The White Ferns were in Christchurch on February 22, 2011, about to play the Australians in an ODI series, when the deadly earthquake struck.
Frankie Mackay, a young Canterbury all-rounder, was about to make her international cricket debut. Ten years later, she’s been recalled into the White Ferns for their ODI series against England, the first game on Tuesday at Christchurch’s Hagley Oval.
Mackay tells Trevor Auger about that terrible day in this excerpt from his new book, The Warm Sun on My Face – The Story of Women’s Cricket in New Zealand.
Tuesday, February 22, was set down as a training day for each team, and the Australians had first use of the facilities at Lincoln, about half an hour’s drive away. The New Zealanders had the afternoon shift, and shortly before one o’clock they were gathering at their hotel in Cathedral Square to take the three team minibuses south for their own practice. Some of the team were already in the vehicles, others were in the hotel lobby when the earthquake struck.
Frankie Mackay, the 21-year-old Canterbury all-rounder had come into the squad for the February matches and had just been told in a team meeting she would debut at the top of the order in the first of the One Day Internationals.
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She had just walked through the lobby towards the doors out into the square when the quake began. She and Amy Satterthwaite grabbed one of the large pillars in the entranceway and wrapped themselves around it to stop being thrown to the ground.
It was from there they saw the spire of the Christchurch Cathedral begin to tumble. Mackay recalled tapping Satterthwaite on the shoulder and shouting at her to look at what was happening, and Satterthwaite screaming back that she was.
In the vans the players explained that they lost their sense of physical perspective. They thought the Cathedral was falling on them as, terrified, they scrambled to escape. When the shaking stopped the team gathered outside the hotel in the Square. Some couldn’t stand and said sitting down made them feel safer.
Mackay explained: “There were White Ferns curled in little balls in the middle of the Square.”
All-rounder Erin Bermingham (who would graduate from police college in 2015) reacted by trying to help people and attempting to remove rubble to see whether anybody was trapped beneath the debris of the Cathedral. White Ferns manager Christina Ryan had to try and slow her down, anxious that she would end up injured herself.
Mackay remembered looking round and seeing that the adjacent Press Building, home of Christchurch’s morning newspaper, had collapsed and was on fire. People were coming out with blood on their faces and running down their arms.
She realised this wasn’t just about the Cathedral. “You think, ‘we’re in a world of trouble here’”, Mackay says.
The team abandoned their three vehicles, and clad in their New Zealand training gear, ran through the quake-ravaged city to nearby Hagley Park, which had become an impromptu evacuation point.
From there they decided to walk north-west up Fendalton Rd, where one of the Canterbury players in the team had a flat, but they continued past to where Sophie Devine’s parents lived.
By this time Mackay had been able to text her parents. When she saw her father drive through a police cordon towards her it was “probably the happiest moment of my life” and certainly the instant when she was hit with the enormity of what she’d been through.
There had been relief in the Mackay household when they heard from their daughter – her father had calmly been thinking she was staying at Lincoln until her worried mother was able to convince him that she was actually in the centre of the city.
The team, still covered in the dust and debris of Cathedral Square, were bundled into various cars and taken to Lincoln, where the Australians had been holed up. They took one look at the dishevelled New Zealanders and thought ‘what the heck is happening?’
It had been a damp morning and the Australian women had been practising indoors. Their first indication that something was happening was a loud noise like roller doors being opened, and then the floor started to move violently.
Experienced Australian player Lisa Sthalekar was initially confused and crouched down as if she was riding a surfboard as the awareness hit home that she was in an earthquake. Her teammates were screaming and running and they all headed to the exit and gathered amidst nervous laughter.
Remarkably, with calm restored, they went back inside and completed their training, interrupted by a sharp aftershock which again sent some of the players running outdoors.
They had their ice baths after the session and only began to comprehend the seriousness of what had happened when they were told the roads were closed and they couldn’t get back to Christchurch.
They had nothing other than their cricket gear, the clothes they had trained in, and whatever they had brought with them in their backpacks. Lincoln University gave them all shirts and jerseys to change into, as well as a bed for the two nights before they could get a flight back to Australia.
By now they had seen the television coverage and their minds were occupied with the ‘what ifs’- especially the thought of what might have been had they foregone training because of the poor weather and been out in central Christchurch looking for lunch when the quake struck.
Frankie Mackay had her own ‘what if’ story when she opened her wallet and found a receipt printed at 12:52pm the previous afternoon, from a small food hall where she and her mother had enjoyed lunch. Exactly 24 hours later, two people died there.
The New Zealanders also stayed at Lincoln, and like the Australians, only had the clothes they were wearing to training and their backpacks. Their cricket gear was stuck in the vans now cordoned off in Cathedral Square and their clothing and the other personal effects they had on tour were in their hotel rooms – in Mackay’s case on the 12th floor.
Fortunately, the hotel was relatively unscathed, but it was still several weeks before the players would see their belongings again.
The death toll from the Christchurch earthquake was 185 people. Although the New Zealand and Australian cricket teams were physically unharmed, the impact of their experience was immense.
The tour was quickly called off, with the Australians heading home. In due course it was decided to reschedule the three ODIs in Brisbane in June.
That helped motivate Mackay and get her re-focused on the training necessary to secure a place in the side. Playing cricket for New Zealand had been all she had wanted to do and she had been on the verge of achieving that ambition when, as she recalled, “it could all have been taken away”.
There were other challenges for her and her teammates. Her Canterbury teammate Kelly Anderson had been scheduled to make her international debut alongside Mackay, and now her home had been rendered uninhabitable by the earthquake.
She, her husband and their dog – together with another cricketing friend whose house had also been damaged – all moved into the Mackay family’s modest three-bedroom home. For several weeks Mackay slept on a mattress on the lounge floor, watching as much as she could of the men’s ICC World Cup (being broadcast from Sri Lanka) before falling asleep.
For Mackay, cricket was a passion, almost an obsession. At Cobham Intermediate School she played with the boys and opened the batting with future Black Cap Corey Anderson, and around this time she fell under the coaching eye of White Fern Selena Charteris. With her guidance Mackay began playing senior cricket for the Lancaster Park Club when she was 12.
Between playing, coaching and learning about the game, her life revolved around the sport, to what she acknowledged was probably an unhealthy level. She was advised to find work outside the game as a way to keep her sport in perspective and her life better balanced. A voracious reader, she became a librarian and fitted that in alongside her cricket coaching.
She would make her long-cherished debut alongside Anderson in Brisbane later in 2011, opening the batting for New Zealand and top scoring with 36.
Over the following years Mackay struggled to replicate her domestic form in international cricket and after she was omitted from the New Zealand team, the message was to improve her fitness, strength and conditioning and score her runs more quickly.
Eventually sheer weight of runs and wickets forced her recall to the T20 side to play India in early 2019, and after scoring 10 not out from number six in the order, she was given the new ball to open the bowling with her flat off-spinners. However, three balls into her first over, she damaged her ankle. Surgery and rehab kept her off the field until the following season.
She had a fall-back position in the game through commentary. Her growing media experience and exposure in Canterbury coincided with a deliberate move by Sky to offer more diversity to their cricket broadcasts by broadening the commentary team.
Articulate and knowledgeable, the role gave her ample opportunity to illustrate her technical and tactical acumen, and she immediately made a positive impression. Black Cap Jimmy Neesham tweeted: “I think it needs to be said in a climate that’s been quite unwelcoming to women commentators @FrankieMac71 is very, very good”.
* Mackay captained the Canterbury Magicians to victory over the defending champions, the Wellington Blaze, in this month’s Super Smash final, and after a two-year absence, was recalled into the 13-strong White Ferns side to play three ODIS against England, starting Tuesday. Games will be live on Spark Sport.
Trevor Auger, a former club cricketer and press scorer at Eden Park, is the author of The Warm Sun on My Face: The Story of Women’s Cricket in New Zealand. He currently serves on the Auckland Cricket Judicial Committee.
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