Lauren Cheatle grew up faster than most cricketers.
As a 15-year-old, the left-arm fast bowler was picked in the senior New South Wales squad. At 17, she made her international debut against India at the MCG. She took time off from school in Bowral to play in the T20 World Cup in India.
A long career beckoned before injuries intervened. The 23-year-old hasn't played for Australia since 2019.
In November last year, Cheatle's latest comeback was gathering steam as she claimed consecutive three-wicket hauls for the Sydney Sixers in the WBBL, before another shattering setback while diving in the field.
"Unfortunately, I did my shoulder for the fourth time, the second on my right shoulder, had another reconstruction — that recovery's usually six to 12 months, so I should be right for the start of next season, which I'm really looking forward to," Cheatle said.
"I started professionally when I was 15 and I feel like these first eight years have gone really fast.
Work outside cricket provides purpose
Cheatle's positive approach is a result of having dealt with more serious setbacks off the field. When she was in year nine, both of her parents were diagnosed with cancer within the space of five weeks. They still managed to transport their daughter to training sessions and games, ensuring that her cricket career could flourish. Her parents have since recovered, but Cheatle has had her own health battles.
Last year she was diagnosed with early-stage skin cancer and had a lump removed from her shin. Rather than dwell on disappointment, she gives joy to others in her work with What Ability, a disability support service.
"It just gives these kids and participants so much fulfilment, we take them outside and do any activity they love," Cheatle said.
"To be able to do that with them is really incredible and just to see what it gives them is really lovely.
All abilities welcome
Cheatle was the star attraction at an "all abilities" cricket clinic hosted by the Sydney Sixers and What Ability at Bankstown Oval. It brought together a range of participants, from a crafty 62-year-old spin bowler to young kids who just wanted a laugh.
"A situation like this where people are just here to have fun and enjoy themselves gives them a real opportunity just to join in and feel part of the crowd," Pat Durney, whose son Ryan has autism and ADHD, said.
What Ability chief executive Steve Dresler had a promising rugby league career cut short by knee injuries, which gives him an understanding of Cheatle's road to recovery. He said her life experiences and youthfulness made her a natural fit for working with people with disabilities.
"Just that energy, passion, she's been through a pretty tricky path in the last couple of years [but this work] helps her remember how lucky she is to play cricket," Dresler said.
"Her job away from here is to win cricket games, here it's to put smiles on faces."
And that can be anywhere from the cricket field to the movies or a coffee catch-up for "girl talk" with Reilly Galway, a 23-year-old living with Down syndrome.
"I feel happiness, I love it, she's really nice, I like her a lot," Galway said.
Cheatle adds girl power to boys teams
Cheatle wasn't hard to spot as she starred in the junior representative ranks in the Southern Highlands. She was the only girl in those teams and called the shots as captain.
"I loved it, they're some of my best mates and I still have a lot of contact with them back home," Cheatle said.
"I was really welcomed and was lucky with the group of guys that I had around me and how supportive they were and my family and the coaches.
Cheatle's path to the Australian team is one that girls are less likely to take, with female cricket growing in popularity. Australia's triumph at the 2022 Women's World Cup in New Zealand helped the sport stay in the spotlight.
"From a young age you can see girls playing on TV and there's a clear pathway for how to get there," Cheatle said.
"I went home to Bowral recently and saw a girls' clinic and it was just really exciting to see 30 girls out on the park playing against each other.
Playing for Australia was a whirlwind experience
Cheatle played 11 games for Australia and as a 17-year-old took 2-13 in a win over South Africa in the T20 World Cup in India. When she looks back at that time, it's a blurry memory.
"I think about this quite often, I can't really remember many games playing for Australia when I first started, I'd love to go back there again so I could take it all in," Cheatle said.
Desire for more international cricket
At only 23, Cheatle has time on her side to wear the green and gold again. Fast bowlers often improve in their mid to late twenties, and left-armers are a sought-after commodity.
"I'd absolutely love to play for Australia again, but they're obviously one of the best teams in the world, dominating world cricket, which is really cool to see," Cheatle said.
"I'm just trying to get back on the park for as long as I can, that starts at grade, NSW and Sixers and if that eventuates into something for Australia I'd be extremely proud and would love to do that, but I'd love a whole season on the park [first], which I haven't really done for six years."
Cheatle knows all too well about rehabilitation from injuries and what's required to get back to full fitness. It's a mixture of familiarity and frustration.
"I feel like the fact that I've done it before means I know I can do it and I know the process," Cheatle said.
"At the same time I know how hard it is and how difficult it is but all I want to do is play cricket.
"I know what to expect and what boxes to tick in my recovery process, hopefully not facing anything new but at the same time it's really frustrating to be doing it again."
And when Cheatle starts thinking 'why me again?' she looks forward to the next outing in her other role where there's no pressure to meet targets in the rehabilitation process.
The only task is to be herself, which allows the people she's spending time with to do the same. Both parties benefit.
"Just an experience and a good time, they have barriers all around them, this gives them an opportunity to enjoy themselves and smile and have a good time," Cheatle said.