To get back to the top, just add fun
Susan Pratley wards off her opponent during the 2011 ANZ Championship. Photo: Wolter Peeters
One of the things I love most about sport is watching someone who gets knocked down get back up again and succeed. Think about the great Australian bowler Glenn McGrath getting hit for six then knocking out middle stump with the next ball. It’s a great feeling, even if you’re just a viewer.
A year ago, the NSW Swifts goal shooter Susan Pratley was hit for six, suffering a form slump at the end of the ANZ Championship season and losing her place in the Australian team at the worst possible time – on the eve of the world championships.
Fast forward 12 months and, while she hasn’t quite got her gold dress back, after a stunning season Australian coach Lisa Alexander is going to find it very hard to leave Pratley out of the Diamonds squad.
How did Pratley do it? Working hard, sure. A bit of luck, yes. Catherine Cox moving to West Coast allowed Pratley to take a more dominant, senior role. But the key, Pratley said, was just having fun. "I’m pretty happy with my season," she said. "I had a lot of criticism last year. I just had to go out and have some fun with it again. At the beginning of the season I said what I wanted to get out of it was get back to enjoying myself. It was about just being out there with the girls, and being at every training session and wanting to be there."
Fun is the reason anyone starts playing sport in the first place. And hers is a valuable lesson to anyone struggling with form, particularly as netball approaches professionalism.
Pratley, 28, is a finalist in the championship’s player of the year awards and a warm favourite to win the Swifts MVP, both of which will be announced later this month. The Swifts finished fifth after losing their final home and away match by just one goal. Melbourne Vixens and either Waikato Magic or Northern Mystics will contest the grand final.
Pratley this year moved from goal attack to goal shooter, playing what has become an unorthodox running shooter role; ably supported by a rotation of Amorette Wild and Carla Dziwoki at goal attack. Among Australians in Australian teams, Pratley finished behind only West Coast shooter Caitlin Bassett statistically. Bassett made 417 goals at 88.3 per cent; Pratley made 347 at 85.7 per cent; Natalie Medhurst made 260 at 83.1; Erin Bell 261 at 81.6; and Cox made 162 at 63 per cent.
But five into four doesn’t go - and stats aren’t selectors. Traditionally only four shooters will be chosen in a squad, and coach Alexander will have much to think about ahead of the Diamonds’ first Test in September. Bassett (GS) is a certainty. Cox, whose figures don’t fairly reflect her work supporting Bassett and who can play GS or GA, is the incumbent Australian vice-captain and a big-game player. Medhurst, who generally plays GA, again has had a good season supporting the Queensland Firebirds Jamaican shooter Romelda Aiken. Bell’s story is similar in Adelaide where she supports another Jamaican shooter, Carla Borrego.
Pratley agreed her running shooter role was an oddity in a competition where very tall shooters who stand under the goals and stick their arms up have become the order of the day. But it may work to her advantage at selection.
"I think every team has learnt how to play against a tall shooter so when they [goal keepers] came up against me it was a bit of a shock to them," she said "I run around a bit more, it makes it a bit harder for them."
It’s an option Alexander is sure to consider. "I’ve got a few Test matches left in me," Pratley said.
While the Swifts’ season was ultimately disappointing, Pratley’s nomination was not the club’s only accomplishment. Wild, 22, who prior to this season spent much of her time sitting on the Swifts’ bench, is the only Australian on a Kiwi-dominated young player of the year nominees list.
"She has really grown in confidence," Pratley said of her shooting partner. "I am very proud of her. I hope I have taught her a few things along the way."
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER NOMINEES
Laura Langman (Waikato/Bay of Plenty Magic)
Susan Pratley (NSW Swifts)
Madison Browne (Melbourne Vixens)
Caitlin Thwaites (Central Pulse)
Irene van Dyk (Waikato/Bay of Plenty Magic)
Temepara George (Northern Mystics)
BEST YOUNG PLAYER NOMINEES
Storm Purvis (Southern Steel)
Julianna Naoupu (Waikato/Bay of Plenty Magic)
Amorette Wild (NSW Swifts)
Te Huinga Reo Selby-Rickit (Central Pulse)
Kayla Cullen (Northern Mystics)