HomeCricketWebb sees sunshine through pain of 'heartbreaking' loss

Webb sees sunshine through pain of ‘heartbreaking’ loss

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It’s almost a week since her team surrendered the seemingly unlosable grand final, and Courtney Webb is back at Adelaide Oval.

Despite her freshly bestowed status as the Women’s National Cricket League’s premier player, Webb rarely raises a second glance from the late-morning café throng as she sits solo at a table, clad in a surf company sweatshirt atop training shorts and hunched over a voluminous textbook.

With cyan highlighter in hand, and sipping coffee without shifting her focus, she fastidiously underscores passages in the 950-page sports law tome which carries almost equal stature to her compact 163cm.

Anyone aware of the previous Saturday evening’s events – when the South Australia Scorpions began the final over of the rain-addled final needing four runs for a rare title, only to end it as a viral internet meme – might grasp the lazy metaphor; that SA’s star batter is still searching for answers.

The reality is far more prosaic.

Webb is seizing every available moment following a relentless schedule of WNCL and WBBL commitments to get stuck into the equally daunting full-time study workload of her fourth-year commerce-law double degree.

But as conversation inevitably drifts to the preceding weekend, and the Scorpions’ second consecutive grand final loss to her former team in the most harrowing of circumstances, Webb concedes hitting the books also offers respite from some haunting flashbacks.

“It’s hard even talking about that final … it was so heartbreaking,” she says, her eyes betraying emotion that carefully chosen words can’t quite cover.

“That game is going to hurt a lot of us for a long time, knowing we probably lost the unlosable.

Webb’s maiden WNCL ton drives Scorpions to victory

“It’s something we need to move on from pretty quickly, … umm, it shouldn’t have happened.

“I find it’s a bit unforgiveable for me, to have lost that one.

“Hopefully we can bounce back.

“We’ve got a really young squad, so it’s really exciting times for us … but that one’s going to sting for a while.”

Webb’s palpable pain is compounded by her Tasmania pedigree, with the bruising reality she might now be a dual WNCL champion rather than a two-times runner-up had she opted to stay put.

Growing up in Launceston, she played cricket and Australian football in the constant company of her near neighbour and closer friend Emma Manix-Geeves, who has been integral to Tasmania’s success over the past two summers.

Webb’s first coach when she won selection in junior teams as a teenager was Sasha Moloney, also now the owner of two WNCL winners’ medallions earned across consecutive seasons.

Wonderful Webb hits second straight century

When she was 13, Webb spent a year living on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast where her accountant father (Andrew) took a job as chief financial officer with a fitness firm, but his teenage daughter was so hellbent on making the under-15 team in the state of her birth she commuted to Hobart for trials.

“I played one and half seasons on the Sunshine Coast, but still made mum (Carolyn) and dad fly me down for Tassie try-outs because I only wanted to play for Tassie,” Webb laughs.

Even bigger decisions loomed as she neared the end of secondary schooling.

Evolution of professional women’s sports meant talented teenagers faced options among greater opportunities and, upon completing Year 12 in 2017, Webb exercised hers by signing as a rookie draftee with Carlton in the nascent AFLW.

Webb believed she could continue playing both sports at a high level, but a will to compete internationally meant she leaned consciously towards cricket and when her Carlton contract wasn’t renewed for the 2019 AFLW season, the road ahead became single carriageway.

In truth, that decision came a year earlier when Webb was named vice-captain for the 50-over component of Australia women’s under-19 tour to South Africa, in a squad featuring future internationals Annabel Sutherland, Georgia Wareham, Stella Campbell, Hannah Darlington and Tayla Vlaeminck.

While that trip further stoked Webb’s already smouldering ambition to represent her country, it also catalysed more profound change via her introduction to Luke Williams who was assistant coach in South Africa in addition to his involvement with South Australia.

It was a wish to continue working with Williams that led Webb to take the hardest decision of her life and quit the team for whom she had gained senior selection (with the then Tasmanian Roar) aged 18, and relocate to Adelaide in 2020 on the lure of a top four batting berth with the Scorpions.

“He’s the best coach you could ask for in terms of a female program,” Webb says of Williams, the three-time Bradman Medallist as pre-eminent player in SA’s Premier Cricket men’s competition.

“His understanding of emotions and emotional intelligence, as well as cricket knowledge and support he provides is unbelievable.

“The best decision I’ve ever made, hands down, is to come and play for South Australia.

“I absolutely love the group, I love the coaches, I love representing South Australia just as much as I did when I was playing for Tassie.”

Employing the prudence she shows in shot selection when batting, Webb chooses words with care when pushed for further details on her rationale for making the shift.

Villani, Manix-Geeves guide Tigers to maiden title

She repeatedly reaffirms her admiration for the program that’s lifted Tasmania’s women’s outfit from bottom or second-bottom of the ladder in nine of its first 11 WNCL campaigns to the only team other than perennial powerhouse New South Wales to claim successive crowns.

But it was the expectation she placed on herself to achieve as Tasmania transformed that Webb felt acted more as a handbrake than an accelerator.

“The Tassie program … was very well structured and very performance-driven,” Webb says, her answer punctuated by thoughtful pauses.

“It’s a very professional training program and the resources they have down there now are second to none.

“It’s quite remarkable from the days when they were the Roar and I first started, to now – it’s no wonder they’ve been so successful the last couple of years.

“But as a young player, I did feel a lot of pressure and I probably put a lot of pressure on myself in that environment.

“Here, I don’t put that pressure on myself.

Webb on the attack during her 83 (107) in the WNCL final // Getty

“I don’t know if that’s come with experience, or with just feeling more confident in the player I am but I feel a lot more comfortable here.

“Luke (Williams) took that pressure off me and gave me a lot of freedom to bat higher in the order at four which is a spot that really suits me and suits my game, and since being at SA I’ve had freedom to explore my game more and learn a lot as an individual.

“I was batting at seven or eight for Tassie and almost playing as a bowling allrounder whereas I’ve always seen myself as a genuine bat who can bowl if needed.

“To come here and get that opportunity, it’s all I could have hoped for.”

Not that her need to keep improving, nor her capacity to self-critique was diminished upon crossing Bass Strait.

Despite ending the 2021-22 season as WNCL’s leading runs scorer (367 at 45.87), Webb devoted her off-season to eradicating weaknesses in her game that she believed prevented her from scoring to all parts of the ground.

Enlisting the help of former South Africa men’s captain and self-decreed ‘sweepologist’ Johan Botha, Webb undertook an exhaustive, at times obsessive regime to expand her T20 and 50-over games, and sate her quest for perfection.

Johan Botha played 70 BBL matches and captained South Africa in both ODIs and T20Is // Getty
Johan Botha played 70 BBL matches and captained South Africa in both ODIs and T20Is // Getty

“I was doing a lot of work against spin, really working on my sweep shot and trying to access squarer,” she says, her hands flexing instinctively as if on a bat grip.

“I feel I’m quite good off the front foot when driving, I feel comfortable doing that but trying to expand my game behind the wicket as well.

“You see the likes of Beth Mooney who’s a true 360-degree player, they’re just so hard to bowl to and she’s so consistent because she’s able to find gaps everywhere and her strengths are literally all around the ground.

“So looking at a player like that, I was trying to take some inspiration to expand my game that way.

“But getting it to gel together was a bit trickier than I thought because I probably neglected my strengths, which is my driving and my footwork against spin.”

Instead of picking up where she’d finished the preceding summer, Webb struggled for rhythm in the Scorpions first few games this season and found the going equally tough in 20-over cricket as her Melbourne Renegades won just two of their first 12 matches of WBBL|08.

Having worked so much in broadening her batting during the winter, frustration mounted until her habit of scrutinising footage of each innings unearthed a glaring flaw and unlocked the rest of the summer.

Courtney Webb puts her hand up for catch of the tournament!

“I’d hit so many balls trying to figure out how to get back to playing my game, as well as adding in some other elements but then I saw some footage and my entire grip had changed,” she says.

“The placement of my hands on the bat had changed from sweeping so much.

“I had completely closed off, and that’s why I was struggling to drive.

“It took watching a couple of games to figure that out, but just seeing that footage I thought to myself ‘that’s so ugly’ and knew I had to change it straight away.

“It was restricting a lot of the areas I could hit to.”

So she returned to the practice nets and stripped her technique back to first principles.

Despite being in the midst of a hectic WBBL schedule, she hit balls tossed underarm and regularly stopped to examine the placement of her hands on the bat to reduce the risk of sliding back into bad habits under the pressure of match play.

She didn’t quite reach Steve Smith’s level of perplexity whereby he took to drawing an ink outline of his preferred grip on bat handles in a bid to “find his hands”, but she ruefully concedes she came close.

“It was strange,” Webb says.

“I’m quite meticulous in how I train, so for that to slip past me and for me to not notice, I was actually quite shocked.”

The remedial work began to take effect towards the end of WBBL, but it was after she scored 54 from 60 balls in the Scorpions super-over win over Western Australia at Perth in early January – one of five games in the WNCL season where SA prevailed in the final over or beyond – when the moving parts locked together.

Three games later, Webb crested a mountain by scoring an unbeaten 101 (off 103 balls) against NSW immediately followed by the second century of her senior career, 110 not out (105 balls) from the bowling of titleholders and competition benchmark, Tasmania.

With the Scorpions needing wins from both their final round of matches against Queensland Fire in Adelaide, Webb’s 74 and 27 led them to a second consecutive grand final and clinched her success as SA’s first WNCL Player of the Year since Karen Rolton’s five awards between 2001 and 2006.

“I was very surprised to win it, but it’s pretty cool upon reflection,” Webb says of the honour she learned of when Williams announced it to the Scorpions playing group before boarding their grand final flight to Hobart.

“I feel like some of the Tassie girls probably deserve that award as well, but they might have taken some votes off one another.”

The previous year’s nine-wicket thumping at the hands of Tasmania wasn’t addressed prior to the play-off, apart from the self-evident need for early wickets given Elyse Villani (111no) and Manix-Geeves (104no) put the Scorpions to sword with an unbroken 205-run second-wicket stand.

Webb also paid little mind to her individual accolade, focusing on match preparation knowing her parents were again making the 200km journey from Launceston to watch their only child in action, along with her grandfather (Michael Webb) who lives a further 75km away on the island’s north coast at Port Sorell.

History threatened to repeat when Villani cruised to another century and Tasmania seemed unassailable at 3-244 in the 46th over but, as heavy clouds closed in and SA’s hopes seemed as bleak as the sky, the Scorpions snared 7-20 and needed 265 for redemption.

Their pursuit was initially delayed by rain and then stymied by early stumbles, with Webb heading to the middle in the sixth over with the luminous scoreboard starkly flashing 2-19.

Then, in the gathering damp that twice forced players from the field, she and opener Emma de Broughe (receiving constant treatment for a broken toe suffered weeks earlier) not only dragged SA back into the game, they overtook the ever-moving Duckworth-Lewis-Stern target.

De Broughe’s dismissal in mizzling rain was followed by another 10 minute break, by which time the Scorpions had slipped two runs behind the DLS spreadsheet that was proving harder to get a grip on than the waterlogged ball.

“A run chase in a final when you need five and half an over is difficult enough, but when you’ve got Duckworth-Lewis to battle through as well it was pretty crazy,” Webb recalls.

“We tried to keep it as simple as possible.

“We knew we couldn’t afford to lose wickets because of the impact they have on Duckworth-Lewis, but then the game was progressing quite well and we played a lot more overs than we expected to given the amount of rain that was about.

“It started getting to the stage where Duckworth-Lewis wasn’t necessarily playing as big a part as we thought it would.”

The run rate required breached nine per over when Sarah Coyte somehow clawed hold of a return catch belted at her by Webb, whose 83 from 107 balls shone in the gloom.

But her departure left Annie O’Neil and skipper Jemma Barsby needing to find 80 runs from 52 deliveries.

“I thought I’d lost the game for us as soon as I got out, as most people do in those circumstances,” Webb says.

“I remember it was getting more and more difficult to start again each time we went back out after a rain break, so I was worried that I hadn’t finished the job.

“But then to watch from the sidelines as we grabbed the momentum back, with Annie and Jemma hitting a few boundaries to really get us back in the contest there was suddenly a lot more optimism on the sidelines.”

The over after Webb’s dismissal yielded 21 as Barsby clubbed three successive boundaries from off-spinner Molly Strano, and when O’Neil found two more off Nicola Carey an over later the final was back in the balance with SA 5-220 needing 45 from 36 balls.

That was when umpires decided rain had become too heavy to continue, with the Scorpions having edged ahead of the Duckworth-Lewis-Stern requirement by five runs and thereby assured of the title if no further play was possible.

But the weather eased, the game resumed with three overs lost and the target revised to 243.

Eight runs off Coyte’s first over after the break followed by a couple of Barsby boundaries off Amy Smith meant four runs were needed from the final over, with the two set batters still at the crease.

Asked how vivid was her recall of the scarcely credible denouement that followed, Webb’s instinctive response is part forced laughter, part gag reflex.

Insane final over: SA lose five wickets in epic choke

“I remember it too clearly,” she says, drawing a deep breath.

“There was still a few fielders out, so there was definitely options to hit sweepers and force the non-striker to run two.

“We could have done that and got there in two balls, but there’s a lot of what-ifs about that last over – could have done this, could have done that.

“I’m not sure what the conversations were out in the middle, but the girls had already hit a few boundaries and Annie’s game is hitting boundaries, that’s her strength.

“So I think we’d back Annie to play that shot and try to finish it with one hit.

“But up against Sarah Coyte, who’s obviously a world-class bowler and has been for a decade now, it was always going to be an interesting last over.

“When that first wicket fell, then the nerves started to sweep through the girls on the sidelines and ….”

Webb’s voice trails away, her eyes flick skywards as the procession of wickets – five of them, compressed into a single over of rain-bespattered slapstick mayhem – plays out yet again in her mind.

Witnessing her batting partner succumb to the first ball of the final over, Barsby got to the striker’s end a delivery later and grasped responsibility to end it with a single captain’s blow, only to be stumped.

Still it required just one strike over or through the field that closed in more menacingly than Hobart’s faux summer, and 19-year-old Ella Wilson – who had nervelessly carved the decisive boundary against Queensland in her second WNCL game a week prior – looked to have done it again.

But Coyte’s reflexes prevailed, and while it might be forever debated if her action to intercept a firm straight drive was meant to deflect the ball on to the bowler’s end stumps with Amanda-Jade Wellington stranded down the pitch, it will forever remain the game’s quixotically defining moment.

“Both the straights (mid-on and mid-off) were up for that shot, and to get a run out like that always carries an element of luck,” Webb says.

“So things went their way, and they didn’t go our way.

“It’s pretty heartbreaking to talk about still, but 10 times out of 10 you’d back us to get four runs off the last over.

“We haven’t spoken about it.

“We haven’t reflected on the game yet.

“We’ve got meetings coming up (this) week, we’ve had a week off after a pretty long season so I’m sure it will be discussed then and plenty of questions will be asked about how we can improve, and to make sure in high-pressure situations like that we win those games.

“We did that all year, it just didn’t happen for us that day.

“We won a lot of close games, some games that we perhaps shouldn’t have won and then we lost a really close grand final that we’ll think about for a very long time.

“We’re all asking ourselves a lot of questions on how we could have been better individually.

“I know I’ve been asking myself how I could have been that little bit better, and made it that little bit easier in the back end of the innings and I’m sure a lot of the girls are going to be feeling the pain of that for quite a while.”

The hurt runs deeper than the harsh reality of two grand finals slipping away in as many attempts.

Sarah Coyte celebrates taking a caught and bowled to remove the dangerous Webb in the final // Getty
Sarah Coyte celebrates taking a caught and bowled to remove the dangerous Webb in the final // Getty

A tight-knit group whose bond is forged stronger by so many players in the early stages of their careers, the Scorpions were rocked when O’Neil’s 61-year-old father, John, died in January.

They also had to deal with the mid-season loss of their assistant coach Jude Coleman who had been pivotal part in their run to last year’s grand final, but left to take the head coach role with Tasmania which meant their arch-rivals became privy to SA’s planning and strategies.

The immediate aftermath of the grand final that became legend around the globe saw numbness and dazed disbelief in the Scorpions’ rooms, as the Tasmanians danced deliriously in the drizzle.

A cake prepared for leg-spinner Anesu Mushangwe, who turned 27 on the day of the final in which she captured 4-38 before being the final wicket to fall, sat untouched on a table.

The flight back to Adelaide next day was sombrely silent, and the team gathered at de Broughe’s home that evening although the mood continued to hang lower than glowering cloud above the Derwent.

But while the circumstances of last month’s loss might potentially create the depths of scarring that can fracture groups, Webb is firmly of the view the experiences she and her SA teammates have endured over the past year will galvanise rather than gut them.

“I think what we’ve got here in SA is the most exciting program in the country and I can’t wait to see what we do over the next few years,” Webb says.

“We’ve got such a young group, our opening bowlers in the grand final were 19 (Wilson) and 20 (Kate Peterson) years old, and five of our top six batters are 24 years or younger.

“We’re all really good friends because there’s a lot of us around similar ages and we just have a lot of fun.

“And I think the opportunity to have played in two finals already is really exciting.

“You learn a lot from losing games, and we’re only going to be better for it.

“This Association means a lot to me, and to lose grand finals to another team I’ve played for previously was pretty tough but I believe South Australian cricket is in pretty good shape for the next few years.”

Even though former Carlton captain Lauren Arnell is now coaching Port Adelaide in the AFLW and recently invited her ex-teammate for a tour of the club’s training facilities, Webb has no intention of returning to football.

Rather, she will continue working at her game in the quiet hope the Australia cap she’s coveted since childhood comes a little closer with some veteran incumbents of that all-conquering group in the autumn of their fabled careers.

And she’s toying with the idea of instigating a study group among Scorpion teammates who, like her, shift their focus to tertiary education when cricket enters off-season.

But before she formalises any immediate plans, Webb has one last item of unfinished batting business to tick off with her local Premier Cricket team, Glenelg.

“I’ve got club cricket for the next couple of Sundays, then a one-day final series that hopefully Glenelg will make so I’ll keep training until the end of the month,” she says, her smile returning.

“Glenelg have reached three grand finals (T20 and 50-over) in the past year, and lost them all.

“In fact, I’ve only ever been part of one senior premiership, with Clarence (in Tasmania in 2019-20, when no grand final was played due to COVID-19 restrictions).

“So I’m thinking I must be due.”

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