Leah Poulton building a new innings for Australian cricket's future

TAKING A SWING: Leah Poulton is passing on her international experience to the next generation of female cricketers.
TAKING A SWING: Leah Poulton is passing on her international experience to the next generation of female cricketers.

AS an opening batter for Australia and NSW, Leah Poulton was renown for her free-flowing stroke play.

The Elermore Vale product blazed a trail for women’s cricket, not just in Newcastle, but throughout the country as she compiled an extensive list of achievements.

A 90-game Australian career that included two Tests, 48 One Day Internationals and 40 Twenty20 games.  

Ten straight 50-over titles with the NSW Breakers in a 105-game career that produced 2741 runs at an average of 30.12.

The first NSW woman to score a domestic Twenty20 century. A four-time winner of the Belinda Clark Medal for state player of the year. It makes compelling reading.

But Poulton’s post-playing career is having a greater influence on women’s cricket than she could ever have managed with her Gray-Nicolls.

A year ago Poulton, 34, was appointed the Cricket Australia high performance coach, trusted with overseeing the next crop of female players in the National Performance Squad. 

At the National Cricket Centre in the north-west Brisbane suburb of Albion, Poulton works alongside ex-international players Chris Rogers, Ryan Harris, Shelley Nitschke and Jodie Fields as well as a medical team that includes a sports psychologist, physiotherapist and strength and conditioning coach. 

In April Poulton coached the Australian under-19 women’s side’s first foreign tour in 15 years when they were victorious in a tri-series against South Africa and England in Pretoria. Poulton actually captained the last under-19 tour in 2003. 

Later this year she’ll lead the Australian A side on a tour of India.

The Wallsend junior’s ascension to the CA high performance post followed a two-year stint as Cricket NSW's female pathway programs manager after her retirement in 2015.

It also coincides with exponential growth for women’s cricket. The number of teams has exploded from 200 to more than 750 nationally in the past two years and the Women’s Big Bash League is gaining traction.

Australia host the ICC Twenty20 World Cup in 2020, so the search for the next Ellyse Perry, Alyssa Healy and Meg Lanning is on.

These factors have made Poulton’s knowledge and experience essential as she attempts to nurture a crop of talented young women into reliable professional athletes.   

“We’re in the people business,” Poulton says from National Cricket Centre. “Whenever I’m dealing with someone, it’s not just as a cricketer, but also as a person.

EXPERIENCED: Leah Poulton played 90 games for Australia and 105 for NSW.

EXPERIENCED: Leah Poulton played 90 games for Australia and 105 for NSW.

“If you can understand a little about who they are and what makes them tick, what their background is and establish a relationship with them as a person, you can really get the best out of them as a cricketer.

“That’s the reason why I love coaching, you get that day-to-day interaction with people, particularly in the pathway space. You get the opportunity to influence their life.”

Poulton is better equipped than your average ex-cricketer for the mentoring role.

During her 12-year state and international career she juggled playing commitments with university study and a stint as a school PE teacher.

“I honestly believe in terms of coaching, being a player is useful at the start to gain a bit of credibility, I suppose, as they see you potentially have an understanding of what they’re going through,” Poulton says.

“But actually the work I did in teaching, I use that far more today then I use my experience as an athlete.”

That’s because Poulton adopts the same teaching philosophy she once promoted in the classroom.

“The biggest thing I try to do in my job is to empower the player to make the right choices,” she says. “It’s not about me standing at the front telling them what to do, it’s about having a conversation and working through that process together.

“I guess it comes back to my philosophy to coaching is very similar to teaching. It’s giving them the tools to help them make their own choices and make that successful long-term, not just for a match or a series.”

Cricket’s greatest battles are often fought in the mind. While you require lightning reflexes to play a bouncer or snare a slips catch, there are often hours of contemplation in the pavilion where a cricketer is left to dwell on their mistakes and failings.

POSE: Leah Poulton and Rachael Haynes at the Allan Border Medal in February.

POSE: Leah Poulton and Rachael Haynes at the Allan Border Medal in February.

A solid batting technique can disintegrate through a dose of self-doubt.

Poulton began her ODI career in 2006 at Allan Border Field in Brisbane with a nine-ball duck against New Zealand after she was trapped leg before wicket.

It was a nightmare initiation for the then 22-year-old. However, two games later Poulton bounced back to score 101 off 136 balls to lead Australia to a five-run win and a 3-0 whitewash over the Kiwis.

“I wasn’t quite ready for it, to be honest,” Poulton recalls. “I was still quite young and developing as a batter. I probably didn’t have the skills for international cricket, and it sounds silly when I made a hundred a couple of days later, but just in terms of being able to deal with the occasion and control my nerves.”

By the time Poulton retired from the game aged 30 she had forged a career as a level-headed leader within Australian cricket.

“When I think back to my own experience, we try to give the girls through the pathway, not just the skills to bat, bowl and field, but we try to give them the mental skills to reproduce under pressure and to come back when things aren’t going well or maintain the high for longer,” Poulton says.

Unlike when Poulton signed her first NSW contract at 18 straight out of Wallsend, today female state cricketers can earn a decent living.

Last year the Australian Cricketers' Association negotiated an 80.2 per cent wage increase for international female players in their protracted pay dispute with Cricket Australia.

That saw the base rate rise from $40,000 to $72,076.

With wages and conditions greatly improving for women’s cricket, Poulton sees the marketing of the game as the next frontier.

Dual cricket and soccer international Ellyse Perry and Alyssa Healy, the niece of wicket-keeper legend Ian Healy and wife of men’s fast bowler Mitchell Starc, are the most recognisable names in women’s cricket. Poulton hopes more names become ingrained in the minds of the public.    

“When we talk about female cricketers, the ones who get talked about do something else really well,” she says. 

“I’d like to see the day when we look at a cricketer and think they’re a fantastic cricketer and that’s enough.”