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Oca 17

Bowling a Maiden Over

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Ass

This is my entry for the “In a Sunburned Country” writers’ challenge. This is the first time I have entered one of the contests, so I can only hope not to make a royal mess of it. The most Aussie thing I know is cricket, so it is the focal point of the story. For those not familiar with the sport (basically everyone not from a handful of former British colonies), don’t worry. I’ll be sure to keep technical details to a minimum.

Comments and votes are much appreciated. If you get to the end of the story, please share what you thought of it.

The Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) is an actual tournament, but the rest of the details are fictional. Any similarities to real life events and people are purely coincidental. The cricket match shown here is a slightly exaggerated version of what happens in an actual match. I’ve also had to move a few dates of real events around to fit together.

A huge vote of thanks to my editor, KatieTay, and my beta reader, Bramblethorn.

“And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me? “
? Percy Shelley

* *

“Wake up.”

An insistent shove did the job. Chantal rose bleary eyed and shook her head. Even in first class, she could barely get any sleep.

“Wake up, Chantal. You’re missing the awesome view outside.”

“I’m awake,” she declared, rubbing the last remnants of sleep from her eyes, and saw her personal coach standing over her.

“What time is it, Sumi?”

“Nine in the morning.”

“What?! That was a short flight.”

“Add three hours for the time difference,” said Sumi. “You might want to rewind your watch. Screw all that. Check out the view.”

Chantal pressed her face to the window and gaped. The bright blue waters stretched infinitely on one side and melded into the miniature view of Perth on the other. The sun shone down brightly on the water, occasionally showing a sailboat or a kayak.

“How long till we land?”

“Half an hour or so. We go straight to the hotel from the airport where you have a small interaction scheduled with the local press.”

“I want to meet the team Sumi,” she pouted. “Can’t the media wait?”

“Just a few smiles and some lines about how excited you are to be the first Indian to play in the Big Bash League should be enough for now. You’re a star, Chantal. Own it.”

“All right,” she said, brushing the tousled hair off her face. “Now I’d like to change into something I haven’t tossed and turned in for the last ten hours.”

“I’ll leave you to it,” said Sumi and closed the privacy curtain.

* *

“Sophie Blazic from Channel Nine,” said the smartly dressed reporter. “Welcome to Australia, Chantal. How’s it going so far?”

“Umm…” she looked around nervously, trying to come up with something to say about her flight and the trip to the hotel. “It’s exciting for sure. I love the view from my room.”

“Glad to hear that. Did you get your jersey number yet?”

“I’ll get it later today at the press conference.”

“Speaking of which,” interceded her coach hurriedly, “We need to get going. Please reserve the rest of your questions for the presser. Thank you.”

Sophie was decidedly keen on squeezing in some more questions, but Sumi wrenched Chantal out of there and into the elevator.

“Thanks, Sumi. I would have definitely said something embarrassing if she had kept going.”

“People sometimes forget that you’re just a teenage girl at the end of the day. Any eighteen year old would be flustered by that many questions from a reporter.”

They descended with several people glued to their smartphones. When the doors finally opened into the lobby, Sumi led her outside.

“Did you call my Dad?”

“He knows you’ve landed safe and sound. I believe Jesus may have been praised once.”

“Just once?” Chantal laughed. “That’s a record.”

The rented car drove them to the Western Australia Cricket Association stadium, better known as the WACA.

A few members from the team management greeted them and led them inside.

“There’s our new star.”

… and that was how it happened. Chantal turned her head and saw Ellie Cooper-Townsend in person for the first time. As if a switch had been flicked inside her, her knees turned to jelly and her jaw slackened.

Ellie was more than twice as old as her, yet looked in remarkable shape. The lithe, muscled form she had grown used to seeing on screen was hidden by her loose jersey. Her features were sharp, her cheekbones high and her grey eyes had a kindly twinkle in them. Her athletic form was topped by a mass of flaming red hair which was presently tied into a ponytail. The edge of a tribal tattoo was visible on the side of her neck.

She was tall, especially in comparison to Chantal’s diminutive stature. Before Chantal knew what was happening, she was swept up in a hug. For the briefest instance, she was close to her idol, in her arms, with their bodies barely separated by sports attire.

The moment did not last. Ellie free spin beamed down at her and brought her to the small team mixer they had organised in the next hall.

“Ladies, if I could have your attention please,” Ellie announced. “I’d like to introduce Chantal Ferreira. You may remember her from her the India-England bilateral series last month where she was the top scorer.”

“Delighted to meet you. Josh Spurlock, team owner,” said a well dressed elderly man shaking her hand. “Ellie told me I had to have you in the team for the Perth Scorchers to make a serious play for the title this season. It’s been too long since we won.”

It was all so new and overwhelming for Chantal.

“Check it out,” said the PR manager, who passed her the jersey she would be wearing. It was orange with the obligatory sponsor names all over the front. She took it in her arms and turned it around.

“Number Eleven,” she grinned. They had kept it the same as her national team kit.

A few reporters huddled around Chantal and Josh while they held the jersey out to them. FERREIRA 11 was officially unveiled and the picture of her holding the jersey would grace the sports pages of The West Australian and The Daily Telegraph the next morning.

“We start training tomorrow morning at seven sharp,” said the coach, Gus Hamilton. “With any luck, we might not lose our season opener against Sydney Sixers in two weeks time.”

For the remainder of the party, Chantal flitted uncomfortably between guests who were genuinely interested in talking to her, but to whom she had no idea what to say. Ellie fielded some of the questions and kept her close by.

* *

It was still dark out when Chantal reached the training nets with her kit bag slung over her shoulder. Despite her lack of sleep from the flight, sleep was the last thing on her mind. She had spent most of the night on the roof of her hotel admiring the view out to the bay.

Early morning was her zen zone. The world could descend into a zombie apocalypse, but Chantal would not be distracted from her practice. Be it studying for her tests in school or getting her forward defensive exactly right, she would make it a point to work on it when the world was dead.

Her brisk walk led her to the training nets where the lights were still on. She wondered how come no one had noticed it all night as she put down her bag, unzipped it and took out the bat she wanted to test out. It was heavier than her usual, but she wanted to see if she could get a good feel for it. A few air swings later, she made her way to the main pitch area to try it on the bowling machine.

Only the bowling machine was nowhere near the pitch. Instead, she was greeted with the sight of Ellie Cooper-Townsend sprinting in and hurling the ball from over her head. For a moment, Chantal chose to stand back and watch. Ellie slowly made her way back to the start of her run up. She gently bounced the ball upwards and caught it. Once more. Her eyes squinted as she sized up her imaginary opponent on the practice pitch.

Chantal was obscured by the darkness, but watched in rapt attention as she sprinted in. Each stride was graceful like that of a gazelle. Those steel grey eyes remained locked on her target. It was almost in slow motion to Chantal. On Ellie’s last step, her bowling arm made a graceful arc behind her back and over her shoulder and she bent her knee with effort.

The ball left her hand with the precision of a missile and crashed into the vacant stumps. She took a step back and admired the speed gun reading.

“Sixty-five miles an hour.”

Ellie looked around to see Chantal, who had just verbalized the readings off the LED screen. She smiled and grasped her knees as she came closer.

“That’s more than the speed limit on Rockingham Road, I’ll have you know,” Ellie grinned. “Cut me some slack, will you, kid? I’m thirty-seven now. Ten years back, I could clear seventy miles an hour every ball of a match.”

“I know,” said Chantal, having spent many days following her exploits on television and the internet. “Your bowling action is a thing of beauty. So smooth and elegant.”

“Why thank you,” Ellie said, patting her on the back. “What brings you to the nets at this godforsaken time?”

“The same thing as you, I suspect,” said Chantal. “The first training session is in a few hours, so I figured I’d get a head start.”

“That’s a heavy bat you’ve got with you.”

“It’s something my coach and I discussed before coming. The grounds here are way bigger than they are in India so I’ll need this if I want to clear the boundaries.”

“Aren’t you the planner?” smirked Ellie. “Let’s give it a go then.”

“Give it a go?”

“Come on, Chantal. Get yourself and your bat in front of the stumps.”

The sentence didn’t quite sink in immediately. Ellie watched with a bemused expression while Chantal did her best impression of a deer caught in the headlights.

“Did you suddenly forget why you’re here?”

“No,” said Chantal, snapping out of her trance. “You bonus veren siteler seriously want to bowl to me.”

“Yes… that’s how practice usually works.”

Chantal slung her bat over her shoulder and took slow strides towards the crease. Her eyes remained transfixed on Ellie jogging back to the start of her run up. She turned around and stared straight at Chantal.

“Ready?”

There was a half-hearted response. Chantal had taken her batting stance, but the rest of her was on autopilot. Mentally, she was still back in her bedroom watching a younger Ellie prepare to bowl on her television screen.

The sound of wood clattering broke the silence. Chantal looked down to see her stumps uprooted and lying behind her. Ellie looked at her from the other end of the pitch with confusion.

“What was that? You didn’t even try to hit it.”

“I’m sorry. I couldn’t see it against the lights.”

Ellie walked the length of the pitch over to the flustered batter and put an arm around her shoulder.

“You know you’re not doing me any favours by letting me bowl you out. You need to challenge me if I’m going to be any good this season.”

Chantal looked down like an admonished child.

“I want to bowl to the batter who scored a century last month in London. Can you do that for me?”

Wordlessly, Chantal made her way back to the crease and took her stance again. Once more, her gaze was arrested by the lithe figure of Ellie almost gliding in before she hurled the ball. Chantal kept her eyes on the ball till the last second and played a textbook perfect defensive stroke.

“Not bad,” smiled Ellie.

Hearing those two words brought a measure of relief to Chantal. She audibly sighed before looking up to see Ellie on her way back to the bowling run up.

The next five balls went by to the same forward defensive. Ellie walked up to her again.

“You do know the opposing batters will be playing other shots as well? Like attacking shots.”

“Right,” said Chantal, turning faintly crimson with embarrassment. She took her batting stance again.

The next several balls were evenly split. Ellie occasionally did get it past Chantal’s defences and even had a few edges. However, Chantal grew into the practice over time and unfurled some confident strokes in all directions.

“Time out,” said Ellie, gasping to catch her breath.

Chantal looked at her watch and was surprised how much time had passed.

“We’ve got some energy drinks and fruit pulp here,” said Ellie. “Any preferences?”

“Anything grape flavoured will do just fine.”

Ellie tossed her a purple bottle.

“I didn’t know you practice early as well,” Chantal said, putting her bat back in her kit.

“I’m retired, so I need the extra practice to get into the groove.”

Ellie took a can of Red Bull and sat down beside Chantal.

“Sorry about earlier,” she said. “When you let the ball go past you that easily, I thought you didn’t take me or my bowling seriously.”

“It’s okay. I was still a bit sleepy when I started.”

Definitely a better excuse than “I have a massive crush on you”.

“I was even afraid that I had put my neck on the line for you. The team management wanted an experienced player for the last overseas player slot, but I told them to pick you. I still remember the look Spurlock gave me when I told him to pick an eighteen year old who had made her debut a few months back.”

“You did that for me?”

“Yeah,” Ellie smiled and held her hand. “I see something in you and want to support it. Somebody did the same for me way back when and I’m just paying it forward.”

“I don’t even know what to say,” said Chantal, her face flushed now.

“Don’t say anything. Just do what you do best.”

“I’m going to kick ass for you, Ellie,” said Chantal, having never meant anything as much. “You’re not going to regret it.”

“Aww…” said Ellie, holding Chantal in a tight hug. “I didn’t mean for you to get all emotional here.”

They stayed like that for a few minutes. The world felt right and yet off its axis when Chantal’s head was in Ellie’s arms. Nothing could go wrong as long as she stayed right there with Ellie brushing her fingers through her scalp.

Maybe she wants to kiss the top of my head?

“Right,” said Ellie disentangling herself. “Let’s get back to practice. The rest of the team and Gus will be showing up soon.”

Or not.

Chantal hid the bitter chagrin within her as she tucked the bat under her arm and made her way back to the wickets. Ellie walked back to the start of her run up and charged in again.

The day had just broken with half the sky smeared with a red hue. The sounds of birds and the beginnings of traffic floated through the air. They could make out early joggers as silhouettes beyond the grilled fence.

By the time Gus, Sumi and the rest of the team showed up, night had finally ceded to a cloudless, blue sky. The sun beat down, making the two women sweat as they continued to hone their skills.

“Looks deneme bonusu veren siteler like some of us got a head start,” said Gus, leading the rest of the team.

“Training super early is Chantal’s thing,” Sumi chimed in. “I don’t think she’s ever missed daybreak.”

Ellie took a break while the rest of the team took their positions in the nets. Chantal also took a few practice deliveries from her team mates before vacating the net for someone else. Sumi sidled up to her and handed her a phone.

“Your mother’s been trying to talk to you for a while.”

“About what?”

“I don’t know, but she sounds like it’s urgent.”

Confused, Chantal gave her a call. A few rings went by before her mother picked up.

“Chantal! Are you all right? Is everyone treating you well?”

“Yeah… I’m fine, like I told you last evening.”

“I need to talk to you,” the voice on the phone lowered to a whisper. “Is anyone nearby?”

“No,” said Chantal, growing more mystified by the second. “What’s wrong, Mom?”

“I googled your team, the Perth Scorchers, today. I was planning to mention it at the sermon and ask the congregation to pray for you. Do you know what I found?”

“What?”

“Your captain, Ellie Cooper-Townsend… is-“

It was almost painful for Chantal’s Mom to finish the sentence. She finally took a deep breath and started again.

“She’s gay.”

“Yeah, I know,” replied Chantal blithely. “It’s not like she hides it or anything.”

“How can you be so blasé about it? You’re going to be training with that woman, playing with her, spending time in hotels. Aren’t you worried she will try to… you know-“

“Try to…?”

“Don’t make me say it, Chantal. You know what I mean. I didn’t send my good Christian daughter to Australia to be corrupted by a gay woman.” The last two words in that sentence seemed to take considerable effort and the tone was similar to mentioning a hideous disease.

“Mom,” interjected Chantal. “She’s married. Happily married. She’s been with her partner longer than some of the marriages Dad has officiated. Why do you think she would try something with me?”

“You don’t know them, Chantal. Keep your guard up and let me or Sumi know the second she tries something. I’ll call the Indian Embassy so fast she won’t know what hit her.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Chantal, rolling her eyes. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have practice to get back to. Or are you afraid she might make that move on me in front of the coach and the whole team?”

“Chantal Grace Ann Ferreira, you do not take that tone with your mother. We raised you better than that. You had better hope your father does not read the same thing I read on the internet. He will have an apoplectic fit.”

“If he does, he does,” she spat into the phone sardonically.

She paused, realising she didn’t mean for her tone to get that snippy.

“I’m sorry, Mom, but I really need to get back to the practice. Don’t worry, if Ellie ever tries to feel me up, you’ll be my first call.”

She swiped her phone shut and angrily handed it back to Sumi.

“That woman drives me up a wall. I swear she makes me want to bash my head in with my bat. I just can’t even-“

“What was it?”

“Never mind,” she huffed before walking away.

It was ridiculous. Absolutely mental that her mother would think Ellie would try to seduce her.

It was only slightly less mental than how much Chantal wanted that to happen.

* *

Practice sessions turned into practice matches. Ellie and Chantal were almost joined at the hip over the next week or so. Ellie had taken Chantal as her protégé. There was a lot more to being a world-class batter than just good hand-eye coordination and a wide range of shots.

Ellie helped her with advice on her fitness. She even shared some pointers on staying in peak condition for matches.

Where Chantal needed the most help was interaction with the media. The relative anonymity of women’s cricket in India was almost a blessing in disguise. She got hopelessly flustered when her Aunt Ida asked her about her upcoming tours. A reporter with a microphone was a nightmare. The notion of a press conference filled her with unholy dread.

Ellie was on hand to show her the ropes, tell her when to say something and most importantly, when not to. Very few kids her age had to deal with the attention the cricket-loving public of Australia showered on Chantal and Ellie was determined to help her navigate these uncharted waters.

They grew closer over walks by the bay and talking about strategies for the season.

“My parents will be watching. You had better believe my Dad will be cheering on every run I score and throwing the remote across the room when I get out.”

What started out as training partners blossomed into a genuine friendship. Despite one being in the twilight of her career and one being an immensely talented tyro, they shared an equal camaraderie.

The more Chantal basked in the glow of her new found friendship, the more she hoped her earlier feelings for Ellie would dissipate. She was young and still finding out about herself as a person and her sexuality. This could merely be a conflation of her admiration of Ellie was a cricketer and her friendship — a passing phase which she would eventually outgrow.

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