For just under six hours, all Sarah Elliott needed to think about was the bat in her hand and the ball heading towards it.
An Australian playing against England for the Women’s Ashes trophy, Elliott’s central focus had always been cricket, but now things had changed.
It was August 2013 and Elliott had a nine-month-old baby to look after.
Now when she came off the pitch for a break, she would take herself off to a quiet part of the dressing room and breastfeed or express milk for her son, Sam.
At the age of 31, Elliott was the only mother in the squad – and was also making history as the first to tour with Australia.
“I sort of forgot – those poor young girls,” she says. “It was an education for them! They had no idea what expressing milk was, or anything to do with babies.
“The breast pump used to make a horrible noise, so I used to hide it under a towel but you could still hear this humming noise. I’d try to find a quieter place but sometimes, with just 20 minutes for tea, it wasn’t practical.”
Pregnancy does not mean the end of an athlete’s career. It never should have, but it often did. Now, in the context of calls for women’s sport to become fully professional across the board, many no longer have to give up their sport to raise a family.
For a sport that once infamously described women playing as “absurd, just like a man trying to knit” – thank you, Len Hutton – cricket has grasped the concept of maternity support better than others. A number of national boards now have pregnancy policies designed to encourage players to return, and that has helped women to see motherhood in a different light.
Take Megan Schutt. The Australia pace bowler is one of the best in the world: a tall right-armer who can find swing where no-one else can. She was a 20-year-old in the dressing room when Elliott was juggling playing and raising Sam.
“She’d just come off a century and bang, I turn around and she’s expressing,” laughs Schutt, now 28. “I was like: Oh crap! I was quite young, so I just saw a boob and started laughing, but I found such respect for her in that moment.
“I already had respect for her because I could see how tired she was on some days, and I knew Sammy was keeping her up all night. I thought: my God, what a woman.”
Schutt and her wife Jess discussed having children almost as soon as they were married. As a same-sex couple, their options were limited, and Schutt says she feared “not connecting with a child as much as the biological mother”.
Reciprocal IVF, where one partner donates eggs for fertilisation and the other receives the embryo(s), was the “ultimate solution” for them. That isn’t to say it was an easy process.
As an international cricketer, Schutt’s life can be ruled by training days and tour dates and a calendar that is only growing in its relentlessness. She and Jess first selected the sperm, which was ordered from the United States. Then, in January, on a spur of the moment, Schutt said: “Screw it – let’s get it started.”
On the second day of her next period, Schutt began injecting a hormone that stimulates egg production, once a night. She did this for four days, before upping it to twice-daily injections to stop any spontaneous ovulation.
“One needle is pretty easy and the other is not so pleasant, I’ll admit, and I thought I was pretty tough,” Schutt says.
“The second needle is a lot thicker and the liquid a lot more viscous, so you can feel it, basically, under the skin. That was a bit more of a mental barrier to get over.”
There were daily blood tests as doctors monitored how the eggs were maturing, and a final injection 36 hours before Schutt had an operation to remove them.
As somebody who likes to do her research, she watched videos of how the procedure is done. It was, she admits, not ideal preparation. The vaginal wall is pierced to remove each egg individually.
“I had 22 going in that I knew of, so I already knew in my head I was going to get stabbed 22 times,” she says. “I was like great, here we go…”
Schutt was given a general anaesthetic, and doctors told her they would write the number of eggs they retrieved on her hand, so she could see as soon as she woke up. When she came round, there was nothing on her right hand. On her left, it read 28.
“I was like: I’ve been stabbed at least 28 times,” she laughs. “Of the 28, there were 27 of quality – 27 is my favourite number, so that’s absolutely freakish – and they then inseminate them.
“After about five days, they rang up and told us they managed to get nine embryos, which is really good. Then they were frozen until the time to implant them into Jess.”
While Schutt expected she would have to rest after the surgery – not one of her strong suits, she says – she was not expecting to find recovery as difficult as she did.
“My ovaries were quite large and I was in quite a bit of discomfort,” she says.
“I would say it’s the same as the pain of period cramps, but without the cramps; a constant ache. After that, it was the strain of lifting things. I love doing stuff around the house, and we’d recently moved, but even moving boxes and stuff was like: My God, I really can’t do this.”
Her first training session back for South Australia was a high-speed running session.
“With every rep, I thought I was going to vomit at the end of it,” she says.
“I think I’d kickstarted that cramp feeling and after every single rep, I was on my haunches like: That’s it, this is the one, I’m going to throw up. Then I’d go back and slowly repeat the process.”
Bowling was easier, which surprised her, but she did not feel “100% fresh” until three weeks after the surgery.
In late May, Schutt announced she and Jess are expecting a baby girl – due in September.
If the pair decide to repeat the process for another child, Schutt plans to be the one who carries the baby, although she jokes: “I could watch Jess go through pregnancy and just decide: Nah, that’s not for me!”
While she would not want to have a child while playing for Australia, Schutt is open to having one while still playing state cricket, largely thanks to Cricket Australia’s pregnancy policy.
In Australia, players with state, national or Big Bash contracts who give birth or adopt are given up to 12 months of paid parental leave, and are guaranteed a contract extension for the following year.
New Zealand Cricket’s similar policy meant batter Amy Satterthwaite, who gave birth to daughter Grace in January 2020, kept her central contract while pregnant and received her full annual retainer.
Pakistan recently introduced their own guidelines that give players up to 12 months of paid maternity leave and offers a transfer to a non-playing role until their leave begins.
The England and Wales Cricket Board outlined their maternity policy when responding to a Daily Telegraph study in 2020. Female players are guaranteed their full salary for the first 13 weeks post-childbirth and 20 weeks at 90 per cent pay thereafter.
It is difficult to overstate how important these steps are; providing financial security and support both during pregnancy and after childbirth.
Dr Kirsty Elliott-Sale, associate professor at Nottingham Trent University, describes athletes who are mothers as “superstars” who must “learn to adapt to significant changes”.
While no experience is universal, Dr Elliott-Sale found that weight retention and overall changes in body shape can be “quite persistent”, and pelvic floor-related dysfunction can “often be a long-term issue”.
Elliott was back in the gym two weeks after having Sam. She played her first game when he was six weeks old.
“Any parent has that juggle between work and parenting and I think it’s different when you’re the primary caregiver, in the sense that you’re the one feeding,” she says.
“It’s a physical fatigue, with your body recovering. That is a real challenge.”
In 2014, after Elliott had her second son, Jake, she did consider retiring. But with the Big Bash about to hold its first women’s tournament – it has since grown into the premier women’s T20 competition – she was offered the position of captain at Melbourne Renegades.
“The first couple of training sessions of trying to get back were hard, especially the fitness ones,” she says.
“Those early runs, I was thinking: ‘What on Earth am I doing? Why am I out here at all?’ But once you get around the team environment and the games, it becomes a bit more manageable.”
Six months after Jake was born, Elliott was on the pitch as captain.
“For sure, I wasn’t as switched on,” she says.
“I was a bit tired and my focus was torn between more directions. That component of it was hard but I was really well supported by my team-mates, coaching staff and then my family and my husband Rob.”
Western Storm spinner Claire Nicholas is currently pregnant with her second child. A full-time teacher, she was well supported by her team when she began the IVF process.
This summer, she was set to play for Welsh Fire in The Hundred’s inaugural season. She has had to give up that contract, but the team have made it clear she is in their future plans.
“I’ve had to listen to my body a lot more,” she says. “I like to push myself but, when you’re growing another human, you have to know when to stop, and that’s taken some getting used to.”
All three women – Elliott, Schutt and Nicholas – have had different experiences, but they all agree that mothers returning to cricket are finally being better supported.
Nicholas points to the growing game across England and Wales. New contracts means more money, which means more financial support.
And Schutt admits that her own openness about IVF comes from wanting to help show younger team-mates that you can be a parent and a professional cricketer; that the support is there.
In a year like no other, the Big Bash took place entirely in Sydney in November 2020, with the players sharing a bio-secure bubble.
Satterthwaite and her wife, fellow New Zealand player Lea Tahuhu, were there, along with their baby daughter Grace. Schutt smiles as she remembers.
“It was beautiful to watch,” she says.
“They had a set of hands in every corner and there were people offering to help every two seconds. I know it brightened up a lot of the girls’ days. You would come back and you might have lost, or had a bad day, and you see little Gracie and that puts things into perspective.”
Elliott, too, found having Sam on the tour of England offered a different perspective. It stopped cricket consuming her.
Although she was tired – she was up four times in the night with him the day before batting in the Ashes Test – family were able to help and ultimately, Sam was there when his mum achieved one of the great Ashes centuries.
“Sam is eight and a half now and he doesn’t remember any of it,” Elliott says.
“But occasionally he might see a picture pop up or someone will tell him they saw a picture of him as a baby with his mum.
“I have a lot of fond memories – and he gets a bit of a buzz out of it too.”