Soon after touching down at Melbourne airport a fortnight ago, Australia allrounder Sophie Molineux told reporters she hoped to make the most of pop star Katy Perry's presence at the MCG for the T20 World Cup final. "Hopefully, I am dancing with her at the end," she said a day after taking the key wicket of South Africa opener Lizelle Lee in Australia's thrilling semi-final win at the SCG.
Twenty-two-year-old Molineux got what she wished for, leading her team-mates down a runway at the MCG and dancing with Perry after Australia beat India in the final and won their fifth T20 World Cup.
That's how you celebrate a win. pic.twitter.com/vEUsUTINZ1— Neroli Meadows (@Neroli_Meadows) March 8, 2020
But it was almost a miracle that her World Cup campaign ended on so bright a note, given the trajectory of her career over the past 12 months.
In March last year, Molineux, a left-arm spin-bowling allrounder underwent surgery for a dislocated shoulder she suffered while training with her state side, Victoria. She made her way back into the Australian team over the next six months, with a superlative Test debut in the Ashes in England, but then missed the tour of the Caribbean and the home series against Sri Lanka as she entered an extended period of recovery.
Having overcome the injury-related setbacks, she decided to take a break in the middle of the Women's Big Bash League (WBBL) last November to focus on her mental health, which made the prospect of her inclusion in the World Cup squad far from likely. Molineux admitted she is fortunate things took a turn for the better.
"It's been a pretty funny few months. I think I am really lucky because the World Cup was definitely not on my mind back then," she told ESPNcricinfo. "There's never going to be a perfect time to take a break, especially when you're in professional sport. There's always going to be some cricket coming up. I was playing Big Bash at that time, but I knew I had to do it. I knew there was a World Cup coming up, but whether I would be there, I wasn't really sure. So I wasn't going to spend time worrying about that because it was far too out of my control.
"But looking back, to have been able to play the World Cup and then win it is pretty cool. [That] Sunday night was special. To be able to run out in front of 90,000 people, to do that with ten of your best team-mates, lift the World Cup… it has all been pretty special and still feels quite surreal.
"But that's what sport is all about, isn't it? The highs and the lows... And winning the World Cup at the MCG was certainly a high."
Her decision to step away from the game came around the same time as a raft of withdrawals from the men's senior and A sides. The Victorian trio of Glenn Maxwell, Nic Maddinson and Will Pucovski took breaks from their cricketing commitments to deal with mental-health challenges, and the summer before, Molineux's Australia team-mate Nicole Bolton had stepped away from cricket due to her own mental-health issues.
"There's never going to be a perfect time to take a break, especially when you're into professional sport; there's always going to be some cricket coming up. I was playing Big Bash at that time, but I knew I had to do it" Molineux on her break due to mental-health issues
That Molineux found it relatively smooth to ease back into the national side, she said, was down to Cricket Australia's support and an ecosystem that encourages players to monitor and, as recent evidence testifies, open up about their mental-health concerns. Australian players, besides discussing their state of mind with coaches, medical staff and team psychologists, have the option of reporting problems or spiralling feelings using the wellness apps used to track their physical and mental well-being.
"It's sort of funny that I took the break when I did," Molineux said. "You take such breaks focusing on the needs of the immediate present without thinking much about the future. You try and stay in the present and work through each day, each week. And it's important you have the right people around you in such times.
"The support I got at the time from Motty [head coach Matthew Mott] and Meg [Lanning, the captain], and everyone from Cricket Australia, Cricket Victoria, my team-mates, my family... after such highs in your career, when you look back, you tend to realise and appreciate even more what having someone's back at such moments can do. [Through] that period I realised how lucky I was to have that support around me, and really, Cricket Australia and our support staff have been amazing."
Just before this year's World Cup, though, Molineux found herself pegged back once again. She sustained a thigh injury during the last stretch of the home tri-series involving England and India in early February, and while she was named in the World Cup squad, she hurt her other thigh too in the meantime and was sidelined till the last league game of the world tournament.
"She had two corked thighs for this World Cup," Mott told ESPNcricinfo on the sidelines of the team's celebrations in Federation Square in Melbourne the morning after Australia thumped India in the final. "There is a bit of dispute on how she actually got the second one. I think she actually landed on the square again. It is a bit of a mystery [even now].
"Credit to our medical team, though. Honestly, I thought she was pretty much done for the tournament. The scan I saw looked horrific - there was a lot of blood around her leg, and we just thought there was absolutely no chance of getting her back out there, but they kept the faith, kept her around…"
That Molineux slotted straight back into the XI upon recovering just in time for the knockouts was down in part to a tournament-ending hamstring injury to Australia's premier allrounder, Ellyse Perry, ahead of the semi-finals. The wicket of Lee in her first over in the semi-final would mark the beginning of Molineux's first home World Cup. Two nights later she would get opener Smriti Mandhana with her first delivery in the final.
"As soon as she took that first wicket in the final, I think everyone just went, 'You beauty!'" Mott said. "You don't like taking injured players into big matches, but I definitely think that was a big part of it, trying to get her up for that game. Obviously you lose Ellyse Perry, but you add another world-class allrounder in there.
Mott said the team management wasn't confident they would be able to get Molineux up for the semi-final, and that even if they did, it might have been just that one game they would "get out of her" given the protracted recovery. "But we needed it," Mott conceded.
It wasn't until 9.30 on the morning of the final that Molineux would be declared fit. To see her dealing India a telling blow, winning the World Cup and capping off a roller-coaster ride of a season dancing to the other Perry's chartbusters on stage was incredible to him.
"It was touch and go right to the 11th hour," Mott said. "When you see her dancing that night you find that hard to believe!"
With inputs from Daniel Brettig