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Tenacious White Fern takes on new ref challenge

Newsroom logo Newsroom 12/10/2021 Chloé Bardsley
© Provided by Newsroom

Sue Morris has dealt with her fair share of challenges in life, so it's no surprise she's the first woman to take on the role of NZ Cricket's match referee.

White Fern number 100, Sue Morris, is no stranger to hard work and dedication.

As a girl, she taught herself to bowl in her hallway; she finally made the White Ferns at age 30; then she battled a crippling disease which forced her to learn how to walk again.

And now she’s become New Zealand Cricket’s first female match referee.

A school teacher by profession, who's been helping with the Covid vaccination rollout, Morris admits it wasn’t a role she was expecting to fill. She simply responded to an article in a newsletter for past New Zealand players asking if anyone was interested in being a match referee.

After shadowing Tony Hill at Eden Park for a day, she was intrigued by the role.

Hill is a retired international cricket umpire, and Morris was fascinated sitting next to him throughout the day and hearing an umpire’s perspective.

In her new role as match referee, Morris will be tasked with writing match reports, summary appeals and recording stoppages to ensure teams don’t get penalised for a slow over rate.

“Captains will be fined if their over rate is slow, so it’s important every stoppage is recorded and radioed to the umpires,” she says.

The match referee works behind the scenes and alongside the coaches, grounds curators, players and umpires at men’s and women’s domestic cricket fixtures like the Super Smash. Morris says it is about managing the game to make sure it’s a positive experience for everyone.

“You really are the New Zealand Cricket representative to make sure the game flows,” she says. 

As a young country girl growing up in Papakura, Morris was always outside playing sports with her three brothers and was inspired early on by an older sibling who played for the 1st XI cricket team.

At 11, she already had a plan. “I found a love for bowling and just put it in my head that one day I want to play for New Zealand,” she says.

Sue Morris first played for Auckland women at 17 and her domestic career spanned 18 years. Photo: supplied. © Provided by Newsroom Sue Morris first played for Auckland women at 17 and her domestic career spanned 18 years. Photo: supplied.

Morris would spend hours in her backyard, her brother would bat as she bowled. She taught herself too, bowling down the hallway.

“I wanted to prove that a girl could play cricket,” she says.

But reaching the “pinnacle” at national level wasn’t an easy ride for the economical opening bowler.

Although Morris (nee Ruthe) had played for the Auckland women’s side since she was 17, she knew she was a “useless fielder”.

At a national cricket training camp, Morris was told it was because her hamstrings were tight and lacked flexibility. For the following six weeks, she did her exercises religiously, three times a day, and eventually she could touch her toes.

This dedication and hard work paid off and Morris made the White Ferns in 1988, at age 30. She played in eight ODIs at the World Cup in Australia that year and took seven wickets.

“I spent hours on my fielding, and if I hadn’t of made the changes and worked hard, I don’t think I would have played for New Zealand,” she says.

It was this perseverance and determination she developed in cricket – including a domestic career with Auckland spanning 18 years - that would get her through one of her biggest battles.

In 2001, now a mum to three daughters, Morris was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre disease. The unlucky 1 in 100,000, she was placed in intensive care and hooked up to a breathing ventilator.

The myelin sheath around her nerves was being eaten away, leaving her with permanent nerve damage and a loss of balance. It forced her to change the way she was involved with sport.

Morris was unable to walk for more than a year without being aided. “It was a lesson in the mind is willing, but the body is not,” she says.

“I remember being put between two parallel bars and just thinking, ‘how do I run?’”

Morris had to retrain her brain and body on movements she’d previously done with ease. “But if I can inspire someone by the way I have responded to difficulties, that’s important,” she says.

Sue Morris with Kilotilda, one of her World Vision-sponsored children she met on a trip to the Magugu village in Tanzania. Photo: supplied. © Provided by Newsroom Sue Morris with Kilotilda, one of her World Vision-sponsored children she met on a trip to the Magugu village in Tanzania. Photo: supplied.

Morris remembers a gift from a friend during her hospital stay, a Bible scripture that “filled my spirit,” she says. “It was Peter 5:10 which says, ‘After you have suffered awhile the Lord will restore you.’”

As a former children’s pastor, Morris says it spoke to her, “and made me think, ‘There are some things I can’t do but what can I do?’”

Not long after this, her decision to become a teacher made sense. “I look back and go wow, that was the right thing,” she says. “I’m passionate about helping kids be successful.”

Morris wrote curriculum for InnerFit NZ, a charitable trust that uses sport to develop children’s foundation life skills, and today she’s a relief teacher. She’s also mentored members of the White Ferns.

Two years ago, she dislocated an ankle and broke the other foot after standing in a pothole while teaching PE. Yet another physical set-back, but Morris found the silver lining.

“I spent a lot of time watching cricket. I would get one of my daughters to drop me off and I would hobble in,” she says. “I’ve loved cricket all my life and always been interested in the game.”

So, when Morris got the call to be a referee she jumped at the opportunity. Although she says she was unsure about all the media fuss on her achievement.

“I hadn’t thought about being the first woman [match referee] but now that I am, I encourage other women to give back to the game they love,” she says.

Morris is currently working in an admin role at a Covid vaccination centre in Māngere, but cricket is never far from her mind. She’s managed to get herself a job as the liaison officer for match officials at the Cricket World Cup in New Zealand in 2022.

* NZ Cricket have also established a five-strong women’s umpiring panel to create pathways for women to the professional ranks. And trailblazing wāhine Kim Cotton has been elevated to the national umpire panel – another female first.

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