Holly trinity: How Ferling found her new beginning

When Holly Ferling made the long drive south from Brisbane to Canberra with her partner Josh last month, there were a few items she ensured had been placed in the back seat for safekeeping.

Among them was Ferling’s Baggy Green cap, still resplendent in its bottle-green newness after being worn in just three matches through the middle years of last decade.

Another was one of her Australia playing shirts, framed by her parents for her 21st birthday and which had been, until just days earlier, hanging proudly on display in Ferling’s living room.

“I wasn’t going to let them go with the removalists,” she tells cricket.com.au, “and I didn’t want them to get lost in a cardboard box somewhere.”

Twenty-one. It was only five years ago but in some ways that period in Ferling’s life feels more distant to her. And given she began her domestic career as a 16-year-old, it is also an age that marks the mid-point of the 26-year-old’s career to date. 

Then there is this to consider: in Australia’s 145-year international cricket history, only Ellyse Perry, Meg Lanning, Georgia Wareham and Craig McDermott have played more times for their country prior to that milestone birthday than Ferling, who appeared in 34 matches.

But also, more jarringly: among that group, she is the only one who hasn’t played afterward.

“If you look at my career, I feel like there’s lots of chapters,” she says. “The injury chapter, there’s the Australian chapter, in the last couple of years there’s the uninjured chapter… you’ve got the chapter of me working as well, which kind of runs simultaneously to some… and now I’m really excited for this next chapter.”

The next chapter. In lots of ways, it’s one that has been a decade in the making.

* * *

The weeks surrounding the move are emotional ones for Ferling. She says she has a reputation among those close to her for being “a sook”, and the tears do flow freely across an hour of conversation at the National Cricket Centre in Brisbane, but it’s clear they’re the product of passion rather than petulance.

In between packing boxes and organising deliveries and the various minutiae that comes with a relocation, Ferling has been trying to squeeze in as much time with friends and family as possible. It’s not goodbye forever, she reassures herself, but an interstate move is still a big deal, as much for the physical distance as for marking an end point to the most significant period of her life to date.

Of course, she has spent chunks of time away from home before: touring with Australia, playing WBBL with both the Melbourne clubs, and with her work in the media. But this is different. This is a pack-up-your-entire-life-for-the-foreseeable-future kind of shift. And that hasn’t happened since all this began.

She can still clearly remember parts of those rookie years with Queensland. As a 16-year-old going through grade 11 in her hometown of Kingaroy, some 220km north-west of Brisbane, she would hit the gym on her own at 6am from Monday-Friday – the same time she knew the Fire squad was doing the same.

“It was my way of feeling connected with them,” she remembers. “And I guess I felt like I needed to prove something, like I needed to impress when I went there, so I made it my mission to be as fit as I possibly could be, get to the front of the pack and show that this kid from the country deserved to be there.”

Ferling as a 16-year-old with the Fire in December 2012 // Getty
Ferling as a 16-year-old with the Fire in December 2012 // Getty

On Friday afternoons she and her mum, Robyn, would make the three-hour drive to Brisbane, and then Ferling would train on Saturdays and play on Sundays before doing the journey in reverse, ahead of school on Monday.

“And then when I got my P’s, Mum was like, ‘Off you go, I’m not going with you anymore’,” she smiles. “My first contract was 900 bucks and I was so excited. I was like, ‘This is amazing! I can get a new bat with this’.

“It’s only 10 years ago but it was a completely different era. You had (former Australia pace bowler) Kirsten Pike rolling in from the law firm that day, heels in one hand and cricket spikes in the other.

“(Former Australia captain) Jodie Fields just had an aura about her, and she demanded excellence of us, because she demanded that of herself.

“My first gym session with the team, we had to partner up and she was like, ‘Kid, you’re coming with me’. And as disciplined as she was, she was also really caring to take a kid like me under her wing.”

But Ferling was just a kid. The eldest daughter of a policeman and a schoolteacher, and proudly country. Each afternoon in Kingaroy, she would head up to the oval just 100 metres or so from home, and practice her bowling on the tattered synthetic centre wicket with her younger brother Lane. Her dad, Mark, would be there too, “to either sledge or coach, and it was game on every afternoon”.

That scenario felt a world away from life as a rookie member of the Queensland Fire, a wholly unfamiliar environment where, as Ferling detailed, excellence was simply a requirement. For her, it was a case of being introduced to the big, wide world before she even understood her own.

“I was really, really young,” she says, “and I didn’t really know who I was.”

Through their lens however, national selectors knew exactly who Ferling was. They liked her pace and the extra bounce she could generate from a good length given her height.

And so not four months after her first outing for Queensland, and not two months after her 17th birthday, she was making her ODI debut against Pakistan in the World Cup in India.

She took 2-10 in that match and by tournament’s end, she was a world champion. Among the Australians, only Megan Schutt had taken more than Ferling’s nine wickets, and the 17-year-old was promptly named as 12th in the official team of the tournament.

In August the same year, she dismissed England legends Sarah Taylor and Charlotte Edwards on her Test debut, and before her 18th birthday, she had turned out for Australia in all three formats.

Ferling would compete at the highest level for three more years, winning another World Cup (this time in the T20 format) while also becoming the face of the Brisbane Heat as the club’s first signing in the inaugural Women’s Big Bash League.

Ferling was Brisbane Heat's first WBBL signing // Getty
Ferling was Brisbane Heat’s first WBBL signing // Getty

But instead of feeling more comfortable with each passing international, a gradual realisation of the gravity of the position she found herself in had a negative impact on her mindset and, consequently, her performances.

“I think back, and I could have handled things a little bit differently,” she reflects. “I’m an emotional person, and I put so much pressure on myself to perform.

“I look at some of our young kids at Queensland, and I’m like, ‘Jeez, I was playing for Australia at their age’, and I have chats with them now about not putting too much pressure on themselves.

Ferling's most recent Test came in the 2015 Ashes // Getty
Ferling’s most recent Test came in the 2015 Ashes // Getty

“So I think I wasn’t ready for it. In one way, the naivety of everything, you’re always ready for it because you don’t know what to expect, but the longer that I was in it, the more pressure I put on myself, and that really hamstrung me.

“And I probably was forever chasing trying to play, as opposed to working out what was the best blueprint for Holly – like what actually makes me the best player? Not competing with someone else, or wanting to have a skill-set that someone else has.

“I think it was also I didn’t know what made me tick. I knew who Holly the athlete was, but I probably didn’t realise who Holly the person was.”

* * *

Ferling is too polite to say it pisses her off. She instead labels it “frustrating”, but her sentiments are plain in both her expression and delivery.

“Weirdly, in the last 18 months, I’ve had the ‘R word’ – retirement – thrown at me more times than I can think,” she says. “I’m like, ‘How many 26-year-olds are you actually asking if they’re done?'”

The question has come from different sectors: media, club cricket, high performance, to name a few.

“At first I took it as, ‘Oh shit, am I past it? Is that what people are saying?'” she continues. “But the more I’ve sat with it, and the more I’ve worked through it, the more I realised that working in the media, it’s very front and centre, and it’s also a career that a lot of former players go into – not players who have finished a journalism degree, and worked in a newsroom for three years.”

Ferling can be forgiven for citing her resume here because it would be convenient to assume – and plenty surely do – she has taken the fast lane into sports media for reasons that extend even beyond her considerable cricket achievements.

Such an assessment would be to diminish not only her credentials but her work ethic; Ferling completed a Bachelor of Mass Communication (with Distinction) while also juggling her cricket and journalism careers, with the latter encompassing radio, television, print and podcasting work.

Ferling has forged a successful media career alongside her cricket // Getty
Ferling has forged a successful media career alongside her cricket // Getty

She has always been wired this way, so much so that it took her a long time to realise that her drive and diligence were significant assets in her make-up. Instead she spent much of the first half of her twenties seeking that breakthrough moment of self-discovery, which ultimately came via a leadership course with Queensland Cricket.

“The one goal I had in this course was to find out what my core values were,” she says. “I think I had an idea, but I couldn’t articulate it.”

A couple of insightful exercises helped her zero in on what she had been chasing, and it boiled down to three words: love, impact, improvement.

“I feel like I’ve got some really stable values in myself now,” she says, before going on to list the Holly trinity. “I know that love is a massive part of who I am. And I love sharing love … I bake for my club cricket team every weekend, and for birthdays, and that’s just me.

“And a couple of things that do light me up are making people feel good, and then also having a greater purpose, and that’s ‘impact’.

“And then there was another question around what gives me the shits, and why? And the answer there was my injuries, because I’m going nowhere, and I feel like I can’t improve.”

That clarity helped Ferling become more comfortable within herself (“I realised that being kind isn’t ‘soft’, and you don’t have to be a certain mould of person to be a good athlete”), which in turn guided her towards the biggest leap of faith in her career.

After a WNCL season in which she earned the Players’ Player award in a particularly young Fire squad after being the competition’s most economical bowler (min 15 overs), she opted to exit her comfort zone and charge instead into the unknown.

When the ACT Meteors began their overtures prior to Ferling having played a match in last summer’s competition and off the back of a disappointing WBBL campaign with the Renegades, her curiosity was piqued. Their initial messaging was enough for her to hear them out, so she and Josh flew to Canberra at summer’s end.

“I sat down with (coach development manager) Mick Delaney and (head coach) Jono Dean, and I asked them why they’d reached out to me,” she says. “I knew I’d had a good season, but they were interested before that.

“Mick hit my three core values in one answer, which was something I didn’t share with them at the time, but that alignment, I immediately thought, Oh, there’s something here.

“They’re a team that’s built off empowering each other and having that love for each other, and they have a desire to make something pretty incredible at Cricket ACT over the next few years.

“I also think they’re a team that’s been building – they’ve beaten Queensland twice in the last two years – and while they’re definitely not as well-resourced as other states, I think as a kid from the country I know that you don’t need that; what you do need is good people around you.

“And that was something that really shone through for me every time I spoke to them; they’re a really small organisation, but the level of care they’ve got, and the desire for something bigger, is something that really resonated.”

For Ferling, the timing of the two-year offer was ideal for a couple of reasons. She felt her performances with the Fire last season, and the recognition from her teammates, marked a fine way to end to her decade-long association with her home state.

“I don’t know if ‘poetic’ is the right word,” she says, the tears welling again, “but I’m finished there now, and that’s how I go out, with the players’ player…”

Ferling finished her Fire career as players' player last summer // Getty
Ferling finished her Fire career as players’ player last summer // Getty

The award was more special to Ferling given she had been overlooked for the team’s first two games in Tasmania, just before Christmas.

It was that, coupled with her frustratingly wicket-less WBBL campaign and some subsequent words of wisdom from Renegades coach Simon Helmot, that prompted her to reassess how she was training.

“I had a shocking Big Bash and I’m willing to admit that, and then not getting picked for those games in Tassie, that absolutely shattered me,” says Ferling, who is off contract ahead of this year’s WBBL.

“‘Helmo’ had actually said to me something like, ‘Find something and someone that works, and can go back to that’, so I reconnected with my childhood coach, Scott Rowan, and bowled a lot of balls.

“All through that Christmas and New Year’s period, I made the four-and-a-half-hour round trip out to where he lives at Highfields, towards Toowoomba, and I just bowled and bowled and bowled, and went back to doing things I did as a kid. 

“I worked my butt off and really tried to come back with some sort of structure of how I wanted to do this, and then I just stuck to it.”

Last summer's was a disappointing WBBL campaign for the pace bowler // Getty
Last summer’s was a disappointing WBBL campaign for the pace bowler // Getty

Ferling had fallen into the trap of over-analysing archival vision to find the silver bullet to her problems, but soon enough she realised there was little point to the exercise: “I’m not the same person I was,” she explains. “I’m far stronger, my body’s completely different, I’m fitter.”

Instead she studied some numbers and zeroed in on dot-ball percentages being linked to her success. In real terms, that equated to patience in the heat of battle, and that notion complemented another snippet of advice she had received, this time from Fire assistant coach Scott Prestwidge.  

“Scotty got me to compete, which was really just a change in attitude, but it changed everything,” she says. “When you’re stuck on your action, or things aren’t going well, you start thinking about your own end of the wicket, as opposed to the batter.

“But at the end of the day, it doesn’t actually matter how it feels or what it looks like, your job is to get the batter out.

“That was the big shift that helped me get back in the contest.”

Which also meant the move to the ACT was well-timed because of the confidence Ferling has again instilled in herself. She is passionate about the idea of contributing more to a squad than simply her bowling, and the Meteors have already trumpeted her as “a wonderful leader and … a great mentor”, but she knows her place in an XI – like anyone’s – ultimately hinges on performance.

“I’m 26, I’ve got so many more years left, and I feel like there’s so much more I want to achieve,” she says. “But it’s actually working out what that is in line with those core values.

“With the ACT, everything just lines up, so the time is right to have a crack – it’s something I just couldn’t say no to.”

* * *

Ferling knows there are perceptions out there regarding her capabilities as a bowler that don’t quite align with hers. And sure, things might have been different had she not spent approximately half of seasons two to eight in her career sidelined by stress fractures in her back and myriad other problems, including serious elbow and pelvis injuries. Ironically though, it has been the life lessons acquired while navigating those tribulations that have allowed her to let go of the what ifs.

“My mum always told me everything happens for a reason, and I’m a big believer in that,” she says. “Each of my injuries, something good has come from it.

“Things that are meant for you never miss you, and that’s kind of been the story of my whole career to date.

“People might look at my career and say I’ve gone backwards because I played for Australia and now I’m ‘just’ a domestic player.

“But I feel like I’m far more fulfilled at the moment with all of the balls that I’ve got up in the air: I love helping my teammates; I love performing and doing my best and becoming the best athlete I can; I love working in the media and trying to juggle that between training in the morning, catching a flight to Melbourne, commentating that night and flying back and then training again. I love all of that.

“I think it’s a matter of perspective … and I don’t know if you would call me resilient, but I think I’ve been resourceful to find ways to make the most of every scenario that’s been thrown at me.

“And I’ve been very lucky with a lot of the cards that have been dealt to me – I’m very, very privileged – but I like to think I’ve tried to make the most out of every single one of those cards, good or bad.”

As she settles into her new life in Canberra, where the gas heating is proving a godsend amid a particularly cold start to winter, Ferling can point to an obvious difference between the country kid who walked into Queensland Cricket a decade ago, and the one who just walked out. It comes back to knowing herself.

“It’s just growing up, really,” she says. “I think there’s always clues along the way when you’re working through all of that.

“And then, through taking on different roles and finding different challenges and working out, ‘Why do I sink or swim in certain situations?’ or ‘Why do certain things annoy me?’ I think that’s when you work out who you are and what you’re about.

“I’m never just going to be a cricketer. I don’t have to be completely caught up on whether I bowled well or not that day, because I’ve got these other facets of my life.

“And I also know that I bring a whole lot more to the team than just what I do with the ball.”

And, a decade after arriving in the game, she knows a whole lot more than that.

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