Annabel Sutherland knows as well as anyone that outward displays of emotion have never come too easily to her father. And for 17 years as Cricket Australia’s chief executive, James Sutherland wisely thought it best to maintain plenty of reserve in his frequent public appearances to discuss the game and, more often than not, its various ills.
However, the news that Annabel had been chosen, to a degree from left field, for Australia’s T20 World Cup squad, brought a rush of happiness and realisation to James that had him shedding tears of joy, to an extent that even his wife Heidi had never witnessed before.
“They were actually playing golf at the time so mum eventually rang back after I’d called her a couple of times – you’re not exactly meant to have your phone on the golf course – but I broke the news and they were really, really excited for me,” Annabel Sutherland said. “We’re a pretty sporty family so we’re all really supportive of each other and want each other to do well. They were proud. Mum did tell me she reckons Dad had a bit of a tear, I’m not sure how much truth there is to that, but just really proud and excited for me.”
Speaking to ESPNcricinfo, James Sutherland’s recollection of last Friday’s revelation was not too dissimilar, as a somewhat terse exchange interrupting the tranquility of a morning round of golf quickly changed to something very different indeed.
“I can recall Heidi saying to Annabel ‘I’ve got to be quick because you’re not meant to speak on the golf course, this better be important’, and then Annabel told her and Heidi nearly dropped the phone,” he said. “Then she told me and it certainly stopped me in my tracks, let’s put it that way.
“When I became CEO she hadn’t even been born, Heidi was pregnant with Annabel in 2001 and we had that conversation about ‘we’re about to have our second child and how’s it going to be with the job’. So 17 years in the job and 18 years later she gets picked for Australia, so her life has been very much exposed to cricket through what I’ve been doing and the family’s involvement in the game, her two brothers both play and they’re incredibly supportive of each other.
“Over the years I’ve seen the pride that parents have for their kids going on to play for Australia, and it’s certainly a reality hit when it’s your own. We’re all still pinching ourselves, incredibly proud of her, and continually proud at the way she’s been able to step up and take her opportunities.”
There was more to this, of course, than the tears of a proud father for his daughter. More, perhaps, than even Annabel had known. For it was through her love of cricket and interest in playing it that James, as CA’s chief executive, was thrust down from the high vantage point of a leading administrator to the far humbler one of a parent trying to find opportunities for his child to play the game, when her older and younger brothers, Will and Tom, could do so far more readily.
“I felt I was a great proponent of the trial integration of CA with Women’s Cricket Australia and very supportive I felt of the women’s game, but I actually didn’t realise how difficult it is for girls to play the game until I had a daughter who loved the game and wanted to play it,” he said. “A place for them to play, an environment where they’re coached as individuals rather than just amongst a boys’ team.
“The better girls’ players of today have largely grown up in an environment where they had to be very courageous to play cricket, because they grew up in an environment where they were often playing in a boys’ team. That’s great, good on them, but it’s not an environment where you’re going to grow female participation in a really significant, exponential way.
“I did get my driver’s licence at the end of last year, which has given me a little bit more freedom. I think mum’s relieved, a few less hours in the car”
“We’re making inroads, but if you want to play in a girls’ team, where’s the nearest team? Oh, it’s over the other side of town, so you’ve got to be affirmative, but it should be easier, it should be the ground next door. My passion for growing cricket as a sport for women and girls is not about Annabel, but it’s through her and our experiences as a family to understand that I’ve seen barriers to entry are a lot higher than I thought they were.”
At the same time, Annabel found herself learning the game in the Sutherland family backyard alongside Will and Tom, honing all-round skills in large part because her elder brother enjoyed batting for as long as possible. “It’s always been me bowling more than I get a hit, because Will’s a bit of a backyard bully,” she said, laughing. “But that’s the role of an older brother, keep the younger siblings in check. We’re just super competitive and I remember bowling as fast and hard as I can because I just wanted a hit. It was probably the same for Will and Tom.”
The gift that Annabel’s love for cricket provided the wider game was a fully engaged CA chief executive when the time came for major participation drives, better pay and conditions for the women’s national team, and ultimately the professionalisation of the game in Australia, where all state and WBBL contracted players can earn a living wage to play.
“The opportunities within the pathway that have opened up over the last few years, she’s very fortunate to have come through at a time where that happened,” James Sutherland said. “People like Pat Howard will probably never get the credit he deserves for that, but he was absolute in trying to find ways for equal opportunity for girls in the game through that pathway and was ahead of his time in understanding how the professionalism of the game was going. But that also only takes you to a place that’s even more respectful of previous generations of women and how difficult it was for them – some are still part of the Australian team today who had it tough trying to do part-time, jobs, part-time study and manage it all.”
There is a slight irony here in that Annabel feels her own cricket has benefited from running parallel with her Year 12 studies in 2019, and university study of science at Melbourne University in 2020 and beyond. But the fact that she and so many others now have so many more options is a major reason for why Australia’s selectors have been blessed with such a raft of talent to choose from.
“I’m planning to do uni still, part-time,” Annabel said. “I find it really important to have something else, so I’ve had school for the last few years and I think I’ll continue to try to have something on the sidelines just ticking along that’ll go hand in hand with my cricket. I’d just be keen to keep ticking off subjects hopefully and get a couple done this semester.
“I did get my driver’s licence at the end of last year, which has given me a little bit more freedom. I think mum’s relieved, a few less hours in the car. And finishing Year 12 was exciting, I didn’t go on schoolies, but I heard the updates from a few of my friends – we had Big Bash through that period so it’s been a busy few months.”
Following sturdy WBBL displays, Annabel appeared to rise to another level in recent WNCL matches for Victoria, helping the selectors make what is, by the coach Matthew Mott’s admission, a calculated gamble. In this the team’s decision-makers are taking the sort of leap they once did by ushering the likes of Alyssa Healy, Meg Lanning and Ellyse Perry into the squad at a comparatively young age, but now with the knowledge that a fully professional system means the jump is nowhere near as dramatic.
“That’s something that certainly as a selection group we’ve spoken a lot about, if we’re asking the players to be fearless and take the game on, in our selection we’ve got to reflect that as well,” Mott said. “That’s where the Annabel Sutherland selection is, the stats don’t necessarily say that she’s blown the competition away, but it’s a selection where we see her being a part of this team for a very long time, it’s a great opportunity to get her in and amongst this group.”
And should Annabel find herself turning out for the national team in a tournament her father still has a hand in helming – he remains a part of the cup’s local organising committee – there may well be a few more of those tears of pride, now he has a little more latitude to shed them. “It’s a lot more enjoyable to be on the outskirts looking in,” he said. “It’s a good feeling on that front for all of us.”