Home » Spun out: How Jess Jonassen found clarity in chaos | cricket.com.au

Spun out: How Jess Jonassen found clarity in chaos | cricket.com.au

Jess Jonassen was alone in her Delhi hotel room, thousands of kilometres from her support system, as the hits just kept coming.

The final week of February had been rough. On the Saturday, she had sat helplessly (and 100 per cent fit and healthily) as Queensland Fire – the team she has been part of since 2008, and the one she captains whenever available – were beaten by Tasmania in the WNCL final.

There had been dialogue between Queensland Cricket and Women’s Premier League franchise Delhi Capitals about potentially delaying the departures from Australia of Jonassen and Laura Harris (who was in the same boat) to allow them to play the 50-over decider.

Ultimately, those conversations were as unproductive as the outcome was unsurprising. For Jonassen, who had missed the Fire’s lone WNCL triumph in 2021 owing to national duties, it was a brutal overlap. Later that same Saturday, salt was rubbed into wounds as the two Australians sat on the bench for the Capitals’ opening match.

By that point in a long summer, the double blow was for Jonassen simply a case of more of the same. Since being dropped from the national T20 side at the start of the previous October, she had played a lone Test match, mixing drinks for her Australia teammates in 16 white-ball matches against West Indies, India and South Africa.

Jonassen spent much of the Australian summer on the bench // Getty

Three days later came the hammer. The national selection panel announced the squad for Australia’s white-ball tour of Bangladesh. For the first time since January 2012 – barring injuries – Jonassen was omitted.

“One hundred per cent (I was angry),” she tells cricket.com.au. “Because I just couldn’t get my head around any form of justification as to why.”

The emotions and thoughts bounced back and forth like a ping-pong ball inside her brain. Jonassen is, by her own admission, an over-thinker. She jokes she should be singlehandedly paying the national women’s team psych, Peter Clarke, his salary. And so, stuck inside four foreign walls, feeling lost and isolated in the moment, and detached from the only reality she had known as an adult, she began to analyse where things might have gone wrong.

She couldn’t find the answer she sought in her performances. Nor could she see any validity in the selectors’ explanations, because, she explains, “I still had that belief; I was like, ‘I can still play a role and have an impact, but you’re just not giving me an opportunity'”.

All of the thoughts went nowhere, until finally they landed in a spot that, deep down, she had feared it might.

“I seriously contemplated walking away,” she says.

* * *

The work Jess Jonassen has done in recent years away from the cricket pitch – specifically regarding her mental well-being and self-development – has given her a window into her own mind, and the way it operates.

And so she knows her response to losing her place in the Australia set-up – and the contemplation of giving up what had once been her dream – is more layered than it might have first appeared.

On October 2 last year, Australia lost the seemingly unlosable match to West Indies at North Sydney Oval. Windies captain Hayley Matthews blazed 132 from 64 balls to push her side to the brink of that victory, dismissed with seven balls remaining and nine runs needed in pursuit of a record target of 213.

Jonassen had borne the brunt of Matthews’ onslaught more than anyone, going for 34 from her two overs. That she then dismissed her mattered little in the wash-up, as the visitors stormed to a stunning upset win.

Three days later, for Australia’s next match – and on her home ground of Allan Border Field in Brisbane – Jonassen was dropped. As in the Delhi hotel room, the selectors’ axe sent her mind spinning.

This time, it went backwards, three years into the past. Then, Jonassen was 27, and ranked first and fifth respectively on the ICC’s WODI and WT20I bowler lists.

She was also side by side for the last time with Delissa Kimmince, who was playing her farewell international series in those final days of September 2020. On the many tours since, Jonassen has at times felt isolated inside a national squad that has gone through a period of considerable flux.

Right now, she feels “on the outer”.

Jonassen and Kimmince were close allies on many Australian tours // Getty

And so when she reflects on the thought she couldn’t escape in those days after being omitted from the Bangladesh tour – about walking away from international cricket – she sees it not as a snap reaction, but as the result of “a combination of experiences I’ve had, I guess over a number of years”.

“This is all stuff I have said to people in the squad, or (coaching staff and selectors) as well,” she prefaces. “I’ve had quite open conversations with them (regarding) that feeling of wanting to be valued.

“Something that ‘Midge’ (Alyssa Healy) has brought in (as captain), is that element of being better connected as a group, and that element of genuine connection.

“But it’s hard, because I only sort of show fractions of myself in this environment, because I guess it’s easier. I’m not necessarily the most outgoing person. I keep to myself a fair bit.

“For a lot of us older players, there’s been so much change.

“I think, for me, it probably stems back to when ‘DK’ (Kimmince) retired. She was my person. She was my best mate on tours. I had that person that I just always hung out with … we’d been part of underage stuff since I was 15.

“Grace (Harris) is that to an extent (now) – we lean on each other at different times – but outside of that, it’s easy for me to feel alone.”

* * *

Jonassen was first picked for Australia in January 2012, not three months after her 19th birthday. In the hundreds of thousands of overs since, no female spinner has taken more wickets in international white-ball cricket.

In that first year, the teen from Rockhampton took 3-25 in Australia’s four-run win in the World Cup final. Eighteen months later – still just 21 – she became the only cricketer in history to open both the batting and bowling in a World Cup semi-final and final as Australia collected themselves yet another title.

Over Jonassen’s journey, the trophies and the wickets and the reputation as one of the finest death bowlers the women’s game have all coalesced, to the point that the 31-year-old is seen as an undisputed great of the game.

Yet even the greats have their foibles.

Jonassen went into last summer’s home games against West Indies with nagging doubts about her abilities. Experience told her they were there, that such thoughts were themselves a concern. But even now, she can’t quite put her finger on their origin.

“I look back to what my mindset was leading into that series, and I wasn’t in a good place,” she says. “I wasn’t confident with my bowling. I wasn’t feeling the way that I wanted to about my game. I guess I was just second guessing whether I was still capable of doing it.”

When Jonassen was dropped for the final match of that T20I series against West Indies, there was a sense it might have been a one-off – blowback from Matthews’ onslaught, and the defeat it had inflicted.

Three days later however, with a switch to ODIs and against the same opposition, Jonassen was again omitted. Leg-spinner Georgia Wareham and off-spinner Ashleigh Gardner were deemed sufficient slow-bowling options on a pace-friendly AB Field pitch.

Then came the kicker for Jonassen. As the series moved to a wet track at Junction Oval in Melbourne, the selectors opted to include an extra spinner. Yet again however, her name went unlisted. Instead, a second leg-spinner in Alana King, was chosen.

In 11 ODIs since, that trio has been a constant, while Gardner and Wareham have been on the team sheet for all nine T20Is. Meanwhile, Jonassen has been crying out for another chance.

“Leading into the India series first and then South Africa post, I felt like the ball was coming out really well,” she says. “I felt in a really good place. I’d had a really good WBBL, I was one of the leading wicket-takers again, and all of a sudden, I’m not getting any opportunity.

“Probably any normal human being that experienced what I did would have had a bit of a shot to the confidence, and I guess the ego, in a way.

“I felt like I hadn’t really done anything wrong. I felt like I was doing all the right things, I’d done everything that was asked, and I still wasn’t getting that opportunity.

“And statistically, for what I’ve been able to produce for the team over a long period of time – and I’ve said this to Shell (Nitschke, head coach) – it felt like it didn’t really count for anything.

“I was like, ‘Well, I can do it – just let me prove that I can’.”

History – even recent history – suggests Jonassen is right. Arguably the only statistical sticking point in the 12 months up to her axing is the left-armer’s runs per over in T20Is, which stands at 8.32 – around a run higher than Australia’s other regular spinners (Gardner, King, Wareham). Take out the mauling from Matthews and that number drops to 7.59 – still roughly 0.6 runs per over higher than the other three.

Yet in the same window, Jonassen is second only to Gardner in other standard measures (wickets, strike-rate, average) among that foursome, in both limited-overs formats.

“It’s so weird,” she says, “because I partially feel like a scorned lover (laughs) in a way: it’s not you – it’s me. It’s hard when you don’t really feel like you’ve done anything wrong.”

* * *

Jonassen had visualised the slow, turning Dhaka pitches as her way back into the national side, and pinned her hopes to that outcome. Tears well up as she reflects. She pauses for a few seconds, and collects herself.

“I saw that Bangladesh series as a perfect opportunity to get an opportunity, which people got,” she says. “I’d been busting my ass. ‘Flegs’ (national selection chair Shawn Flegler) saw that, Shell saw that – all the coaches and everyone saw it. And I guess they could probably see a bit of the mental toll it was taking on me.

“I’ve probably worked the hardest I’ve ever worked in my career over this last little while, and also on myself. And it’s the first time I actually find myself out of the squad.”

In the press conference accompanying the squad announcement, Australia captain Alyssa Healy said she believed Jonassen would “absolutely love” the challenge of having to “prove herself, and almost force her way back into the side”.

It could easily have been construed as a consolatory line from the skipper, an on-script offering of encouragement and faith. But Healy and Jonassen go back a way and the message seemed genuine, and perhaps delivered with the hope of gaining a reaction.

Which is exactly what happened. In India, Jonassen was finally selected for the Capitals, in their third match of the WPL. In the first innings, she walked out to bat with five overs remaining, and crashed an unbeaten 36 from 16 balls. She then took three wickets in the match’s final over to ice the win and complete a dream return to action.

In the Capitals’ next two matches, she took two more three-wicket hauls to surge to the top of the WPL wicket-takers list.

Healy had been exactly right.

Jonassen hit the ground running once she got her chance in this year’s WPL // Sportzpics

“I feel like I’ve always had to try and prove I am good enough, or I can do this,” Jonassen says. “And I think it’s part of my personality in a way … I do love having a point to prove, and a bit of a ‘f–k you’ mentality. It’s like, ‘Well, you don’t want me, but they do’.

“But yeah, it’s like … there’s only so many times I can pick myself back up.

“It’s tough when people tell you they back you, and they have faith in you and believe in you, but then you still don’t get the opportunity.”

* * *

Jonassen is nervous about what lies ahead. Last week she was named on Cricket Australia’s women’s contract list for 2024-25, but that is where any certainty with regards to the national set-up ends. Australia don’t play another match until September. Before then, Jonassen has earmarked The Hundred in the UK as her next proving ground.

Complicating matters further still has been the successful return from injury of fellow left-arm spinner Sophie Molineux, who effectively took Jonassen’s spot on the plane to Bangladesh.

The two have played in the same Australia XI on 16 occasions previously. Jonassen, on one hand, suggests there is no reason why that can’t again be the case. Yet she also wavers, then returns to her point about the way the squad has changed in recent years.

“It’s a tough one,” she says of the possibility of being selected alongside Molineux. “My head tells me one thing, and that’s, I guess – I don’t know, I just feel on the outer.

“If teams are picked on form and genuine balance, then there’s always a likelihood. But I’m not saying anything for any level of certainty that (her selection is) going to be the case now, because where the team was at and who the team was two years ago even, is completely different to what it is now.

“‘Belsy’ (Annabel Sutherland) wasn’t a certain starter back then. ‘T-Mac’ (Tahlia McGrath) wasn’t vice-captain. Phoebe (Litchfield) wasn’t on the scene yet. ‘Wolfie’ (Wareham), ‘Kingy’ … Ash (Gardner) was only bowling two overs, at most.

“So you look at the development of all different aspects of players individually, as well as the makeup of the side. And yeah, it’s tough. It’s just a matter of what the selectors are after.”

* * *

This week Jonassen will again meet up with Clarke, the national women’s team psych. While she says she loves having a point to prove, she also sees the other side to that; she knows it can be unhealthy to be angry, or weighed down by such baggage.

“I want to play for me, not in spite of others,” she says. “That’s where I want to get to. I don’t want to be taking the field every time with a chip on my shoulder. There’s enough pressure in the game.

“And that’s the thing. I’m not necessarily angry at specific people or anything like that – it’s just the overall situation. And it’s like, Well, f–k, what have I done wrong?

“I know there’s people who have had similar situations or similar feelings, and I know in that respect I’m not alone, but it’s equally sort of a ‘Why me?’ type mentality.”

Jonassen’s most significant realisation came long after she had indulged in her “two-day pity party” and allowed her emotions to settle. She played the WPL, proving to herself in the process that she was still equipped to perform on the biggest stages, and then she looked for the silver linings in her new situation.

One of those was being home for her partner Sarah’s birthday – which she has too often missed owing to her cricket schedule – and for their one-year wedding anniversary.

Another involved reviewing the lessons she has learned in recent years and how she might apply those in her role as Fire and Heat captain. Long term she can perhaps see herself in a cricket boardroom, fighting for the players of a new generation. In the meantime though, should her days in green and gold be over, she has no intention of going “cold turkey” on the game. And it is a leader that she knows she can make a difference.

“As difficult and as challenging as this feels when you’re in it, I know this will allow me to help give other players some perspective, particularly from a captain point of view back in Queensland,” Jonassen says. “Like … what conversations do I have as a leader with players who are not in sides, or not coming away with us? How do I help people in teams not feel isolated? How do I help people feel value beyond what they do on the field?”

Jonassen wants to use her recent experiences to help improve her own leadership at Queensland // Getty

During her downtime, she also followed Australia’s travails in Bangladesh. It was painful to do so, but she did it anyway, partly because it was all through her social media feed (“daily reminders of what I’m not a part of, at the moment”) and partly because it remains who she is.

And that is where her realisation lay. Even when celebrating her anniversary on a little getaway to Melbourne, Jonassen couldn’t help but miss what has been the other central aspect of her entire adult life. Clarke continues to reassure her that this is OK, that having contrasting thoughts at once – wanting to be here, and wanting to be there – is perfectly normal.

So Jonassen let her analytical mind take over her from her emotions, and considered her plight again.

“I’ve always said if my performance, my physicality and my mentality – if those three things are still going fine, then I’ll play as long as I can, or I want to,” she says. “But if all of them start to waver … then that’s when I’d genuinely call time.

“And I guess mentally, it’s been one of the most challenging times recently. That then made me feel like my performances were a lot worse than they were. So I was like, ‘Oh, shit – OK, two out of my three are starting to go. Do I actually want to keep doing this anymore? Do I want to keep fronting up?'”

The answer, Jonassen knows now, is yes.

“Yeah, it is,” she nods. “Even though the prospect of this year scares the shit out of me, because I don’t know what’s gonna happen. I’m like, ‘Well, I’m contracted, which is great. But am I gonna play any cricket?’

“Knowing how things have played out recently, nothing’s guaranteed. And it’s still raw. I mean, I’m still processing it, still navigating through it … but 100 per cent, I still have that drive to want to play for Australia.”

Part of Jonassen’s self-development recently has been focused on reinforcing the idea that these improvements she is making are not supposed to be short-term fixes. So when decisions beyond her control impact her in the moment, and frustrations mount, she is trying to view the bigger picture.

“The work I’ve done with (CA senior sport science manager Andrew Weller and lead sports dietitian Michelle Cort) has helped me feel better about myself as a person,” she explains.

“(Weller) has been really helpful in reminding me that all the things I’ve been doing are lifelong things. It’s obviously really challenging when you’ve put in all the work in the short term to want to do these things and play these games, but (I need) to remind myself it’s bigger than that.

“And that’s the hard part. As cricketers, so much of what defines you being successful is what you do out on the field. That’s what the greats get remembered by – it’s not all the stuff behind the scenes.

“So yeah, it’s going to be a confronting next little period, but it’s something I’m willing to do.”

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