‘I wasn’t sure if I really, really wanted to play for New Zealand again’

Frances Mackay © Getty Images

When White Ferns Head Coach Bob Carter got in touch with Frances Mackay in early 2021, to ask if she would be keen to play for New Zealand again, the 31-year-old said she needed some time to think about it. It’s not a typical first response for any player, especially one who has spent years on the fringes.

At the time, Mackay was in the middle of a purple patch both as a player and a captain. She had smashed 747 runs and taken 34 wickets across formats in the domestic competitions, leading Canterbury Magicians to a historic double in 2020-21. And yet, she wasn’t certain the moment Carter asked.

“Because I wasn’t sure if I really really really wanted to play for New Zealand again, or if I just thought it might be nice,” Mackay tells Women’s CricZone.

And she was justified in feeling so. Prior to the series against England in February, Mackay last played an ODI for New Zealand in 2014. Between her debut in 2011 as a 21-year-old and the 2014 T20 World Cup in Bangladesh, she donned New Zealand colours 19 times in ODIs and 27 times in T20Is. 

Barring the one T20I against India in 2019, when she made a comeback and injured her ankle halfway through the game, Mackay had not been a part of the New Zealand set-up for the better part of seven years. When a player is out of the national team for that long despite scoring heaps of runs in domestic cricket – between 2017 and 2019, Mackay amassed 1378 runs at 81.05 average in the HBJ Shield – seeds of doubt can be sown.

“You get dropped because you didn’t take enough wickets or score enough runs. (For me) that was back in 2014 when that happened. You know, you play a lot of domestic cricket, score a lot of domestic runs, take a lot of domestic wickets, but there is that little bit of doubt of what you can actually do in the next level. ‘Are you a domestic bully? Maybe the selectors were right this whole time, that actually you are not good enough for international cricket.’ It kind of all swirled around a little bit,” she responds.

“When I first missed out on the New Zealand side, I actually thought it would be a short thing. The feedback that I got was that they wanted me to find a job outside of cricket to give me a little bit of life-balance. So, they wanted me to have a little bit of time off, to work on my fitness. So, I did those things. I became a librarian, which is as out of cricket I thought I could possibly get. Ticked off all those fitness goals, played the next season and honestly, felt like I would just get picked. I have done what they asked. All of a sudden, I missed out again. Then I said, ‘Now, I’m stubborn and a bit mad about it. I’m gonna work really really hard and then I missed out again. And again. Next thing you know it’s been two and a half, three years since you played. I was upset that I wasn’t involved. I felt really unhappy. I probably had a little bit of a patch where I wasn’t sure where I was going in life. All I wanted to do was play cricket for New Zealand. That’s all I wanted to do. Everything in my life was geared up to play for New Zealand. I wasn’t getting the opportunity to do that. It was not necessarily my fault is how I felt. To deal with that was pretty tough.”

And when she finally was called back five years later, it couldn’t have gone any worse.  Mackay was picked for the T20Is against India in February 2019 after leading Magicians to the final of the Super Smash a month earlier. It was an opportunity that came when she thought she might never play for New Zealand again. She scored an unbeaten nine-ball ten and bowled three balls before her ankle gave way. 

“It was gut-wrenching to feel like I have done all the work to get back to playing for New Zealand,” she recalls. “I was in such good control of the game. It was that season in the lead-up to selection I played the best in my life. I felt it was such a good opportunity. I was going to play so well and show everyone, ‘hey, look! I’m here. I’m back, and I should have been playing all these years!’ But, when it happened, I knew it was bad.”

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Mackay had ruptured one of the ligaments that hold the tendon in place with the ankle. The tendon from the back of the ankle had come to the front. She had to undergo surgery and was out of the game for several months. However, she came back stronger and scored runs for the Magicians but had to wait longer for a comeback.

Frances Mackay led Canterbury Magicians to Hallyburton Johnstone Shield title in 2020-21. © White Ferns

Frances Mackay led Canterbury Magicians to the Hallyburton Johnstone Shield title in 2020-21. © White Ferns

When the 2020-21 season began, Mackay had made her peace with that and focused on enjoying her cricket with the Magicians. The stellar numbers followed, leading to a record double title. Around the same time, she had started planning ahead, thinking of what retirement would look like, and what position she’d like the team to be in before she walked away. The opportunity to simultaneously try her hand at commentating meant she was also contemplating a post-retirement career in broadcasting. 

“I want to make sure that the team is in a better place where they don’t need me to play anymore. I feel it would be natural to kind of move on from there. It was starting to feel a little bit like we were getting closer to it. And you do think, ‘We have won two titles. I might not even have the chance to do it again. What a perfect time to leave on a high.’ Lots of those thoughts were swirling around at the end of the season.”

If all that was not enough, Mackay also realised the need to consider the financial ramifications of her decision. She did not hold a central contract with New Zealand Cricket. She was working as a librarian, alongside which she was able to secure several commentary gigs. She knew her decision could potentially have a sizable impact on her income through the year, adding, “I have never had money as a motivator as a female cricketer. But, you do have to start thinking, you know, cricket is not going to be my forever thing, and commentary might be the job I have the chance to do for the next 40 years.” 

Thanking Carter for the time and support to make her decision, Mackay took the opportunity to talk to family, friends, loved ones and coaches. All the discussions led Mackay to one fundamental question: Why do you play the game?

“You play the game because you love it. You play the game because, as a 10-year-old, you fell in love with all the pieces of the game. If the 10-year-old you were standing here, and you had to tell them, ‘I have decided I don’t want to play for New Zealand,’ you know, that would be pretty disappointing. At the end of the day, it was a really easy decision, and maybe, a heart-based decision slightly over (the) head.”

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Once she confirmed her interest and availability, Mackay was picked to play for New Zealand again. She did not have a big impact in the limited opportunities she got against England. In fact, the 31-year-old found it difficult to adapt to the new environment, having played only for Magicians over the last seven years. 

After the series, Mackay went back to the Magicians set up, taking them to the HBJ Shield title. During this time, she continued to link up with the New Zealand think-tank before coming back for the Australia series in both ODIs and T20I squads. 

In the first T20I, she batted at eight, facing only four deliveries, and took one wicket for 29 runs in four overs.

On the morning of the second match at Mclean Park in Napier, Mackay was told that Fran Jonas was going to replace her in the playing XI. While she was disappointed at getting dropped, Mackay was thrilled for the 17-year-old left-arm spinner. She believed that Jonas was a better match-up against Australia and could be successful at Mclean Park because of the ground dimensions and pitch conditions. 

Now, all three T20Is were being played as double-headers with the men playing right after the women. It meant that the women had to prepare a bit earlier than usual before the start of play. With Mclean Park not having nets within the ground premises, the women had to walk down the road to the nets around 9 or 10 AM local time if they wanted to get warmed-up or have a short session – much earlier than they usually would for a 3 PM start time.

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Aware of her exclusion, Mackay headed off to the training facility and batted against Lea Tahuhu, who was trying to get back to full fitness for the ODI series. 

“She steamed in (for) about eight overs. It wasn’t that much fun. I think I’ve still got the bruise from where she pinned me on the thigh. I faced her on some pretty spicy wickets and hit a few in the middle. Then batted against the spinners for a little bit, bowled a bit. I ended up getting through 12 or so overs at training in the morning. I probably batted for the best part of an hour. I hit some throwdowns after I had finished.”

Soon after, Mackay got back to the hotel. She took a walk into the town, got some lunch and walked all the way back to her room. In Mackay’s mind, she didn’t have to conserve her energy since she wasn’t going to play that evening. That’s when she got a phone call from Carter, who asked her to come down to his room for a chat. She was curious and had a funny feeling.

“(I) knocked on his door, and Amy actually opened the door. And then I went in, and Bob was there. They said, ‘you are actually going to play today, and you are gonna open the batting with Hayley Jensen.'” Obviously, taken by surprise, she replied, “Oh, okay. At least, I get to open the bowling as well.” She joked about having a full cake at lunch, trying to eat her feelings away and now, had about a half-hour to get ready and join the team at the ground.

The premise to this was skipper Sophie Devine not feeling well and was unavailable for the game. That break, of course, became extended, but at that point, no one knew.

“It puts a little bit of stress on the group when one of your best players is not available, and you are playing against the best team in the world. But, I would like to think one of the things I bring to the team is, ‘just be nice and calm and cool and treat it like it’s a domestic game.’ I felt really good with the fact that I wasn’t really nervous or worried,” she recalls.

 

Come game time, Satterthwaite won the toss and opted to field. Mackay opened the bowling, giving away just two runs in the first over. She bowled a couple more after the power play before coming back for the penultimate over. The off-spinner bagged the big wickets of Rachael Haynes and Ashleigh Gardner, finishing her four overs with two for 20.

Australia had set a target of 130 runs from 20 overs. With the series on the line, a bigger challenge awaited Mackay and Jensen as they were up against the pace prodigy Darcie Brown, who was on her T20I debut, and the wily Megan Schutt. After struggling for a couple of overs against the pace pair, Jensen got out, trying to take on Ellyse Perry. However, Mackay and Satterthwaite survived the next three overs from Schutt and Brown, who was consistently breaching the 120 KMPH mark.

When Satterthwaite got out shortly after, Mackay and Amelia Kerr decided to hang in there and build a partnership. The duo took the White Ferns to 65 for two after 11 overs. They needed 65 more runs, and the required run rate had crept up to 7.5. 

Desperate to break the partnership, Meg Lanning brought back Brown for one final crack. By that time, Mackay was batting on a run-a-ball 36 and had also realised that she had torn a calf muscle. “I was pretty confident that I had done it pretty badly. It was pretty sore,” she says.

Kerr started that over with a lofted square cut over point, adding five runs in three balls. Off the fourth delivery, deciding to go after the ball irrespective of where it was pitched, Mackay shuffled across and swatted a full delivery from outside off-stump to the boundary through deep mid-wicket.

A short-pitched delivery followed and was called a wide. Knowing that only one bouncer was allowed per over, Mackay was confident that Brown had to bowl a length that was in her half of the wicket. The hoick over the leg-side was her strength, Mclean Park had short square boundaries, and Australia had only one fielder behind square. Mackay was clear about what she wanted to do – get into a position that would allow her to secure a boundary.

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Mackay went deep into her crease and across her stumps, got underneath a good length delivery and thumped it over deep-midwicket for a six. The shot was so good that even she couldn’t believe it. Though she got out the next ball for a 39-ball 46, Mackay had put New Zealand in a strong position, and they went on to win the game by four wickets thanks to a last-ball boundary.

From having thoughts about retirement, to making a comeback into the White Ferns squad, to almost getting dropped before being called back on the morning of the second T20I, and then to go on to contribute in a series-levelling victory, the first three months of 2021 were a rollercoaster ride for Mackay.

Despite getting ruled out for the rest of the season, Mackay had done enough to earn her maiden central contract for 2021-22. “Brooke [Halliday] and Frankie’s performances last season were very encouraging. Both have leadership experience at the domestic level and have plenty to add to the group, off the park as well as on it,” Carter said of the new additions.

Though she missed out on the England tour in September, Mackay is still in the scheme of things. “For people to think that I have got something to offer and even the fact that Canterbury had success and the young players had success… To be recognised by coaches, the management and even some of the players involved in that New Zealand side actually (saying), ‘you have got a lot to add, you have got a lot of experience, we can pick your brain about it,’ it’s pretty cool. It’s kind of gone a full circle.”

With the ODI World Cup in New Zealand on the horizon, Mackay appears to have enough motivation to translate her domestic numbers to international cricket with every chance she gets. And if she does, the White Ferns, too, have a better chance of completing one “full circle” after 22 years. 

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