ICC Women's Cricket World Cup 2022
Raack's Irish ambition has her eyeing a World Cup berth
Celeste Raack and Ireland are embarking on a World Cup qualifying campaign that could reshape the future of cricket in the country
23 November 2021, 11:10 AM AEST
When Celeste Raack packed her two passports and travelled to Ireland to pursue her dream of playing international cricket, a global pandemic was the last thing on her mind.
Sydney-born Raack's vision for her immediate future involved travelling between her two homes and playing cricket across both hemispheres; not a scenario that would see her separated from family for more than two years, or struggling to make ends meet in a foreign country.
But with the help of her cricket family, Raack has been able to forge ahead with her Irish cricket dream and this week, is part of the Ireland squad who are competing in what they have dubbed their "Olympics", the ICC ODI World Cup Qualifying event in Zimbabwe.
Leg-spinner Raack, who previously played for Tasmania and the Hobart Hurricanes, moved to Ireland to spend a northern summer playing club cricket in 2018 and just months later, made her international debut during the T20 World Cup in the West Indies.
The idea of Raack playing in the Emerald Isle was first pitched by former Ireland captain and Hurricanes import Isobel Joyce; her grandparents on her mother's side are Irish and she holds an Irish passport, making it possible for her to represent the up-and-coming cricket nation.
After a second northern season in Ireland, Raack spent the 2019-20 summer in Australia seeing family and playing club cricket, before flying back to Europe in February 2020.
"I came back to Ireland thinking I was only going to be gone for four or five months … but then the pandemic shut everything down about two weeks after I entered Ireland," Raack told cricket.com.au.
Her plans for a Dublin summer combining cricket with her work as a physiotherapist (and a solid dash of fun) evaporated in an instant.
"All the socialising, all the fun that I was used to the year before (in Ireland) had to stop immediately," she continued.
"It was mad, it really was. The thing I'd been there for, cricket, was off-limits other than a little bit of training.
"I was planning on working but I didn't have a job for three months with all the physio practices closing (in lockdown).
"I didn't have anywhere to live, so I was lucky my friend Isobel Joyce and her husband John Anderson took me into their home and gave me somewhere to live.
"I suppose I really saw the kindness of my friends in Ireland who were looking after me during that time, where I was stuck without work, without income and without a plan."
Unable to travel between Ireland and Australia as she hoped, Raack found herself charting a different course.
Ireland would not play again until 2021, but Raack and her national teammates were granted exemptions to continue training through the lockdowns, as they worked to make sure they were ready when matches resumed.
"The pandemic has made me more fixed in Ireland than I might have otherwise been … it's kind of pushed me into full time Irish life year-round," she said.
"And it's been fantastic. As much as the pandemic's had its challenges, it's been nice to be able to settle in, train year-round with the girls and find myself a full-time job and get into Irish life."
When Raack left Australia, she gave up the possibility of future domestic contracts with Tasmania for the chance to play at the highest level and is now part of the Irish system that when she started was entirely amateur, but it is now slowly shifting towards increased professionalism.
Raack is one of seven Ireland players who have part-time contracts, the remainder of their squad are not on paid retainers.
But success at this week's ODI World Cup Qualifier could radically change that.
The top three teams at the end of the tournament will join New Zealand, Australia, India, South Africa and England at the World Cup, which is scheduled to begin on March 4.
But more crucially, the tournament will also decide the make-up of the next ICC Women's Championship, as the number of teams in the third cycle of the IWC increases from eight to 10.
The Championship, which determines ODI World Cup qualification, sees each team play one another in a three-game bilateral series across a four-year period, with two points on offer for each win.
Importantly, the Championship adds structure to the women's future tours program; ensuring regular matches and tours across the calendar, and the chance to routinely play against top sides like Australia and India.
"It's huge, our psychologist has called this tournament our 'Olympics' for the last couple of years, not to build the pressure or anything, but it's a huge opportunity," Raack said.
"Our number one goal is to qualify for the World Cup, and that would obviously give us qualification for the Championship as well.
📺 Catch all the ICC Women’s World Cup Global Qualifier action on: https://t.co/2xvLUsaTAw ➡️ 23 Nov: Ireland v West Indies ➡️ 25 Nov: Ireland v Netherlands ➡️ 29 Nov: Ireland v Sri Lanka All games start at 9.30am (Zim time) / 7.30am (Irish time).#BackingGreen ☘️🏏 pic.twitter.com/ik4bD43J2e— Cricket Ireland (@cricketireland) November 22, 2021
"If we can do well in this tournament, it can not only break ground for Irish women's cricket, but for Irish women's sport in general, and put us in a position where hopefully we'll get access to a bit more funding.
"We might be able to potentially have more players contracted and be able to make a real go of cricket as a career, which would be a great thing in the sporting landscape of Ireland.
"That would make us better players and give us that commitment to fixtures, it would be huge for us."
That push towards greater professionalism would greatly benefit the Ireland team, whose growing pains have been exacerbated by the fact cricket is a developing sport in a country where professional athletes remain something of a novelty, and the two biggest sports, Gaelic Football and Hurling, are entirely amateur.
"They take a lot of pride in the fact that they're a completely amateur sport and the men are selling out Croke Park which holds 80,000, it is almost the size of the MCG, and they're not getting any money,” Raack said.
"It's hard in the landscape of Irish sport when you're in a minority sport.
"In world cricket, we're really underpaid, but in the Irish sporting landscape, a lot of sports still have that attitude of sport isn't paid.
“It's a unique situation that cricket is in, in Ireland."
At the 2018 T20 World Cup, Ireland were the only amateur team among the 10 competing sides.
After a 38-run loss to Pakistan during the group stage, a tearful captain Laura Delany addressed the gaping inequity between her side and their competitors, saying, "If we were professional, I wonder what the score would have been out there?"
"If we were professional I wonder what the score would have been out there."@IrishWomensCric's captain Laura Delany was understandably quite emotional after her team's loss to Pakistan. Watch👇 pic.twitter.com/25tjIeMMOR— T20 World Cup (@T20WorldCup) November 14, 201
But Raack is confident Irish cricket is now headed in the right direction, and will only improve if they get the results they desire in Zimbabwe.
"If you compare us to other teams who are ranked similar to us in world cricket, we're not getting anywhere near as much as those girls," Raack said.
"Cricket Ireland has really looked out for us in recent years, there was no one contracted in 2018 at that World Cup, and now there's seven of us on part-time contracts, so that's huge growth within a couple of years.
"So the fight continues for us and the better we do in tournaments and the more exposure we get, hopefully, the more chance we have of becoming professional."
The vastly different circumstances of each of the competing teams at this ODI qualifying tournament was thrown into sharp focus leading into the event.
Ireland went more than three years without playing an ODI between 2018 and this October but have had the benefit of playing a four-game 50-over series in Zimbabwe last month.
Sri Lanka had not played a single international match, in any format, since the group stage of the last T20 World Cup in March 2020, while Bangladesh were also inactive until an ODI series against Zimbabwe earlier this month.
ODI debut with victory against hosts @zimbabwewomen on the first day of the |#CricketWorld | #WCWCqualfiers | 👏 pic.twitter.com/GXPwlj2LCZ— Cricket Thailand (@ThailandCricket) November 21, 2021
The qualifier itself was reduced to nine teams when Papua New Guinea were forced to withdraw after a slew of Covid-19 infections in their camp, with insufficient players available to form a squad.
Meanwhile, Pakistan and West Indies have played a number of series against top international sides across the last two years.
Given what is at stake, the inequity is a bitter pill to swallow, but Raack is confident Ireland's activity over the past year, which also included a T20I European Qualifying event in Spain, and home series against Netherlands and Scotland, will stand them in good stead.
"We're in a really good place at the moment, we've had our full (domestic) season before we've gone into this, so been playing matches since April.
"We had the retirement of four really big players in 2018 and it feels like now we've finally been able to get lots of game time into our young players that have replaced them, and the girls that are relatively young feel like they're some of the senior players now."
Ireland begin their Qualifiers campaign against West Indies on Tuesday.