Grandmaster Leigh Kasperek
It took only nine deliveries for Leigh Kasperek to earn her first wicket for the White Ferns. On a pleasant morning in Bengaluru in June 2015, after India had chosen to bat first on a slightly slow surface at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium, the 23-year-old Scotland-born off-spinner took the ball in the 14th over of the innings. The hosts were in a spot of bother having lost both openers, Punam Raut (5) and Smriti Mandhana (13), early, and their Nos. 3 and 4, skipper Mithali Raj and allrounder Shikha Pandey, were rather circumspect in their attempt to rebuild.
In her first over of the morning, Kasperek had Pandey prodding forward – patting deliveries towards cover and mid-wicket. Five dots were followed by a streaky two – an edge that hurtled towards the third man boundary before it was cut off by Amy Satterthwaite.
Pandey faced up to Kasperek in her second over again, and got off strike off the second ball. It was finally Raj’s turn to face.
Up against a giant of the women’s game in her own backyard, Kasperek eyed her field. Skipper Suzie Bates called the long on fielder into the ring, and brought the mid-wicket fielder, Katie Perkins, a couple of yards closer. New Zealand were looking to squeeze Raj, who, after playing a glorious cover drive off Lea Tahuhu to get her innings underway, had managed 17 off 38 deliveries.
15.3 overs – Kasperek to Raj. The off-spinner delivers a floaty full toss to the Indian captain, who mistimes a swat over mid-wicket. Perkins launches herself into the air, hands extended overhead towards her right and pulls off a stunning catch.
New Zealand are cock-a-hoop. Perkins, enveloped by her teammates. The camera pans to Kasperek who is wearing a slightly embarrassed expression. She high-fives Bates on her way to joining the swarm of black jerseys. She was on the board for the White Ferns, but it wouldn’t be her last contribution for the day.
Kasperek finished her bowling spell with the wickets of Raj, Harmanpreet Kaur and Veda Krishnamurthy in her kitty. She would also go on to score a valiant 21 not out in her side’s unsuccessful pursuit of 143.
It was a promising start to what was a very successful tour for Kasperek. She left India having taken 13 wickets (three of which came in the tour game) at an average of just above 17 over the course of nine matches.
“When you’re on the field everything happens so quickly, and it all kind of feels like a bit of a blur,” she tells Women’s CricZone of that series. “But to be making my debut for New Zealand was something I never thought would happen. It was really special, especially in a country like India where everyone loves cricket. It was really special just to be a part of that team for the first time.”
She would return a little less than a year later, in 2016, for the Women’s World T20, and headline New Zealand’s run to the final four – the last time they made the knockout stages in a global tournament. The off-spinner finished as the joint-highest wicket-taker with nine scalps at an average of 10.11 and an economy rate under five.
Although New Zealand were downed by an inspired West Indies in the semi-final, they had found a new star – Leigh Kasperek had arrived.
Growing up in Edinburgh, Scotland, Kasperek’s introduction to cricket was a bit of an accident. An enthusiastic tennis player, she participated in a variety of sports before stumbling into cricket when in primary school.
“It just kind of came about that there was a boys’ cricket team that started in my school (South Morningside) and it was compulsory that they had to have one girl to enter the ‘Kwick Cricket’ tournament. So, I got roped in and it kind of went from there. I just played [because] I really enjoyed playing with the boys,” she reminisces.
After that, an Edinburgh council sports programme for state schools saw Kasperek run into Gordon Drummond, who was then Scotland men’s captain. Drummond worked with the young boys and girls in the programme, helping develop their game.
Between 2006 and 2012, Kasperek made 63 appearances for Scotland across the Under-17, Under-21 and senior teams. She put in some steady performances with both bat and ball, registering two List-A half-centuries along the way.
“I guess it’s always a proud moment when you’re representing your country. I’ve been lucky enough to do it with both Scotland and New Zealand. With Scotland, most of the memories that I have are probably off the field and the friendships that I’ve made during that time.”
In 2011, just out of college, 19-year-old Kasperek snapped up the opportunity to go down to Perth and play for Western Australia (WA) in the Women’s National Cricket League.
“I had the opportunity in Perth, Australia just through a contact. The Dutch national coach (Job van Bunge) was coaching the state team in Perth, so he wanted to try and get someone over from an associate country to get involved. He saw it as a development opportunity. So, it was really just by chance.”
Following a short stint with WA, she flew further south to Wellington, New Zealand, at the insistence of Mark Coles, Scotland’s current head coach.
“I’ve been very lucky throughout my career,” Kasperek smiles. “Sometimes opportunities arise, and it has taken me to Australia and then to New Zealand where I’ve settled and I absolutely love it. As soon as I got over there, I just fell in love with the country and haven’t left.”
After a season with Wellington, Kasperek shifted to Otago Sparks, where she flourished under the leadership of Bates, whom she had previously spent some time with in Australia.
“Suzie’s had a really big impact on my career. I guess, obviously, meeting her in Perth to start and then heading over and playing for Otago with her for, I think, about three (two) seasons before [I got picked for] New Zealand… I’m sure it’s no surprise to most people, but she’s quite an inspiring person. And, for me, coming from little Scotland and playing all of a sudden with one of the best cricketers in the world at that time and one of the greatest leaders, it just felt pretty special,” Kasperek beams. “I still feel like I am privileged to be playing with her whenever I get the opportunity – whether it’s New Zealand or whatever. It’s been really awesome playing with Suz. On the field she has been great, but off the field as well she’s been a real mentor to me.”
In her first season for the Sparks, Kasperek took 18 wickets through the one-day competition – the most by any bowler in the 2013-14 season – and also scored two half centuries as Bates’ side clinched the title. The off-spinner backed it up with another solid List-A season in 2014-15 with 15 wickets and 313 runs – performances that resulted in her selection for the White Ferns in June 2015.
78 internationals. 129 wickets. Two ODI five-fers. One ODI century.
Joint-fastest to 50 T20I wickets. The only bowler to take an ODI six-fer against Australia. Formerly No.2 ranked T20I bowler in the world. Bowled a triple-wicket maiden in an ODI.
Kasperek has achieved plenty in her first six years of international cricket, and has firmly established herself as one of the team’s premier bowlers. She insists, however, that it was the opportunity to learn from some highly skilled spinners early on in her career, that helped develop her game.
At the start of her New Zealand career, Kasperek formed a strong partnership with left-arm spinner Morna Nielsen and leg-spinner Erin Birmingham. The trio took 37 wickets between them on their trips to India in 2015-16, and were a key reason for the team’s success through that period.
“With regards to Morna and Erin, I think they were just really smart consistent, successful bowlers, and for me to start my career under them was brilliant,” Kasperek says of her interactions with the duo. “Learning from them was just about trying to ask as many questions as I could and just kind of soak up their experience.”
Come 2017, she was elevated to the role of senior spinner, having to take a prodigiously talented Amelia Kerr under her wing. Since then, they have strengthened their credentials as two of the White Ferns’ most dangerous bowlers, taking 142 wickets in the 52 LOIs they have played together.
“Since Melie coming into the team in 2017, we’re always kind of challenging each other and learning off each other. She’s a smart cricketer. So, just having those conversations together as to what we can do on the field, that’s probably helped [our development].”
Despite plenty of early success – the 2016 T20 World Cup a good case in point – Kasperek says it wasn’t until 2018 that she felt like she really “belonged” at the international level.
“I think I was really lucky at the start of my career that I had a bit of success. But I think I always kind of looked at that success as luck, and was wondering when it was going to stop,” she laughs. “I think probably the year of 2018 was a big year for me. Just feeling like I was putting performances out which were helping contribute to our team winning matches and being able to stay on the park for a little bit longer, [and] not breaking my fingers. Just having that real consistent year of playing cricket and feeling like I was contributing [to the team], understanding my bowling a little bit better and just kind of embracing it a bit more, [really helped].”
Through that 12-month-period, Kasperek took 47 wickets in just 24 LOIs, also scoring her maiden international hundred – 113 against Ireland in Dublin. Previously plagued by injury – all broken fingers – she managed to get through the year unscathed; her confidence growing by the game.
“Spin bowling is a bit like chess,” Kasperek says with a glint in her eye. “You do have the opportunities to set people up, and that’s one of the reasons that I love bowling spin.”
At first look, Kasperek’s off-spinners appear rather harmless. A hop and a skip towards the crease before she lets go of the ball, giving it a generous amount of flight. The ball seems to gently swerve in the air. No sharp turn. Rarely any extra bounce. She should be easy to take down.
Yet, Kasperek’s deceptively simple methods, have proven very effective for the White Ferns. While she may not tie batters in knots with her turn, she does have the ability to out-think them. Over the course of her career, flight, drift, dip and angle have been her biggest weapons – not the easiest changes for batters to spot.
27 February 2020: Harmanpreet Kaur was looking for something in her half. A flighted delivery that she could get down to and pump over the rope. Struggling for form, she needed something to get her going.
With Kasperek at the other end, she probably expected it. Gripping the bat a little tighter. Tapping the pitch a little bit harder. Front foot twitching in anticipation of coming down the track. Kaur was primed for the charge.
Ball 1: Wide. Full delivery angled into the pads.
Ball 2: Dot. Full delivery on off stump. Kaur lunges forward and defends.
Ball 3: Dot. Slightly flatter from Kasperek. Kaur, who was looking to come forward, shifts her weight back and pats the ball into the leg-side.
Ball 4: Dot. Flighted delivery that just dips on Kaur who nudges it to mid-wicket on the walk.
Ball 5: One. Another full delivery on the pads. This time Kaur sweeps it away for a single.
Ball 6: One. Shafali Verma slaps an overpitched delivery to long on for a single.
Ball 7: Wicket! Slow, flighted delivery above the eyeline of Kaur that prompts the Indian skipper to lunge forward. The ball drops just out of her reach and she meekly pushes at it – only managing to offer a simple return catch to Kasperek.
Like a game of chess, indeed.
Kasperek’s tactical acumen is something she has built over time. Having come to terms with her style of bowling rather early in her career, she is meticulous when it comes to her planning. However, she is quick to admit that it’s not always about having all the information. Much of her success is down to good execution of her skill, and being able to adapt to different situations. This is something she practices exhaustively.
“I think it’s probably a bit of a combination of everything. I try and watch as much cricket as I can – whether we’re playing, whether we’re not playing; whether it’s international cricket, or domestic cricket. I guess a lot of it (planning) is on the field though. I try and go with my gut, try and take the more attacking option. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t work. I just hope it works more often than it doesn’t,” she explains.
“But I think it’s just like we talked about – trying to be one step ahead of the batters. If Plan A is not working, can you execute Plan B? If Plan B is not working, can you execute Plan C? So, it’s just about trying to – whatever is happening in a practice situation – think ‘well, am I putting myself in a good stead for when the game comes around?’”
Into her seventh year as a White Fern, Kasperek is on her third tour of England. It is her first time in the UK since that successful series in 2018. It is also the first time she will be without her spin twin, Kerr.
“It’s obviously unfortunate that Melie and Frankie (Mackay) and Fran (Jonas) aren’t able to be here. But I think, you know, we’ve had really good training for the last week. The bowling group have been looking really good, and hopefully come game time everyone will be ready to perform.”
A few months out from a home World Cup, the five-match ODI series against defending champions England will be key in terms of the side’s preparations. Kasperek is acutely aware that the challenge ahead is a tough one. But as keen as the group is to win the series, there’s an understanding this tour is an important step along the way to making sure they find all the pieces to the puzzle going in to that ODI World Cup.
“I guess as a team we’re just looking towards the World Cup. To have a home World Cup is really exciting. So, we see these three matches – the T20s coming up – followed by the five ODIs as really important building up to that World Cup in March.”
“Hopefully we’re able to find some winning momentum,” she signs off.