The Game Changers: An Oral History of Australia’s 1997 Women’s World Cup Winners

04 Mar 2020

Game Changers Article (1)

As the Women’s T20 World Cup reaches its conclusion, we look back at Australia’s 1997 World Cup Champions, a unique and brilliant group of players who blazed a trail for future generations, and helped reshape the women’s game.

It’s one of the enduring images of Australian women’s cricket: Eden Gardens, 29 December, 1997, the aftermath of the World Cup Final. At the centre of the frame, batting wunderkind Belinda Clark glides serenely around the boundary, a stump held towards the twilight sky of Calcutta, a victorious captain parading her brilliant squad past heaving stands. Some say 80,000 people are crammed into the ground. And more than any other victory by Australia’s national side, it is the one that catapults the game forward in an instant, and forever; within that World Champion line-up is a who’s who of the players, coaches, administrators and media figures who will later turn women’s cricket into a mainstream sport.

Before that future, there was the present: Clark’s side arrived in India determined not to experience its fate at the 1993 World Cup, when it failed to reach the final and sat glumly in the stands at Lord’s, watching arch-rival England lift the trophy. Between times, the overhaul of the side had been comprehensive: gone from the fold were the core group of champions of the previous generation, like Lyn Larsen, Denise Annetts, Belinda Haggett and Christina Matthews.

Australia’s 1997 squad would be a youthful one, containing only a handful of survivors from the ’93 campaign. Among them, skipper Clark was fiercely motivated that she wouldn’t be watching from the sidelines again come final day. Her squad would be coached by John Harmer, a biomechanics lecturer who, in a few short years, had set about re-shaping the national squad in his image, pushing women’s cricket into uncharted territory in the process. This is the story of that team.

Celebrate

PART I – I want the three fastest bowlers, the three best batters and the best wicket keeper in Australia and I’ll do the rest

Belinda Clark (captain): There were some changes made in the year after the World Cup loss in 1993. The team was evolving, and it probably wasn’t until 1995-ish that the team started to become a little more settled as part of that transition. We had a number of younger players in the 1997 squad who’d been to India previously on a youth tour. The senior players, or the middle-aged group, including myself, hadn’t been to India before. But the younger ones—Olivia Magno, Mel Jones, Julia Price, Karen Rolton—that crew had been on a youth tour in 1994, so they had some understanding of the conditions. Also, around that time the national league was starting, so there were a lot of things going on at that time that were about getting in more cricket, and preparing for 1997.

Karen Rolton (vice-captain): I remember coming into the squad when they’d made quite a few changes from the last World Cup, when they didn’t do so well. I’d played Under-23s for Australia after my first senior state tournament. It was something new for me, playing with people like Belinda Clark and Cathryn Fitzpatrick, Christina Matthews. I’d only been in the Australian system for a couple of years, but I’d been to India before. So, those of us who’d gone on that Under-23s tour were lucky. That had been my first trip overseas, and it was a real eye-opener, but it got those of us who went ready for it, if we were to make the team in 1997. We knew what the conditions would be like, and the crowds. And we’d also played against the full senior Indian team on that Under-23 tour.

Cathryn Fitzpatrick (opening bowler): There were a few things that came together, because there was a younger group of players coming through, but we had a change in the coaching structure as well.

Having replaced Peter Bakker following the 1993 campaign, Australian coach John Harmer immediately set about the work of re-booting the national team as a fit, attacking and mentally agile cricket side.

Fitzpatrick: It was a different feeling and a different direction with the new coach. John was a biomechanics lecturer. He brought certain things from a technical point of view. There was a big shift, I believe. I’m not saying the way John did it was better than Peter, it was just that John was a bit more technical, and our game plan also shifted.

Clark: John Harmer had a massive impact on that whole group of players. That was the other thing that really changed. As well as his biomechanics background, he had a strong background in education, teaching and coaching. All those things together meant he was very good with people, and a very good teacher, which meant he was not only teaching that group as players, but teaching people who’d go on to be coaches themselves, or commentators, or doing something in the game. A lot of that springs from the confidence he gave the group from a technical and strategy perspective.

Rolton: He always had different ways of preparing you—different training techniques. You were never bored, and always wanted to keep learning and get better. And he just kept teaching.

John Harmer (coach): I see being skilful has very important. The major reason is that skilful teams usually win. It doesn’t matter what sport you play. If you’ve got the most skilful set of players, you will win. That was my focus: to make the team as skilful as I could. When I went in, I said, ‘I want the three fastest bowlers in Australia and I’ll do the rest. I want the three best batters in Australia and I’ll do the rest. And I want the best wicket keeper. If you give me those players, I’ll develop the team around them. It’s no good giving me medium pace players with no sting, so to speak’. The approach had (previously) been: medium pace at the stumps, pull the pace off the ball, all this sort of thing. That wasn’t for me. After my first tour of New Zealand, I took them aside and said, ‘This is so boring, sitting here, watching you lot play. You’re scoring at 1.5 an over. That’s not cricket. Make runs, take wickets, make the play and do it with a smile on your face.’

Fitzpatrick: I actually think that back then, even though we were playing for Australia, our game sense needed some framework to build our games around. There was a little more accountability and structure within the game plan with John—stuff that we really responded to. He was also about: ‘How do we not only make the game more attractive, but how do we enjoy it more?’ We were playing 50-over cricket and scoring 150-180 runs. John’s game plan allowed us to execute our skills and have fun. You were picked for a reason, and he allowed you to explore those reasons and show off your skills. Let’s go at five or six an over, rather than settling for 150-180. It was a different mindset and a different feel in those groups. John was certainly very good for me. He wanted me to bowl quick and play my role. Previously I’d been worried about control, and always being nicked down to the third man boundary, but John wanted that.

Harmer: That’s exactly what I was after. Cathryn’s picked it in one: make yourself as good as you can be and don’t look backwards. For a team to be happy, the focus is around (1) How skilful you feel you are, and (2) How well the team is going and whether it’s winning. Once you’ve got a happy team, you don’t have to worry about peripheral things to create harmony. The players make their own harmony. Coaches are there, but you can only manage what you’ve got. I always thought that if the players were not singing in the bus, I had trouble. The ’97 team was a team that sang in the bus, and Belinda Clark led the way with her guitar. 

As well as the leadership of Clark, Harmer’s preparations for the 1997 team benefitted from the expertise of a star of Australia’s previous generation. Now WACA CEO, Christine Matthews was then running the national team and youth programs for Women’s Cricket Australia, managing the day-to-day preparations of the squad, its training camps, and working with Harmer on his masterplan. When Lyn Larsen had to pull out of her role as team manager for the ’97 trip due to a family illness, Matthews was the natural replacement. And between them, Harmer and Matthews devised inventive ways of physically and mentally testing the squad.

Fitzpatrick: There was a particular thing that John did before we went away that sticks with me. We met in Sydney before the World Cup and played some games against New Zealand. We came together as a team at that point, and one night we went out for dinner at an Indian restaurant. The whole team was dropped off at the restaurant on a bus. The bus dropped us off, we had dinner, and then the bus was to pick us up again. But it didn’t come. We’re standing around for about an hour waiting for this bus to arrive. Everyone is getting agitated and complaining, saying, ‘This is ridiculous, where is he?’.

But John had done that deliberately, and made the driver come an hour late. He pulled us together and said, ‘Listen girls, if we get to India and these sorts of things distract us, you’re going to be nowhere. These things are going to happen all the time.’  I think once we were over there, we didn’t sweat the small stuff. We didn’t need to. Plenty of crazy things happened, but I think we shrugged our shoulders and adapted. We embraced it rather than whingeing and making things more difficult. You just laugh about it later.

Clark: It was a good strategy, because we certainly did spend a lot of time waiting. John was very clever with the ways he tried to make sure that people were open-minded and adaptable.

Matthews: We did a lot of stuff like that leading up to the tournament. I remember we were training at the SCG indoor nets, and while the players were warming up we got rid of bits and pieces of their gear from their bags. Again, just to see how they’d react. We really thought about how we prepared the players. And once we were over there, things happened all the time. We were watching the opening ceremony in the stands, and sewerage started leaking out of the toilets into where we were sitting, which was hilarious.

Clark: Christina was our team manager. So, we had very good people around the group from a coaching perspective, from a physical performance and physio perspective, and we also worked with a psychologist beforehand. In some respects, we were probably ahead of where other teams were, and sometimes even where the men’s game was at that point.

Harmer: I hate to say it, but yes, that’s right. We were miles in front. I’d coached men’s teams, and they hated looking at themselves on video. With the women, we used to film every training session, and we’d analyse their film in a four-stage rotation, making improvements. They’d see themselves and then having a crack at re-doing it and improving their skills. Those women were highly skilful. One day at the SCG indoor nets we spent three hours just on cover drives. From a skill analysis point of view, and a game analysis point of view, we were probably leading the field. I think we were also one of the first teams analysing the players via computers.

Matthews: In a lot of ways they were in front of the men of that time. Because they didn’t have the physical strength of men, we had to really work on fitness on a way to bridge the gap and establish a point of difference. When you consider that everyone in that group was working full-time as well as training, their commitment to being the best they could be was unbelievable.

Rolton Fitz

Once in India, Australia would be confronted with an expanded tournament structure of 12 teams (which became 11 once newcomers Japan pulled out at the eleventh hour) and a chaotic fixture that took in 22 venues for 32 games. Worse, teams departed for India without so much as a tournament schedule.

Rolton: It was quite different because we were playing against so many teams we’d never played against before. I’d played quite a lot of my international cricket against New Zealand, so I hadn’t really experienced many other countries other than on youth tours. The whole atmosphere was something different, but it was an advantage that some of us had already been there.

Clark: We were just going about our business, and Christina and John had crafted a really good support team. So, when we got to the tournament, I remember it just being one big adventure. That was the theme that was underlying the whole thing. We were in a place many of us had never been before, it was cricket-mad, it was interesting, it was different, and it was an opportunity for us to do our best. But I did feel like I’d been to every city of India once it was done. We stayed in some great places, and we stayed in some places you probably wouldn’t want to stay in again.

Matthews: We had such good people on the trip in John Harmer, Jock Harry as team doctor, Meg McIntyre as physio and myself. It was a good off-field crew and a really great bunch of emerging players. We saw it as a really great opportunity to reset from where we’d been in 1993. It had been thought through really well as far as what we needed to make the journey as comfortable as possible.

But some really interesting things happened. There were great contrasts as far as the places we stayed, where we trained and played. A lot of the time the team luggage was on top of the buses. One time we pulled into a hotel surrounded by a lot of trees, and one of the trees pierced one of the bags and dragged it off the roof, spilling all the clothing out. It was Michelle Goszko, who was the youngest player on the team, and she was a bit ‘woe is me’ and that became a bit of a joke of the tour as her undies were spread all over this driveway.

Part II – That’s what you do all the training for, because it comes together without even thinking about it.