornface.

Tell me what you think – I’d love your thoughts. Post a comment below or tweet me @aotearoaxi

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