Rachel Priest travels and plays cricket everywhere (but it's not her choice)

Repeatedly overlooked by New Zealand, the wicketkeeper-batsman has tried to make a career as the first freelance cricketer in the women's game, but the going is tough

Snehal Pradhan
Rachel Priest made 338 runs in the 2018-19 WBBL season for Sydney Thunder  •  Getty Images

Rachel Priest made 338 runs in the 2018-19 WBBL season for Sydney Thunder  •  Getty Images

Harmanpreet Kaur, Sophie Devine, Stafanie Taylor, Rachel Priest, Dane van Niekerk, Suzie Bates, Smriti Mandhana, Lizelle Lee, Amy Satterthwaite, Marizanne Kapp. These are the ten overseas stars who play in both the Women's Big Bash League (WBBL) in Australia and the Kia Super League (KSL) in England. Each of them has storied careers for their national teams; they are the cream of international cricket.
Except, one of them doesn't play international cricket anymore.
Last year Rachel Priest spent January crisscrossing Australia playing for Sydney Thunder in the WBBL. In February she was in New Zealand, playing for Wellington Blaze. From May to August she was in England, playing limited-overs games for Wales and then T20s for Western Storm in the KSL. In October, she was back with Blaze again. And in December, she started a new season with Thunder.
"I don't get a lot of downtime," she says, laughing, as we chat over the phone in the middle of her 2018-19 WBBL campaign. Priest had plenty of cricket on her plate last year despite none of that being for New Zealand women. She was dropped from the ODI and T20I squads after the 2017 World Cup, and asked to work on her fitness and ODI average. She has a career average of 28.35; in nine matches for New Zealand in 2017 she averaged 25.22; six of those were World Cup games, where she averaged 20.83.
In August last year, she lost her central contract. With 86 ODIs and 68 T20Is to her name, she was the most high-profile exclusion from the list. And so she has now swapped the black New Zealand uniform for a variety of league cricket colours.
Like her former New Zealand team-mate Sara McGlashan, who now plays in the KSL as a local player, Priest is in a unique position in women's cricket, as an in-demand overseas player who doesn't find a place in her national team.
"It feels good in a way, but it also feels bad in a way," she says. "I love T20 cricket, so it feels good that these teams are selecting me. But obviously it is hard. I want to be playing for New Zealand."
"I know I'm not going to be rich when I finish playing, and I'll have to go straight into a job. But I love playing cricket and I'm so lucky to travel the world"
Priest has two hundreds and ten fifties across formats in a decade-long career with New Zealand, and was one half of a hard-hitting opening combination, with Suzie Bates, for much of her career. "I don't want to take it out of their hands, I don't want to retire," she says. "I still think I have something to offer."
It might be tempting to label Priest as the first freelance women's cricketer, but there are only two professional tournaments for women to play in outside of international cricket, and just the beginnings of a living to be made from them. Which means that even though 33-year-old Priest earns the kind of money she never dreamed possible from domestic cricket, her financial position is still shaky.
"A national contract would be monthly, so to have money coming in gives some security," she says. Priest has no job outside of cricket, and doesn't own a home. While in Australia and not on Thunder duty, she stays with her parents in Brisbane. While playing domestic one-day cricket for Blaze in Wellington, she stays with friends. Wales hosted her while she played for them, but offered no professional fees, though she did do some coaching on the side there. Priest is essentially dependent on the two major T20 domestic leagues to sustain her itinerant lifestyle.
"You do get paid pretty well now for these tournaments, but it's one lump sum at the end. It is hard for the times in between that, and has to be managed pretty closely and carefully."
Priest has no agent. She negotiates her own contracts and spends her own money for coaching, nutrition and gym memberships when she is not associated with a team. But she wouldn't have it any other way. "I know I'm not going to be rich when I finish playing, and I'll have to go straight into a job. But I love playing cricket and I'm so lucky to travel the world."
Her situation also means that she cannot effectively press her case for a national recall in New Zealand's domestic cricket. To earn money, she has to choose the WBBL over the concurrently running Super Smash in New Zealand, taking her further from the eyes of the selectors. While Priest earns upwards of US$15,000 a season in the WBBL, Super Smash players receive only allowances for games and no match fees.
It is an issue that Peter McGlashan, a former Black Caps keeper and brother of Sara, raised while commentating on the Super Smash final last week, and something Priest and Sara have spoken about since. The pay disparity between leagues is just as big a concern as that between men and women, one that the New Zealand Cricket Players Association has said will be discussed with the NZC at the end of the season.
Born in New Plymouth, Priest benefitted from having a cricket coach living next door to her, and grew up as the only girl in various boys' teams. After making her debut for Central Districts, she moved to Wellington for a job and has since played in the HBJ Shield for Wellington Blaze. She got her break for New Zealand in 2007, when wicketkeeper Rebecca Rolls retired; the call came during a tea break at her summer job working in a fruit orchard.
A decade on, Priest has made peace with her current situation, but when she was dropped two years ago, she came close to stepping away from the game.
"Thinking back now, I would have thought I'm done with cricket. Being dropped from a team that I gave the last ten years of my life to was a difficult time for me," she said. "I was really lucky that I had that KSL season to go straight into."
In a different environment and with a point to prove, she thrived, top-scoring in the 2017 KSL with 261 runs in seven games, and making 72 off 36 balls in the final to help Storm to the title. She credits a couple of Storm coaches for her turnaround: head coach Trevor Griffin and mental conditioning coach Jon Pitts.
"Between the both of us, we were able to support Rachel through what was a tough time for her," says Griffin, who also worked on certain technical aspects in Priest's game. "We found her head was falling over sometimes. Then we added a bit to her game in terms of utilising the crease forwards and back and being able to access different areas thanks to that."
The performance wasn't enough to help her retain her place in New Zealand's T20I squad in 2017-18, but it earned her the gloves for Sydney Thunder after she was released by Melbourne Renegades. She has gone on to have her two personal best seasons with Thunder, this season ticking past the 300-run tally for the first time.
A tweak in her wicketkeeping stance, where she does not squat as low as she did before, has improved her agility, and Griffin believes her glove work is the best it has ever been.
"Rachel is still probably one of the best wicketkeeper-batters in the world, along with Sarah Taylor and Alyssa Healy," reckons Griffin, who was Thunder's assistant coach this season. When they aren't working side by side, he monitors Priest's game using Whatsapp video clips instead.
When New Zealand failed to reach the World T20 semi-finals last November, questions floated around on social media as to why Priest was out in the cold while the national team was struggling to nail down an opening combination. While her keeping and batting in the leagues have matched international standards, perhaps what is holding her back is her fitness.
"I would say that her fitness levels are similar to where I have seen them before; they certainly have not deteriorated," Griffin says.
Last week, Priest was left out of New Zealand's T20I squad against India. The announcement came a day after she top-scored in the WBBL semi-final. She finished with 338 runs in the season - third in the list of New Zealand players and with 13 runs more than New Zealand captain Amy Satterthwaite.
Ironically, her international snub might make her a more attractive option for the T20 leagues. Towards the end of their seasons, both the KSL and the WBBL had to let go of some overseas recruits because of their international commitments. Priest, meanwhile, remained available for the finals.
Her story also raises questions about the transitioning process for cricketers who miss out on international contracts. Outside of Australia and England, where players' associations work with female players to various degrees, cricketers face the inevitable financial and mental insecurities largely alone.
"The fact that I may not have any contracts next year does play on my mind," Priest says. "The mental side is not something we talk about enough. Cricket is a mentally tough game as it is. One day you can score a hundred, the next day you're out for a duck. You're always chasing that high, even though 90% of the time you don't find it."
For now she lives in the present, not looking too far ahead. When recruiting season for the KSL begins, she will hope her phone beeps and that this endangered existence she loves so much endures for a while longer.

Snehal Pradhan is a former India and Maharashtra opening bowler, and now a freelance journalist. @SnehalPradhan