Sports & Fitness
Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena
The former captain of the Australian women’s team and a member of the winning squads at two World Cups (2005 and 2013) and two World Twenty20 (T20) tournaments (2010 and 2012) has earned herself a formidable reputation in the arena of the willow. Born in Pune, India, but adopted at three-weeks-old from the Shreevatsa Orphanage, by the then US-based Sue and Haren Sthalekar, Lisa Sthalekar grew up in Australia, where her family subsequently settled – and the rest, as they say, is history. Her career has been well-chronicled as she donned the hats of cricketer, commentator and administrator through the years, becoming a globally recognisable name.
Mithali Raj, the incumbent ODI captain, who has spearheaded the team to two 50-over World Cup finals, says, “I have interacted with her on several occasions. Lisa was a wonderful all-rounder. An excellent off-spinner, she got the better of me a few times, and what stood out then was her competitive spirit and cricketing acumen. I have interacted with her a lot more in her role as a commentator, and I honestly think she is one of the best on the circuit. She reads the game well; I have found her to be fair and objective in her views. We do talk about how much still needs to be done for the development of women’s cricket, and sometimes we share a few laughs – her Indian roots have made it easy for players from here to connect with her. And not many people know of her role in mentoring kids. Her coaching clinics are her way of giving back to the sport without making too much noise about it.”
Over a long-distance call from Sydney to Mumbai, Sthalekar is articulate and exceptionally down-to-earth in her responses, revealing a strong woman whose humility belies her boundary-breaking achievements.
Excerpts from the conversation
Rachael Heyhoe-Flint was the first woman to be inducted into the ICC Cricket Hall of Fame exactly 10 years ago; you are the 9th to be so honoured. What was your reaction to the news?
My immediate reaction was one of surprise. I certainly didn’t think that my statistics had allowed me to get into such a prestigious group of talented cricketers. I also felt that I had only just retired from the game and that there were plenty of other women who have paved the way – and are probably more deserving to get in. But, I certainly have been humbled by the recognition.
Are you hopeful that cricket won’t remain what it was originally, a “gentleman’s game”, thanks to the emergence of strong female players and the growing support in the last decade?
I certainly feel that the scenario has already changed. When I was growing up in the ’80s, cricket was seen as a very, very male-dominated sport. There were no girls really playing in local competitions. Today, things have certainly changed here in Australia, and it is now seen as a sport for both genders.
And the ICC Hall of Fame is a prime example of this change. It only started in 2009, and in 2010, Rachael Heyhoe-Flint was the first female player to be inducted. Since then, it’s been almost one player per year except for, I think, 2017 when we missed out. So, female cricketers are being acknowledged for their contributions on the field, and it’s great to see that this is also a regular occurrence now in the ICC Hall of Fame.
What were the most significant turning points in your personal and professional life?
Personally, the biggest turning point would have to be the passing away of my mother from breast cancer in 2002. We were a family of four in Australia, with no other relatives here. So it certainly changed our dynamics. My sister and I had to grow up pretty quickly, and my father had to learn how to cook, clean and do all sorts of things. It was a dramatic change for all of us.
From a professional point of view, if you want to look at my playing career, it was probably finishing that and then focusing my full attention on trying to get into broadcasting. So as I ended one career, I guess I was starting out in another one.
I was in my 30s and stepping into a new industry, learning a new skill set, taking on a new challenge. Again, it was another male-dominated industry, but that didn’t put me off because I was used to doing that. It has taken me to some amazing places around the world. It has also enabled me to watch the sport, still be involved with the game and see the women’s game develop to what it is now.
How did you establish a space for yourself and feel comfortable in the largely, as you said it, male-dominated field of commentating?
I just wanted to do a good job. I was thankful that when I walked into the commentary box, there were people there who welcomed me and showed me the ropes. I never really felt that I was being judged within the commentary box. And, like I said, I had been used to playing a male-dominated sport. I had also worked for Cricket New South Wales, which was the state association; there were predominantly males there as well. In my environment, I have always been around a lot of males, so I never saw it as a challenge.
Probably the only time that I have been daunted by something, and I think it happened to all of us female commentators, was when we were asked to commentate in the IPL (Indian Premier League) in 2015. We knew that it was the first time women were involved in the biggest Indian T20 domestic competition. We didn’t want to make a mistake. We didn’t want to stuff up because we felt not only would viewers go, “Oh, hang on. Lisa doesn’t know her stuff”, but they would also say, “That female commentator isn’t good enough” since they didn’t know us by name. And we wanted to do a good job not only for ourselves and our co-colleagues but also for the next generation that wanted to come into media broadcasting.
What was the excitement of being a part of that IPL – and the subsequent ones?
In the West, when you go to smaller towns, there’s a circus that regularly comes to town. Everyone’s talking about it and saying, “You’ve got to go to the circus”. That is the best way to describe the IPL, for the same thing happens in it too. And in the last five years, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel back and be a part of it throughout its entirety – everyone’s talking about the IPL, everyone’s watching it every night. Everyone’s got their reasons and theories why certain players are doing well, why certain players aren’t, who should be in the starting 11, who shouldn’t be. It’s great that so many people are that passionate about their teams, their players. The IPL has a big carnival atmosphere that literally engages with over a billion people in India, and then you could add probably another billion around the world!
This time, I’ll only be there for the first four weeks, and then I have to come back home. But I’ll be heading over to Dubai to cover a number of the games, which I’m looking forward to because, like I said, I love the IPL. I love seeing those players out there as they go head-to-head.
If I asked you to name just two, who would you say are your role models in the sport, and how have they inspired you?
From a cricket point of view, I never had role models. I enjoyed watching certain players – like Shane Warne, Michael Slater or Sachin Tendulkar. They were the ones who always wanted to be in the thick of the action. You could never turn your eye away because they would do something for their team in a positive light. I probably tried to emulate them, and that’s why I became an all-rounder – I batted in the top four, I always bowled roughly my allocated overs, and I fielded in midwicket or cover because I felt they were the hotspots, and I wanted to be in all of the action. So, any players who loved to be in the action to be able to change the game, were the ones that I probably followed the most, just to learn how they coped in different pressure situations. I wanted to mimic them when I went out there in the field.
What connection do you still have with India, the country of your birth?
The connection is really strong. I was born in Pune and was actually adopted at three weeks of age. My father (Haren Sthalekar) was born and bred in Mumbai. My mother (Sue) was white English, but my father’s mother was from Mumbai. So, my school holidays were spent there. There was a school in Gamdevi – I think it was called Children’s Academy. We used to live on the top floor of the school, and I remember running around causing havoc while school was still on – and going to Chowpatty Beach. I have very fond memories of growing up there, drinking Gold Spot, playing carrom and flying kites. Spending time with my grandmother and India are such a strong part of my childhood.
As a cricketer, the first time I toured in India was in 2004. That was before the Women’s Cricket Association of India had joined with the BCCI. There was one team bus for both the teams. We stayed in some pretty interesting accommodations, but boy, we had plenty of stories at the end of it, and it’s probably one of my most memorable trips to India. And then, we again toured in 2008 and 2012. Since the last five or six years, I’ve travelled back every year, and I’m finding ways to spend more and more time in India because I absolutely love it. I’ve got plenty of friends across India. I love the food, I love the shopping, and I love the hospitality and the big smiles that always greet me.
Growing up in the US, where cricket is not so popular, how did you develop a passion for the game?
Cricket probably runs in your blood if you have a father who is born and raised in India. My older sister, Caprini (her full name is Caprini Lisa Sthalekar), wasn’t one for the outdoors or for playing a sport, so I was Daddy’s little girl, and I used to hang out in the backyard with him. He started to play a bit of backyard cricket with me and took me to the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) when I was probably seven or eight. I loved it. That was probably where I started to like the game. Every weekend, I saw hundreds of kids playing in the local cricket competitions. I went to my father and said, “Look, I want to play cricket”. Dad told me that I couldn’t because they were all boys. And I said, “Well, why can’t I?” So he inquired at the local cricket club, which was West Pennant Hills Cherrybrook Cricket Club. They let me play saying that it was fine with them if I could cope with being the only girl in the team and the tournament or in the season and the association as well. I spent six years there playing boys’ cricket. And it wasn’t until the second or third year that I realised women’s cricket exists and there’s certainly a pathway for me to potentially play at the highest level.
Your career and achievements have helped break down several barriers for women in the cricketing world. But how can we give the voices of women in sport more respect, globally? Have we done enough?
We’ve never done enough. There’s always more to do. But certainly, we’re going in the right direction. The fact that we’re seeing the women’s game really develop over the last couple of years and that 86,000 came into the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground) to watch the India and Australia game in the T20 World Cup final, earlier this year, the one on International Women’s Day, showed to a lot of people that women’s sport is a commercial commodity. It’s no longer something that’s just a goodwill gesture that is a spin-off from the men’s sport. Women’s sport can be promoted. So certainly, things are getting better at the international level, but not in domestic cricket.
Player, coach, mentor and commentator – you’ve donned several hats. Which role have you found to be the most challenging?
All the roles have been challenging at different times. There were times when I was playing the game and things weren’t going quite well or we weren’t scoring runs or the team wasn’t performing as well as we should have. I was also working full-time while representing my country. So that was challenging in itself – cricket seven days a week, no annual holidays because all those were used up for tournaments to represent your country or your state.
Then coming into the new industry of broadcasting, trying to figure out how it all works. Trying to make sure not only you do yourself proud, but also other female broadcasters. And then, you know, recently I’ve been involved in a couple of board positions at the Players Association, and the ICC women’s committee. So there are always going to be challenges.
And we’re now dealing with the pandemic. It has been the most challenging of recent times because of lost work. I haven’t worked for months, and my last day of work was actually March 8 in that T20 final. We have got to figure out what the new norms are and how to get live sports back. How do we get women’s cricket happening again? Because while international men’s cricket has started, international women’s cricket hasn’t! We don’t want to lose the momentum that we had built up for that 86,000 crowd. Coming out of the pandemic, we shouldn’t be almost 10 years behind from where we left the game. So it’s important for everyone within the game that we keep pushing forward and keep investing in women’s sports.
Which of the Indian women cricketers do you have a personal connection with? Who would you say has made a huge difference to the shape of Indian cricket?
Well, I played a lot of cricket against Mithali Raj and Jhulan Goswami – they are really the patriarchs of Indian women’s cricket and have taken the game to another level. With the highest ODI run-scorer and the highest ODI wicket-taker, it is great to have those two names still there, wanting to push through for the next World Cup. I speak to them, message them regularly and get along with them quite well. I have also spent a bit of time with the next generation of Indian cricketers during the women’s T20 matches. So I have got to know a number of players like Smriti Mandhana, Veda Krishnamurthy and Mona Meshram. We’ve been keeping each other entertained in this pandemic playing Ludo on our iPad or iPhone or even just doing video calls every now and again. I always catch up with people in different cities and states when I am travelling during the IPL. The last time I was in Kolkata, Jhulan had me over for dinner.
What, according to you, is the most frustrating stereotype about female athletes?
When I first started playing, the stereotype was probably of a tomboy. Which, I’m sure you understand the terminology of it. They want to play with cars, male-dominated sports, don’t want to play with Barbies, all those types of things, even though I did have my Barbies. But I was teased at school as to why I was playing a boy’s sport. So that’s probably the stereotype that a lot of female athletes get. And they tend to be a little bit more confident, a little bit more outgoing, which back then in the mid-’80s, were considered more boyish traits. But I think we’ve seen over time that those traits are just as important for females. They just mean that you’re a strong individual. So that’s probably been the biggest stereotype, but I feel that that’s been broken down, especially here in Australia. Obviously, India may be in a different place.
As a sportsperson with a demanding life, what were the sacrifices you’ve had to make?
As an athlete, you’re constantly sacrificing. I remember when I was just finishing school as friends went out to parties. People would be drinking or having late nights, but I would be the designated driver. I wouldn’t drink anything because I knew I’d have to get up nice and early to fly somewhere. I’ve missed really important events, not only for my family but close friends too. A prime example is Alyssa Healy and Mitchell Starc’s wedding in 2016. I was covering an IPL and wasn’t allowed to come back to attend it. But I’d have to say that my family has sacrificed a lot as well. They know that I’m on the road a lot. I have a nephew who is 14, and his birthday is in May. This year was the first time I could celebrate his birthday in person, whereas the last five years obviously I was in India.
What is the biggest setback you faced professionally and how did you overcome that?
Probably the biggest setback happened when I lost the vice-captaincy for the Australian side. At the time, I was going through depression or mental burnout. And back then I don’t think both men’s and women’s sports quite understood what that was and the effect that it could have on an athlete. So instead of probably getting the help and support that I needed, leadership positions were taken away from me. And I was constantly being judged for my behaviour which, unfortunately, working full time as well, things caught up to me. So there were a couple of years where playing cricket, working in cricket was not fun, not enjoyable, and there was probably a point that I was going to leave the game. I’m glad that my family and a number of teammates – Shelley Nitschke, Sarah Andrews – said to me “You still have got plenty more to contribute”. And then Cathryn Fitzpatrick, who was actually inducted into the ICC Hall of Fame in 2019, came on as the head coach of the Australian women’s side for my last year. Basically, she was able to get the best out of me again. And I’m glad that I stayed on for that extra year because within that year, we won the T20 World Cup and the 50-over World Cup, and I was able to finish my career in Mumbai, a place that, obviously, I’ve got a lot of fond memories of. It was nice for me to start my life in India and also end my playing career there. So I’m glad that I stuck at the game and was able to finish on an absolute high.
What is the best piece of advice you received?
Throughout my career, I’ve had a couple of pieces of gold that have been passed on to me. To be honest, a lot of the times these words have come from people not within the sport. My mother would always remind me that it is just a game of cricket, that the sun will still rise the next day, regardless of how bad you may have felt about losing a match, losing a final or not contributing. And then my father said that if you’re going to do something, make sure that you do your best – try and become the best you can be. I’ve applied that to my playing and professional career, to be in control of my destiny. The prime example of this is my retirement. When I retired, a lot of people asked, “Why did you retire as soon as you did?” I wanted to choose the time; I didn’t want to get the tap on the shoulder that it was time to go. So I left probably a little bit earlier than what other people had expected. But that was purely along the advice that my father had always given me. We were number one in the T20 game, number one in the 50-over competition and had just regained the Ashes. So, I left the Australian team when it was number one in all the formats, and I thought that was a perfect way to allow the Meg Lannings, Ellyse Perrys and Alyssa Healys more opportunities in the playing 11 instead of sitting on the bench. I’m very happy with my decision, and I have never regretted it when I called it a day, so clearly those pieces of advice that my father gave certainly paid off.
Do you believe in destiny largely shaping our fate?
Absolutely – a hundred per cent, simply because my parents were actually looking for a baby boy to adopt. They were not even looking for a girl. It was almost like the last orphanage that they went to. And they had to go to a private home as well to actually see me. If it wasn’t for them making that extra journey, that extra mile to visit that extra home, I wouldn’t have been adopted by the family that I did travel around the world and settle down in Australia with. I could have been anywhere in the world or in India. So, I do believe that fate has a huge part in our destiny.