Kim Garth: Irish cricketer bowling overs down under
The Victoria player has big ambitions to play cricket at international level for Australia
Kim Garth of the Scorchers bowls during the Women’s Big Bash League match between the Melbourne Renegades and the Perth Scorchers in Melbourne in October 2019. Photograph: Mike Owen/Getty Images)
Career decisions arrived early in life for Kim Garth. Her first came in sixth year in school. An international player since she was 14 years old, she was asked by Irish cricket coach Trent Johntson to play in the 2014 Twenty20 World Cup.
Three years earlier, when she made her debut for Ireland, Garth was the youngest player of any country to appear in a Twenty20 international match.
Somewhat bewitchingly, three of her Ireland teammates, Lucy O’Reilly and Gaby Lewis, daughters of international players Peter O’Reilly and Alan Lewis, debuted at 13 years old and Elena Tice, a World Cup silver medal winner with the Irish hockey team, also came in after Garth, even younger.
It was March when Johntson made his World Cup inquires. At the time Garth was playing Gaelic football for Kilmacud Crokes and the Dublin minor team. Layered over that was her looming exams. She weighed it up and, decision made, broke the news to Irish cricket. That summer she would miss the World Cup and hang with Crokes and Dublin football.
She is now 24 years old, and Australia seems already like another life. Garth is the only overseas player contracted to play professionally with Victoria in the Women’s National Cricket League (WNCL). It seems absurd that for 10 years she has been negotiating an international cricket career. In that, hard calls have been a feature of the journey.
“The coach of Ireland at the time, Trent Johntson, said you are going to have to choose one or the other,” she says. “I ended up playing Gaelic because the championship season with Dublin was just starting.
“I suppose being in sixth year was a big thing and the World Cup was in March and the Leaving was in June, so I decided to stay at home, play the Gaelic season and skip the World Cup. That decision probably shocked a few people at home.
“I think we got to the All-Ireland semi-final. I loved it. I loved being able to play two sports. Up to that point I played soccer in the winter and cricket in the summer, until maybe later on when I was 13 or 14 when I took up Gaelic. I absolutely loved it. The next step up was a good challenge.”
As it happens, there is circularity about Garth’s journey to Australia. One of her teammates in Dublin at the time was Lauren Magee. Magee, a senior All-Ireland medal winner, is now in Australia and, like Garth, is seeking a life as a professional athlete that is not available to her in Ireland.
Magee kicked off her Australian Rules career in March with her club Melbourne defeating St Kilda. Garth made her debut for Victoria in the WNCL in February, taking 2-25 from 8.2 overs to help her side to an eight-wicket win over New South Wales.
“There is a lot of them [Irish Gaelic footballers playing Australian Rules], which is awesome to see,” says Garth. “I actually played Gaelic with Lauren Magee, so I’ve been in touch with her a little bit. We keep missing each other, basically. It’s something I’m keen to do.
“We are both in quite unique situations where we’ve both come to Australia to play professional sport. It’s something that can’t be done back home.”
An all-rounder, Garth is on an overseas two-year contract with Victoria to play in the WNCL, which is a 50-over competition. She is the only overseas player competing in that league.
She is also an overseas player for Big Bash cricket, the Twenty20 competition where each team has three overseas players. The Big Bash runs for a few months between October and November, while the 50-over competition is spread out, largely from September through to March.
In order for me to get a contract over here with Victoria, I basically had to get the support of Cricket Australia and you can’t play for Ireland anymore
The former Irish vice-captain has big ambitions and has applied for permanent Australian residency. Ireland won’t stand in her way and issued a “no objection certificate”.
If it’s successful and comes through, she will officially be a local player. Hopeful that next season will be her last as an overseas player; at that point she may leave her 114 Irish caps behind and be eligible to be selected for Australia.
“In order for me to get a contract over here with Victoria, I basically had to get the support of Cricket Australia and you can’t play for Ireland anymore,” she says. “They were only going to support my decision if I stopped playing for Ireland and declared my interest to play for Australia. Why would they support me if I didn’t declare my interest to play for Australia?
“If I didn’t stop playing for Ireland I wouldn’t have been able to get a contract over here. That was a very tough decision and one I didn’t make easily at all. I spent a lot of time thinking about that. At the end of the day I had to be selfish. Again it just came back to what I wanted for my career and what I wanted to achieve.”
For someone who has played at the elite level for a decade, there is little weariness about Garth. Her father, Jonathan, played cricket and Sevens Rugby for Ireland. He was part of the Irish team at the 1993 inaugural Rugby World Cup Sevens, where Ireland were beaten by Australia in the semifinal. Her mother Ann-Marie also played cricket for Ireland.
But her fresh attitude doesn’t mean it is always easy. For a number of years with Ireland, Garth was still a child. There were moments. She had to manage changing room environments with adult players. Some of the sub-continental countries she visited were dramatic and strange to a Dublin teenager, the experiences occasionally unsettling and offbeat.
Pale-skinned and blonde-haired, she remembers a trip to Bangladesh as a teenager – 15 or 16 years old, she thinks – a year or two into her international career.
“Whenever we went to the sub-continental countries I definitely did attract a lot of looks, and not necessarily in a good way,” she says. “Being so young and fair-skinned with blonde hair too... at such a young age three weeks did seem like a long time being away from my family.
I probably would have regretted it if was something I didn’t explore. It was like, ‘hang on a minute – it’s now or never’
“All my friends were still at school. None of them had experienced what I had. I remember we went on tour to Bangladesh. I would have been 15 or 16 and I remember ringing home and saying, ‘god, Mum, this is really sad.’
“It was an eye-opener, the poverty and way of life, yeah, and being stuck inside a hotel as well. You can’t leave the hotel when you are in countries like Bangladesh. There were a lot of older players on the squad able to look after me.
“My very first tour Isobel Joyce was my roommate. I looked up to her. She was an all-rounder and one of the most experienced players on the team. She was always one to look out for me. But not having family there at that age, it did teach you a bit of independence. Definitely.”
When it came down to it the scope of playing with Ireland wasn’t driving Garth’s ambition hard enough. She had been travelling to Australia for years before her Victoria contract. In Ireland she says there were not “a pile of fixtures”. There was a World Cup every two years – that was exciting. But it wasn’t enough. Her natural instincts were to keep pushing.
“I wanted to play more cricket at the highest level to see how I’d go. Do it for a living and not have to do anything else,” she says.
It ended up being a now-or-never decision. It was going to take three years to become a local, not unlike the rugby residency rule for overseas players in Ireland (now five years). She wanted a Big Bash contract and she wanted to get a WNCL contract without any bureaucratic worries.
Familiar with Australia, she knew the lay of the land, and said to herself, “Yep, I think I can do this.” But, at 23-plus, had Garth waited longer a contract might not have appeared. At 27 or 28 years old and at the back end of her career, the Australians might have looked at her and saw a player pushing towards her 30s. The sales pitch as a mid-20s player seemed a sweeter option.
“I probably would have regretted it if was something I didn’t explore,” she says. “It was like, ‘hang on a minute – it’s now or never.’”
To get to the final and to be part of that team full of superstars, I guess, was awesome
Now in down time, there’s a break from her all-round batting and bowling until pre-season training in June. She hasn’t been back to Ireland since Christmas 2019 and on returning to Australia flew into a country that was on fire. In the suburbs smoke filled the air and training sessions were cancelled because of poor air quality.
But now Victoria is largely Covid-free and returning home for a spell in lock down Ireland is more complicated and less appetising. Getting back into an almost-normal Victoria would also be a hurdle.
Her future with Australia, she will answer that call when and if it happens. Not unlike what Eoin Morgan and Ed Joyce accomplished in England, to play with Australia would be a first for a female Irish player.
“I was pretty happy with my season,” she says. “At the start of the year I wasn’t even sure of I was going to be in the 11. It’s a strong Victoria side. Then to get to the final and to be part of that team full of superstars, I guess, was awesome.”