Felicity Wharton expertly steps out then marks her bowling run up with the focus and determination of her favourite player Ellyse Perry.
She flicks the ball twice – a trait performed before every bowl – then hunts in to deliver one of her right-arm pace balls.
But at 11, the Newcastle City player is not yet ready to pigeon-hole herself as just a bowler. She proves it by later taking the bat and is clearly thrilled to hit her first boundary of the season.
Her already well-honed technique and mannerisms with bat and ball are simply a sign of the times.
These days, young players are afforded luxuries the generations of girls before them could only dream about.
They are able to watch and mimic their role models and, more importantly, they can see a pathway to the elite level, if they choose to pursue it.
The professionalism, success and increased visibility of women’s cricket in Australia has accelerated the growth of the female game across the country. In Newcastle, junior girls’ participation numbers are exploding.
And, on Saturday, Wharton will be part of a milestone moment for female cricket in Newcastle when her Newcastle City Pink side take on the Valentine-Eleebana Vixens at Smith Park in Newcastle Junior Cricket Association under-12 division three.
It is the first time two all-girls’ teams have played each other in NJCA Saturday competition.
For Wharton it is “just another weekend of cricket” and another chance to play the game she loves.
“I like that you can play a bunch of different positions and you make a lot of friends playing,” she tells me, adding she hopes to one day play for the Sydney Sixers and Australia.
To celebrate the historic occasion on Saturday, two other matches featuring girls will be played at Smith Park. City will field a predominantly all-girls’ team against Hamilton-Wickham in an under-15 division two game and City will also play Valentine-Eleebana in the newly introduced stage one Sixers Girls League, a T20 competition for girls new to cricket or aged seven to 11.
Eight teams are playing in the stage one competition, which is one of two new eight-week all-girls’ leagues based on the T20 format that have been introduced in Newcastle this summer. A stage two NJCA Girls League is being played on Wednesday afternoons and is designed for girls who have played cricket previously or older girls new to the sport.
That is where I catch up with Wharton and some of her teammates. While several of them have been playing some form of cricket since they were five, many others are having their first game. All of them are enjoying it.
Leya Wilson, NJCA girls’ cricket officer, tells me a record number of girls are playing junior cricket in Newcastle.
In 2018, NJCA female junior registrations numbered 148 players and six all-girl teams. In 2019-20, there were 269 players and seven teams. This summer, 333 players have registered and there are 15 all-girls’ teams.
That includes girls from the Junior and Master Blaster programs, for kids aged five to 10 and aimed to provide basic skill development, through to girls in NJCA competition.
“At the junior cricket level, we’re trying to really promote that all-girls’ competition so it is on par with the boys,” Wilson says.
“We’ve only got stage one and two at the moment but as that grows we’ll hopefully move into stage three, which is a longer pitch and bigger fields.”
The evolution of the female game is not a smash ’em and bash ’em journey. It is one that needs to be played with a patient bat.
Tommy Anderson, who wears many hats in the female cricket arena including head coach of the Cricket NSW Newcastle Zone Academy, has been instrumental in helping grow the girls’ game.
He formed the first all-girls’ team in NJCA competition in 2013. The team played in under-11 division three and featured Wharton’s older sister Alyssa as well as Alison McGrath, who this year secured a Women’s National Cricket League contract with the ACT Meteors.
“You’ve really got to take it slow,” Anderson says. “What Cricket NSW are doing now is really good. They’re building from the base. We’re building from the base in Newcastle now and the critical mass is getting much larger and I think that will only help us step and step and step.”
But it is not just at junior level where the game is expanding. A social women’s league that started in Newcastle a few summers back has grown to also offer the five-week competition for any level of cricketer in Raymond Terrace, Scone, Singleton and Warners Bay.
Sharyn Beck is the clubs officer for the Greater Hunter area and organiser of the Sixers Social Women’s Cricket League.
“There’s definitely a clear pathway if girls want to progress in their cricket but, also, if they just want to stay local and play women’s cricket as they get older,” Beck said.
“They have a choice. They can play in the hard-ball competition of T20 or they can play social cricket, so that’s more casual with their friends or with their mums. It’s amazing how it’s just kept growing legs. Across the region it’s been incredible growth.”
Newcastle District Cricket Association introduced a women’s T20 league last summer. Four teams entered and NDCA hope eventually each district club will field a side.
Newcastle City T20 captain Kirsten Smith, who also skippers the Newcastle Blasters T20 women’s representative side and shares the captaincy for Northern Districts in NSW Women’s Premier Cricket, has been installed as NDCA women’s cricket ambassador to help grow the senior league.
The 21-year-old is also a development officer for Cricket NSW and is a zone academy coach. She developed her game in Scone as the only girl in boys’ competitions.
“The whole dynamic of female cricket has changed,” Smith said. “You’ve got your local Sixers girls league, an all-girls’ competition then an actual all-women’s competition in Newcastle. That was never available before. You just would never have got the numbers. So it’s great to see how far the women’s game has come that we can have those all-girl competitions and it’s definitely on the rise, especially in Newcastle.
“I think it’s amazing that we have those numbers now to make two full all-girls’ teams in a predominantly male-based sport. That never would have happened five years ago. Just watching girls at the academy, I can’t even explain it.
“They love encouraging each other in cricket. They’re just happy to be there and play a sport they love. Two teams is a great start but I think it’s only up from here.”
Paul Marjoribanks has watched the progression of the women’s game during his 12 seasons as NDCA chairman.
“The work being done at the local junior association is tremendous with women’s cricket and for a number of years they’ve been focused on the growth and it’s really starting to explode,” Marjoribanks said.
“It’s pleasing and in some ways I think Newcastle might well be ahead of the pack compared to other associations across the state.”