Living out of a suitcase has become almost an everyday ritual for Rachel Priest – but she can pack for the latest installment of the Women’s Big Bash League with an extra spring in her step following her recall to the national set-up.
It was July 2017 when Priest last had the honour of representing her country, after which she has travelled around the globe, proving a star turn in various franchise competitions in the women’s game such as the WBBL in Australia and the now defunct Women’s Cricket Super League in England.
Each of those journeys have been fueled by a desire to regain her spot in the New Zealand side – an itch, if you like, that has never gone away.
That wait ended a little over a week ago when she was named among a 17-strong squad to gain contracts from Cricket New Zealand for the 2019-20 season. Her numbers in recent years suggest she’s more than earned the right for another crack at the top level.
The 34-year-old was a destructive force in the 2018 WBBL, scoring over 300 runs at a strike rate of 134, hitting 60 boundaries, nine of which were sixes. Her big-hitting exploits were seen again in the final edition of the WCSL this past summer where her 365 runs were the fourth highest tally in the tournament, helping lead Western Storm to the trophy.
With the Women’s T20 World Cup now firmly on the horizon, it seems Cricket New Zealand could no longer ignore the claims of the talismanic wicket-keeper batter. Second, with Amy Satterthwaite set to miss the tournament having recently announced her pregnancy, the White Ferns have turned to Priest’s experience at a time when their team looks to be searching for leaders.
It makes packing her bag yet again less of a chore for Priest, who as she heads for her latest stint with Sydney Thunder, knows another strong showing may just clinch a spot in New Zealand’s XI for their opening World Cup encounter against Sri Lanka at the WACA in Perth on February 22.
“I don’t think I would have gone around the world playing cricket if I’d given up on playing for New Zealand,” Priest told Women’s CricZone before her recall had been confirmed. “I loved playing for my country and to play in a World Cup again would be pretty amazing.”
“So, I’ve not given up on that dream, no – you just never know do you.”
Whether she makes the starting XI or not, Priest is clear New Zealand have more than a sporting chance of going one better than their male counterparts, who were beaten by hosts England in the 50-over World Cup this summer. She suspects the achievements of Kane Williamson’s side will give much needed oxygen to New Zealand cricket which she acknowledges goes on very much in the shadow of other sports in her native land.
Australia’s mauling of England in the summer women’s Ashes series confirms them as favourites to retain their title in cricket’s shortest international format, particularly given they will be further boosted by home advantage. Priest is savvy enough to know that despite hard work and progress, her national organisers lacks the financial clout of not only Australia, but England and India too. Nevertheless, the New-Plymouth born star believes the explosive format of T20 lends itself to individual performance and that the White Ferns have enough characters with that sort of stardust to give them a fighting chance.
“Everyone (in the women’s game) is chasing Australia at the moment aren’t they,” she admits. “They are an absolutely amazing side with the really professional set-up that they’ve got. It is always going to be difficult because New Zealand cricket just doesn’t bring in the revenue of the likes of Cricket Australia and the ECB. So, we are up against it in that way, but there’ve been a few personnel changes. We’ve got a new coach and things, so there is a change happening.”
“Their (the team’s) focus will be the T20 World Cup next year and they have got the players to go really far in that tournament. They have some X-factor players, Suzie Bates, Sophie Devine – those people are match winners and hopefully they can have a good World Cup.”
“We’ve been close a few times and T20 cricket now is anyone’s game, so even coming up against the likes of Australia and England you’ve always got a chance because one person can change a game. If one person gets 80 or one person gets four wickets, that changes a match,” she added.
Defying the World Cup odds will be just the latest underdog challenge for Priest, who didn’t come from sporting stock. Nor did she have an older male sibling to capture her interest and spur her on like many of her counterparts around the world. She’s old enough too, to be from an era where girls cricket was really in its infancy back in New Zealand, meaning she had to prove herself in the boys’ game – a schooling she would heartily recommend.
“I didn’t even realise women’s cricket was a sport to be honest until I was about 12,13 or 14,” Priest said. “I grew up watching the New Zealand men’s team with Craig McMillan, Nathan Astle and people like that – I’m of that era.”
“I can remember I was allowed to have a day off school where my mum took me to a game of New Zealand versus England. That was the first time I’d seen women’s cricket, which was obviously really special. I saw a way then to play women’s cricket and that it was actually a possibility to do that.”
“But I’m not taking anything away from growing up playing boys’ cricket. I think it is really important if girls can play a bit of boys’ cricket alongside their girls’ stuff as well. Everything happens a bit faster and harder which toughens you up, plus the boys actually talk about cricket on the side-line and things, so you learn a lot quicker. It certainly helped me anyway.”
Despite her reputation as a big hitter at the top of the order in white-ball formats, Priest is quick to stress she was a late developer with willow in hand. Wicket-keeping was the art which first attracted her to the sport and remains pivotal to her game.
Therefore, while the men’s game seems to have deserted wicket-keeping as an art for it’s own sake in favour of run getters in Priest’s mould, she is proud of the fact she stands in a pantheon of females such as Sarah Taylor (England), Alyssa Healy (Australia) and Trisha Chetty (South Africa) preserving the craft on the international stage.
And though Taylor chose to announce her retirement this week, Priest is hopeful, not to say confident, that wicket-keeping will keep its importance in the women’s game as any other approach is, in her view, a false economy.
“To be honest wicket-keeping was actually my first love,” she said. “I was much more of a wicket-keeper than a batter. When my international career started, I was probably a No. 11 and just somehow worked my way up the order. I’ve always loved wicket-keeping. I just love being involved in the game where I am always in the action and things like that.”
“Wicket-keeping kind of gets forgotten. If you do everything right, no-one really notices you and just carries on with their day. It is when you miss that one out of a whole game that people say, ‘Oh you didn’t ‘keep that well today.’”
“I don’t think the women’s game is going the same way with wicket-keeping as the men though. All the wicket-keepers I can think of in the women’s game are proper wicket-keepers. They are true wicket-keepers, which I think is good because you can substitute in a part-time wicket-keeper if they are a bit of a better batter and things, but they might not get that key stumping, or something might happen in the game that a proper wicket-keeper probably would get and that can change a match,” she said.
“I hope the women’s game doesn’t go that way, but you never know. Things move on don’t they; and the way things are going we want lots of batters in the team and short boundaries – not that the bowlers are that happy about that! Hopefully they keep bringing through true wicket-keepers as well.”
Speaking of things moving on, there was the merest hint that any World Cup appearances may mark a swansong for a star, who by her own admission is approaching the twilight of her career on the sporting stage. On the subject of whether she would be heading back to the UK next summer as part of the ECB’s latest innovation, The Hundred, while generally supportive, Priest stopped short of confirming her availability – international commitments permitting – intimating nothing lasts forever.
“I guess I’m a little bit of a traditionalist. I grew up watching Test cricket, so although I’ve never played it myself, I do love watching it. But I love all forms of the game, so I guess if there is going to be a new form of cricket then I’ll be all for it,” she added. “I’m just really excited to see how it all works. I haven’t heard much about it and don’t know all the rules, but I’m sure that it will be a really, really exciting competition.”
“Hopefully I’ll be involved – I’m getting a bit old now, so we’ll see how we go. Hopefully I’ll keep scoring runs and an opportunity might arise.”
All that though is in the future, for now it’s destination Sydney – time to pack that suitcase again.