Jess Kerr: Accidental White Fern
Women’s cricket is full of stories of players battling external struggles to triumph – poverty, lack of facilities, indifferent boards, and society in general, and its inherent sexism.
People go looking for fables where cricketers were not allowed to play with the boys or where they pretended to be boys to get an opportunity to have a shot at the game. We have also heard of stories of seasoned athletes battling their bodies on their way to the podium.
What if the stage was set for you when you come from a cricketing family where sport is a part of everyday conversation? What if your battles were different, what if your body refused to co-operate even as you were learning to take baby steps in the sport you love? That was the story of Jess Kerr and the sport she loved was running.
The Kerrs have always been a household name in New Zealand cricket even before the arrival of the youngest of them all. Parents Robbie Kerr and Jo Murray played cricket for Wellington, and Jo’s dad, Bruce Murray, has 13 Test caps for New Zealand to his name. But it’s the young Amelia, who put the Kerrs back on the international cricketing map once again.
It’s the story we all know of; Amelia made her White Ferns debut when she was 16 and then went on to smash the record for the highest individual score in ODIs when she was 17 years and 243 days.
Cricket was always around Jess, the older of the Kerr sisters, and she played it from time to time only as a recreational activity. But her heart was always set on running and that’s where her entire focus was.
“I sort of almost didn’t have a choice at a young age, but I was also never forced to play as well, which I was quite grateful for when I was younger,” Jess told Women’s CricZone sometime before the World Cup. “I actually enjoyed athletics and running a lot more than playing cricket, I sort of just did cricket part-time almost to stay in the game. But running was my main passion.”
And running was all she wanted to do.
At the age of nine, Jess suffered from Bell’s palsy. Despite the seriousness of the disease, young Jess took it matter of factly for she could still play sport.
“When I first got Bell’s palsy, it didn’t affect me too much. I just put on an eye patch and sort of kept playing sport. But you know, I definitely, probably (had) more (trouble on) the mental side, having moments when half your face isn’t sort of working properly. But I always considered myself grateful that I could still play sport. And that was sort of my outlet, which I was grateful for,” Jess said.
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However, there were more misfortunes awaiting the talented kid from Tawa. When she was 13, Jess was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. She said that condition meant she had to be taken out of sport.
But Jess wasn’t among those who gave up easily.
“When I was 13 and was diagnosed with diabetes, that’s when I was taken out of sport for a little bit because I was about a week off from collapsing and needed to almost adjust to a whole new life.
“But again, they said that I can play sport again, and that was sort of my determination to get fit and healthy. And about six months later, I was back running.”
At the age of 16, another setback arrived in the form of compartmental syndrome and that cut short her running career despite her attempts to make a comeback.
And that was the end of her sporting ambitions, or so they thought.
January 27, 2020 – Eden Park Outer Oval in Auckland
White Ferns were in a huddle, the occasion was the second ODI between the hosts, New Zealand, and South Africa. Allrounder Amelia and skipper Sophie Devine were giving a speech before handing out an international cap to their team-mate from Wellington Blaze, 22-year-old Jess Kerr.
“My debut was really special; it was pre-COVID times, so I had all my family and friends there. And what I remember most from it is the speeches beforehand, with Melie (Amelia) and Sophie both presenting me with my cap, and being able to take my first wicket, it wasn’t my best performance, but being able to do that was really, really special,” Jess said.
It was really special indeed for someone whose sporting career was threatened by the age of 16, even before it started. But what went into the making of Jess Kerr – the cricketer? For that, we will have to rewind all the way to the start, to backyard cricket.
“I think because my parents didn’t force it on me, I never fully hated the game, which meant when I started a bit later on, you know, the love sort of came back and it was purely my decision,” Jess said, while talking about how it all started.
Tawa Intermediate – the school where Jess and Amelia studied – had a strong cricketing culture. Devine, the current New Zealand skipper, was also a product of Tawa College. While she was a star in athletics, Jess didn’t play much cricket, but with fate taking ‘running’ away from her, she did play cricket from time to time.
“I didn’t really play too much cricket growing up, but the school I went to, Tawa College; it was a strong cricketing school. I, sort of, played cricket every Thursday for the school team and I had a good performance for them one day.
“And then a week later, I was checking the Cricket Wellington website to see if my sister, Melie, had made the Blaze squad again. Then all of a sudden I saw my name on the wider squad and I got a bit of a fright, really, because I was just sort of playing cricket part-time.”
Wellington Blaze always have been a star-studded team and it was just the perfect environment Jess needed to have a shot at her second sporting career. They had many New Zealand internationals in their side – the likes of Devine, former wicketkeeper-batter Rachel Priest, and Liz Perry.
“Turns out I made the wider squad, and I think that was the real push I needed. I was then surrounded by, you know, real quality cricketers and was bowling to a lot of White Ferns. And again, my love for the game grew from that and I didn’t play that season, but it really motivated me to start playing for the Blaze,” Jess added.
“The following season I made the team and have done so since.”
Her prodigious sister – Amelia – was already making rapid progress, having made her international debut in 2016. The young leg-spinning allrounder was part of the New Zealand side in the 2017 World Cup. Jess and their family accompanied Amelia to England as spectators. The younger sister was the motivator she needed, Jess said.
“Probably the one real motivator and person who inspired me was my sister Melie and you know, she’s younger than me, but she sort of rose to the international stage and I got to watch her at the 2017 World Cup and seeing her in the Blaze, I’d be watching her in the weekends and that really inspired me to try and make that team. So having her in the team when I made it was awesome.
“The setup we’ve got at Cricket Wellington is really awesome and the goal is to push, you know, to try and get as many women or female athletes making the White Ferns and those top teams.”
“It was almost a little bit intimidating with all these superstars around you. [But] you know, you always need neat bowlers, so being able to constantly bowl at Sophie Devine, Rachel Priest, Liz Perry, who was a White Fern then. It was just really good quality and really made me narrow down on my skills. And yeah, I think it’s helped massively.”
And narrowing down her skill was what Jess did magnificently. The 24-year-old has the great ability to get the ball to swing and has a potent inswinger, and with time she has also developed other variations that are needed to survive in international cricket.
“When I first started, my strength was bowling swing. And at first I used to really not like it because I’d be bowling leg side wides constantly. But my dad always used to say ‘No, it’s really a good thing. Once you get control of that, it can be really threatening’. A lot of it was just finding the right line. So that I’m not bowling wides constantly and adjusting,” Jess added.
“Some pitches and conditions make you swing a bit more. But I guess just the more game experience that I get and having started cricket later, you know, I still sometimes consider myself new to cricket. And whether it’s a good or bad performance, I always like to go back and reflect on what I can do better and hopefully I can still improve a lot more. But yeah, it definitely has its challenges, but I’m very grateful that I am a mover of the ball.”
New Zealand haven’t had the greatest of campaigns in the ongoing home World Cup, and in all likelihood won’t be making it to the knockout stages of the event. Jess herself didn’t fare as well as she would have liked. While her economy rate (4.25) has been the best among all the New Zealand bowlers, she has picked up only five wickets from the six matches so far.
As a keen student of her art, Jess will continue to reflect on her game even as the world would get down to dissecting the performances of her and the White Ferns as a whole. But like many of her team-mates, she will be going back to her day job – that of a teacher in Tawa Intermediate, the very school where she started it all.
“I am probably a bit different to most other White Ferns on the team. I’m a full-time teacher at Tawa Intermediate. So, that keeps me pretty much busy from Monday to Friday. And I’m very grateful for my boss there who lets me go away for all the tours. And he’s a big supporter of cricket too. But yeah, I think that’s been really important for me. The past two years is having that balance as well outside of cricket as being able to go back to teaching,” Jess said.
International cricket is tough, when they evaluate how New Zealand fared, they won’t be talking about the haves and the have-nots that separate various teams. There won’t be a consideration made for Jess’s journey – she wouldn’t want it anyway. But away from the noise, she will always have her kids – who wouldn’t judge their teacher for what she did or what she didn’t on the field.
“I could have a bad day with cricket and the weekend, but I go back to school and my kids just, you know, like me for me and don’t really care about that side of things. And I also like being in a job where you’re helping people and hopefully making a difference.”