Whanganui White Fern Jess Watkin speaks to Zaryd Wilson about about a cricketing journey which has taken her from the backyard to the international stage.

The cricket scorecard at the Watkin household in the mid-2000s must have been boring reading.

Watkin bowls to Watkin, over and over again.

"We had the perfect backyard, so we had a little cricket pitch and stuff."

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Jess Watkin is home in Whanganui after a successful debut White Ferns tour which earned her a New Zealand Cricket contract and kick-started what could be a long international career.

It's a goal she's had for a decade and one which others may have held for her for longer.

Mentor and Cricket Wanganui's Dilan Raj remembers first noticing Watkin playing at Springvale Park as a young child.

"It wasn't so much in the way she struck the ball or bowled," Raj says. "Just the way she played. For me I think character is more important than talent and she had that."

Watkin would have been about 10 at the time, growing up around backyard cricket on an old tennis court at her family's Westmere property.

"My brother's friends would come over and play and I'd always be like, 'Can I play, can I play?' and they were like, 'No, no'," she says.

"So I used to sit in the paddock next door and score for them, score their backyard games.

"But I knew I could play it because I used to play with dad to the side. He'd give me throw-downs, so I knew I could do it. But my brother just wouldn't let me."

On the May and June Northern Hemisphere tour Watkin played six one-day internationals and three T20s, starring in the tour opener with 77 not out, the highest score by a White Fern on debut.

Her 142-run partnership with captain Suzie Bates was a New Zealand record.

Whanganui cricketer Jess Watkin impressed enough on her first White Ferns tour to earn a New Zealand Cricket contract. Photo/ Getty Images
Whanganui cricketer Jess Watkin impressed enough on her first White Ferns tour to earn a New Zealand Cricket contract. Photo/ Getty Images

It's pretty obvious now her brother, Kane, and his mates eventually did let her join in those backyard games.

"One time they finally let me bowl and I bowled one of them out so after that they were like, 'Nah, she can play'.

"My brother and I would be out playing all night, we used to get a spotlight out to play at night time.

"We used to have a trophy for backyard cricket between us and we used to play test matches."

Kane was a handy cricketer who went on to represent Wanganui so the sibling rivalry was strong.

"He used to pad me up and bowl bouncers at me and I used to get hit all the time. With a hard ball… I had to duck and everything," Watkin says.

"I just loved it. I'd cry and he'd be like, 'Suck it up, get back out there'. So many times I used to go in crying but then I'd go back out.

"I look back now and anything that comes at my head I can hit it. If anyone bowls me a bouncer it's one of the strong points of my game, I can pull it."

The Westmere backyard soon became Springvale Park.

Watkin joined school teams - playing with boys because there weren't girls teams - and getting free coaching from Raj.

"I never played girls cricket until I was at secondary school, so I had no idea, and even then I still played men's cricket."

Springvale Park became Victoria Park when she began playing premier men's club cricket as a young teenager.

By now she had been identified by Central Districts, had made age group women's sides, and was working with Raj who does coaching for the association.

Watkin grew up on a diet of backyard cricket with her brother Kane. Photo/ Bevan Conley
Watkin grew up on a diet of backyard cricket with her brother Kane. Photo/ Bevan Conley

Watkin was a fan too and would travel to White Ferns games when she could.

Sophie Devine, now a team-mate in the national side, was her hero.

"She was the first one I really looked up to."

Victoria Park soon became bigger venues like Lincoln in Christchurch when she was named in the Central Districts Hinds (senior women's team) as a 15-year-old.

"They were all there and I was like 'Wow," These are the people I look up to and stuff and they all just in this room.

"I was just watching them play and I was like, 'Man, they're so good'.

"My very first season I got Sophie Devine out a couple I times. I was almost like her bunny type of thing."

While her heroes are now peers she also shares a spot in the national side with others she's come through the grades with.

Players like Amelia Kerr and Hannah Rowe, who she played in an under 11 boys team with and who presented her with her White Ferns cap on debut.

"It was such a real cool moment because we'd grown up playing together and then we were in the Hinds together."

Watkin always wanted to make the White Ferns while at Whanganui High School but she just missed out. But not by much.

In December last year, Watkin smashed a double century as captain of the Central Districts under-21 side and White Ferns coach Haidee Tiffen got on the phone.

"She told me I was so close, I just had to make an improvement."

Watkin needed to work on her fitness so she got "stuck in" working with personal trainer Ebony Kerr.

"I knew that I had to make a change and I always put it off but I got to the point where I just had to do it," she says.

"It's bad but I always thought like, talent, it's always there and they'll pick me if I'm still performing. And I always worked on [fitness] but never as much as I did in the last six months.

"Now I've got what I want."

Jess Watkin batting for the Central Hinds against Wellington on her home pitch at Victoria Park in 2016. The bowler, Amelia Kerr, is now Watkin's White Fern's team mate.
Jess Watkin batting for the Central Hinds against Wellington on her home pitch at Victoria Park in 2016. The bowler, Amelia Kerr, is now Watkin's White Fern's team mate.

Every professional athlete has a story about when they found out they had made a national side - a phone call in the supermarket, hearing it on the news.

"I was walking to the gym, I'd just been training with Dilan," Watkin says.

"It was so crazy ... I was so speechless. I was like, 'Are you serious'?" [Tiffen] was like, 'This is one of my favourite phone calls I've had to make'."

That was just a fortnight before she turned 20 and a few weeks later she made her debut in that record-breaking T20 against Ireland.

"I was so nervous but when I got out there and faced my first couple of balls I was fine."

White Ferns coach Tiffen says more important than Watkin showing "huge talent at a young age" is that she performs.

"She performed at the age group level and with the Central Hinds. It's hard to notice those types of things.

"She opened the bowling (against England) and that's no easy feat for a young player against the No 1-ranked team."

And what Raj picked up at Springvale Park a decade ago, Tiffen noticed on the White Ferns tour.

"For people that watched the games, I think what they saw was she always had a smile on her face. You can see there's a young player who's enjoying it. She's fitting in really well."

As well as scoring runs, Watkin took six one-day international wickets on the tour of England and Ireland, cementing her place as an allrounder.
As well as scoring runs, Watkin took six one-day international wickets on the tour of England and Ireland, cementing her place as an allrounder.

Well enough to seal a White Ferns contract.

"She's a player that we want to invest in over the next 12 months and we want her to have the opportunity to spend some time training and focus on her cricket," Tiffen says.

"Women's cricket is going from strength to strength. We've got three world cups in the next two and a half years. That's exciting for a young players coming into the women's game.

"It's really in her hands. I know that she's come back absolutely motivated and wants to improve her game."

Watkin says it's an exciting time for women's cricket with more games being televised, professional leagues starting up and more money making it possible for more female players to earn a living.

This year some White Ferns matches will be held as double-headers alongside Black Caps games.

Lincoln might soon become Eden Park.

"It's pretty exciting. Having that home World Cup (in 2021) is also going to help us because it's going to grow the game a bit more.

"We flew business class and stuff and things like that just make a huge difference. I thought we were hard done by, and we are compared to the men, but it's still a really cool experience.

"There's always room for improvement and it will. It's come such a long way."

Watkin has spent some of her time back home speaking at high schools.

"I really want to grow the game here and get some girls playing because there's so many opportunities for them," she says.

While home Watkin has taken the time to speak to Whanganui high schools about her rise to international cricket. Photo/ Bevan Conley
While home Watkin has taken the time to speak to Whanganui high schools about her rise to international cricket. Photo/ Bevan Conley

"People think coming from Whanganui, it's like you can't go anywhere like that, but I've reached the top and I'm from Whanganui and I've done it all myself and with Dilan.

"I just want to show girls there is an opportunity for them to be able to play for New Zealand out of Whanganui."

And for now, she plans to stay.

"I've got everything that I want here. I've got Dilan and I've got access to the cricket facility at Collegiate.

"Family's always important to me and I've got them here. It doesn't mean I'm going to stay here for the rest of my life but I'm happy here at the moment."

Raj looks back to that moment at Springvale Park when he "realised there was something special" and can see how she's got to this point.

"If she got beaten by a ball there weren't any tears. She just carried on. You really only had to show or tell her things once."

But young talent never guarantees success, Raj says, and it's taken "a lot of hard work and a lot of tears along the way".

"At that age you just don't know. What you do see is someone who could succeed to whatever level that is."

Watkin knows what level she wants to get to.

"I spend my whole summer just travelling around and playing cricket and now it's my job. I get paid to just play cricket, pretty much, so it's a dream come true really.

"I want to eventually be one of the best cricketers in the world."