Cricket

Frankie the Magician pulls a new trick from her hat

Maybe it’s the dreadlocks. Or the brown tape wrapped around the front of her spiked shoes, holding her toes in.

Or that long strip of the same tape slashed across the front of her black helmet, masking the silver fern. It’s been almost five years since she last played for the White Ferns, but, hey, “It’s the only helmet that will fit my dreads”.

Frances "Frankie" Mackay knows she doesn’t look like your archetypal cricketer. (She’s doesn’t sound like your classic librarian, either, but she does that part-time too).

When it comes to cricket, Mackay can certainly walk the walk, and talk the talk.

This is turning out to be the 28-year-old allrounder’s dream summer. She's played like a demon - striking three centuries in domestic one-dayers, and leading her young Canterbury Magicians side into the Super Smash T20 women’s final against the Wellington Blaze this weekend.

And the self-confessed ‘cricket tragic’ has also put her encyclopaedic sporting brain to another good use – as a television commentator on both men’s and women’s Super Smash games for SkySport.

It’s not an easy gig. Last season Debbie Hockley, now president of NZ Cricket - was abused, threatened with physical violence, and an (unsuccessful) petition launched to dump her from the commentary team.

That hasn’t intimidated Mackay.   

“The rubbish Debbie had to put up with is not nice, but unfortunately it comes with being more in the spotlight,” she says.

“I’ve just tried to enjoy it, and it’s been better than I could have imagined. Some of the feedback I’ve got has been really great, and it’s been awesome to see people talking about it on social media.”

Not just your couch-dwelling Twitterers, either. Black Cap Jimmy Neesham, for one, was moved to tweet on Mackay’s debut season in the commentary box.

“I’ve never even met Jimmy in person,” Mackay admits.  “But how cool is that?”

Mackay’s mum recently reminded her that, as a 10-year-old, she'd be glued to the TV, hanging on every word uttered by the cricket commentators. “I’d say ‘That would be the coolest job in the world, Mum – to watch cricket, talk about it and get paid’,” Mackay says. "My opinion hasn’t changed

“I’m really passionate about women’s cricket, but I also have the knowledge that I can impart to men’s cricket as well. It’s been appropriate for male cricketers to talk about the women’s game, but until now, the reverse failed to happen.

“It feels good to get involved in men’s cricket, to hold your own and know you have valuable things to add. It’s something I pride myself on – I may not be the best athlete on the cricket field, but I have a very good brain for cricket.”

This new string to her bow has already taken her to an unlikely corner of the world.

Last month, just a few hours after she’d smashed 140 runs in a 50-overs match against the Central Hinds, a “terribly sunburned” Mackay flew to Kathmandu to join the commentary team for the Everest Premier League – the professional men’s competition in Nepal.

Pioneering sports commentator and former White Fern, Lesley Murdoch, helped Mackay get that job – just as she’d introduced her to the media realm. For the past two years, Mackay has been a regular guest on Murdoch’s Saturday radio sports show in Christchurch.   

Murdoch says Mackay is a rare diamond, both on the field and off. She’s watched the Magicians captain’s form and confidence at the wicket “blossom” this season, in unison with her commentary.

“I feel really proud of what she’s done. She’s her own person, she’s easy on the ear, and she’s got a great way of telling what’s happening out there in the middle. And it’s helping her own game,” Murdoch says.

Mackay, who’s been playing representative cricket for 12 years, might agree that it’s had some influence on her resurgence in form.

“It’s been cool to see how good the [male commentators] have been with the women coming into the commentary box. A few people said ‘Be careful, they might ask you to make the tea’. But they’ve been brilliant,” she says.

“Talking with them, and bouncing ideas off them, helps me with my own cricket too.”

Mackay also knows she’s put in a lot of hard yards in the last few years, striving to make it back into the White Ferns. But this season, a change in her motivation to keep playing the game may actually be the main factor.

A right-hand batswoman and right-arm offspin bowler, Mackay made her first appearance for the White Ferns a fortnight after her 21st birthday. Between 2011 and 2014, she played 19 one-dayers and 27 T20s for New Zealand.

When she returned home from the 2014 T20 World Cup – where the White Ferns finished a disappointing fifth – she felt she'd finally found her stride in international cricket, that it was all starting to click. But then she didn’t get a New Zealand Cricket contract, and she was dropped from the side.

Crushed, it became her “sole goal” to get back into the team: “I geared up my life to play for New Zealand again and thought it would happen straight away. I was motivated to prove everyone wrong.”

Despite the work she poured in, she was repeatedly overlooked. She then underwent back surgery - after playing for 18 months in “absolute agony”, where she’d had to get her team-mates to put her shoes and socks on for her.

Of course, she’d love to be a White Fern again. And with the sparkling form she’s in (she's scored the most runs in the Super Smash this season; her 97 blasted last weekend against the Hinds is the highest score), she may not be a long shot, either.   

Mackay waves her bat on reaching a century - on the way to 140 - in the Hallyburton-Johnstone Shield game against Central Hinds last month. Photo: Getty Images. 

But Mackay admits it’s no longer the most important thing in her life.

“The last couple of years, I’ve relaxed a bit. I’ve just got to the stage where all that preparation, planning and knowledge can sit at the back of my mind, and it now comes down to allowing myself to react on instinct. That’s been really successful for me this year,” she says.

“I’ve had a change in motivation – rather than ‘I have to get better, I have to get better’, and the pressure of chasing perfection – I’m now a wee bit older and wiser and enjoying it more."

She’s also happy in her work at the Upper Riccarton Library.  “People laugh when they hear what I do, and say ‘I never would have picked it; you’ve always got something to say, so how could you be a librarian'?” she laughs.

“It’s a cool job, and nice to be part of something different. The people I work with are the first to tell me ‘Well done, good job’ or ‘hard luck’, even though they don’t really know the sport. It’s nice to find a wee place in the world where they want you to be successful and happy, but they care more about you as a person than a cricketer.”

She's enjoying the recognition that her team gets, now that the women’s T20 competition is televised in double-headers with their male counterparts. Whether they're in their Magicians uniforms or not, people shake their hands while they're breakfasting in hotels or at the airport.

“I hear from builders or mechanics who go into the smoko room, and everyone’s talking about our game – eight blokes sitting around talking about women’s cricket,” she says. “That’s so cool.”

And she’d love to do more commentary.

“I’m not going to be playing forever, so I’m hoping this is something I can do for a long time, and pave the way for other women, too,” she says.   

“I love seeing the direction women’s cricket is heading in. I’m a domestic women’s cricketer, now playing on TV at the best grounds in the country; there are women who are presenting the TV coverage, we’re in the commentary box, and we’ve got female umpires out in the middle.

“You just hope a 10-year-old kid says ‘I’m going to be her. I’m going to be the next Frankie Mackay, or an umpire like Kim Cotton'.”

Cotton is officiating at Sunday’s T20 final on Eden Park’s No. 2 ground.

And maybe now that she’s on TV, Mackay thinks she might have to invest in some other spiked shoes. She didn’t buy a new pair this season, because she thought this may be her last. She’s already reconsidering that.

But she won’t be ditching the holey, taped-up pair before the weekend. She’s wildly superstitious, and figures these shoes have been pretty good to her so far.

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