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Left-arm offspinner, FRAN JONAS

The youngest player at the 2022 Cricket World Cup

Left-arm offspinner, FRAN JONAS

May 25, 2022 People

Set against the high drama above Queenstown’s John Davies Oval, the Remarkables shimmering through the summer heat beyond, there was an element of farce to Fran Jonas’ first wicket for the White Ferns. The 17-year- old left-arm offspinner delivered a full toss so looping it flirted with the waist-high no-ball line — boundary-fodder to a batter of Harmanpreet Kaur’s quality. Yet the Indian veteran, taking a couple of steps down the pitch, swung across the line and merely clipped the ball to Melie Kerr fielding at short midwicket, who took the catch as she tumbled forward. Caught Kerr, bowled Jonas, whose sheepish grin, as her teammates converged around her to congratulate, recognised the good fortune in the details omitted from the scorecard.

Jonas had gone wicketless in her first two one-day internationals (ODIs) against England last year, so taking the wicket of “one of the most talented players in the world” was an important milestone for the young Aucklander. “It made me really excited to be a part of the group,” Jonas says. The White Ferns were then in the midst of a five-match series against India; when this magazine goes to print, they will have embarked on the World Cup being played around the country. New Zealand’s latest spin-bowling wunderkind may have the opportunity to bowl against not just one but all of the world’s most talented players.

Jonas — who hadn’t been born the last (and as-yet-only) time the White Ferns won the tournament, back in 2000 — has loved cricket since before she can remember why: her mum often tells the story of Jonas as a three-year-old, begging for more beach cricket. As a slightly older kid, Jonas followed her big brother into the game, first via the backyard, where idiosyncratic family rules held sway and games were scored on the family iPad, and then through the Cornwall Cricket Club. Later, as a year-seven student at Baradene College, Jonas, formerly a medium-pacer, found her true metier as a left-arm off- spinner after “messing around” at training. “It was a new challenge for me, and my coach and my dad just told me I should try sticking with it, so I did.” By the winter of 2019, she was intermittently training with the wider Auckland Hearts squad. When that summer rolled around, so did her elevation to premier club cricket: 12 wickets in her first four games convinced her she belonged at cricket’s upper levels.

That same season, at age 15, she first played senior representative cricket for the Auckland Hearts. For Hearts coach Nick White, “it was a pretty instant ‘there’s some- thing here’… The action was there, the ability was there, and you could see that at a young age, and factor into that the desire and the person — yeah, it’s no surprise what she is achieving.” White calls Jonas “a genuinely good person with a passion for the game, but also a real passion for left-arm spin”.

In that season with Auckland, that left arm played a major role in the final of the 2019/2020 Hallyburton Johnstone Shield, the domestic 50-over competition: Jonas took three wickets and effected a couple of runouts to ensure the Hearts’ total was never seriously threatened by the Northern Brave. The last of those runouts was the final action of the game, Jonas fielding the ball off her own bowling and firing it back to the keeper to bring an avalanche of teammates’ hugs down on her. She remembers the feeling: “Just pure joy, to be honest. Just to be able to win something like that and have all of the support and a great team around you that have been through a whole season together. To get to the final and win it, it was just really, really good vibes.”

At 16, Jonas was selected for a development contract with New Zealand Cricket, yet even two months before we spoke, she said, she had had little hope she would play a part in this World Cup — and a year ago, she “would’ve laughed” at the suggestion. So when White Ferns coach Bob Carter called to give her the good news, she was “really shocked… I wouldn’t say I was crying but I was definitely on the verge of it.” Her mum, when Jonas had left her bedroom in the family’s Mt Eden home to deliver the news, could show no such restraint. “She started crying a little bit — so yeah, it was a really special moment.”

The World Cup, when we spoke a few days after that first wicket, stood in the distance as something “definitely still really surreal”, to be played against cricketers she was then much more used to watching on TV than contemplating bowling to. “Being a young player and versing all of these hugely talented sides will be very nerve-racking for me… The girls have done it before but it will be a new experience for me. Being young puts pressure on me performance-wise because I want to do as well as I can.” The goal, she said, was to simply “try to stay calm [and remember] they are human as well”.

Her teammates believe the youngster will have no problem doing just that. Melie Kerr, who completed the catch that gave Jonas her first wicket — and who is herself a spin-bowling prodigy who first played for the White Ferns as a 16-year-old — says Jonas “knows what she does well and what she does best, and it’s just about doing that no matter what level you are playing at, and I think that’s kind of her mindset towards cricket. I think she’s a pretty calm character and she’ll back herself.” She notes, too, that Jonas’ inexperience means few opponents will know much about how she bowls — the subtle pace changes, the nagging accuracy around off stump — and that can only be “to her advantage”. White, too, backed her to rise to the occasion: “She’s got those qualities where almost the higher the level, the higher the contest, she steps up.”

The squad, Jonas said, was “fizzed up” about the prospect of a home World Cup in front. Big players — Kerr and Suzie Bates among them, both with centuries against India — had found form at the right time, and going into the competition, the White Ferns had as much right as anyone to believe they could challenge perennial favourites Australia for the title — just as they did in that unbearably tense final 22 years ago. Jonas, though, said she was merely content to “take it in and learn as much as I can along the way” — the prospect of being a World Cup winner at the end of the competition was too bright an idea to look at directly. “I don’t even know how to comprehend the thought of that kind of thing. Even to be at a home World Cup is, like, incredible, to have the Kiwi support behind us. The thought of winning — it would just be amazing.”

This column was published in Metro 434.
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