“I still can’t believe it even now that I am here,” Tumi Sekhukhune says with a bright smile as she surveys the field at Groenkloof Oval at the University of Pretoria.
Sitting on a bench just beyond the boundary, the 20-year-old has a good view of the Proteas Women, who were putting the final touches on their preparations before going on to complete a 3-0 whitewash of Sri Lanka at SuperSport Park in a Twenty20 (T20) series the following day.
Sekhukhune is in awe of her teammates. She can’t call them teammates without smiling because not so long ago she watched most of them from afar, before making her debut in September last year.
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“It’s crazy how things have happened so quickly,” Sekhukhune says. “When you believe and work hard to accomplish your dreams, nothing can stop you. When I said I am giving myself two years [at the national academy before I break into the Proteas Women], I was just pushing myself.
“I left room for disappointment and failure. I left room for it because I want it to build me. My real goal was to make the team next year. I set that extreme goal just to push myself. If it didn’t happen, I wasn’t going to be entirely disappointed. I was going to work on what I needed to improve on to meet my real target of making the team in 2020. Now that I am here, I need to make the most of it.”
Sekhukhune definitely made the most of her chances in her debut against the West Indies in Bridgetown in September. The first wicket she took was that of Windies captain Stefanie Taylor. “It’s my most prized wicket and the highlight of my life,” she says with a chuckle.
‘This is the day!’
Sekhukhune followed that wicket with the scalp of Chedean Nation to finish with two wickets, having gone for 28 runs in six overs.
“They told me the night before the game that I would be getting my first cap,” she reminisces. “I was nervous and also excited. I couldn’t sleep. I kept on telling myself, ‘This is the day! This is the day!’. I realised from there on that my career had begun. I remember the first ball. I told my captain [Dane van Niekerk] that I was very nervous. I was scared because I wanted to do well. But it was a breathtaking moment.
“I was excited but also very nervous because when you get to that level, there are a lot of expectations coming from the country, management and the players. They expect you to do well. I told myself that I was going to have fun and do what I do best.”
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Sekhukhune’s smile flashes a lot during the conversation, which lasts almost half an hour in the scorching heat of the country’s capital. It’s easy to see why though, as she is living her dream of having fun for a living and travelling the world to represent her country. What makes her journey more remarkable is that at some point she walked unchartered territory, making the path up as she went along.
“My aim was just to play cricket for fun because I had a passion for it,” Sekhukhune says. “I didn’t think that I would make it a career. As soon as I saw that women’s cricket was growing, there was money involved, travelling and playing with big teams, I realised I could make this a career because I knew that I could do this, I could play cricket properly.”
The fast bowler from Daveyton refined her craft on a tennis court, the home of the sport that was her first love before cricket won her over. “There was no cricket pitch for us, so I played on the tennis court. You can use whatever you have to your advantage,” she said.
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“I was bowling there even though it wasn’t the most ideal conditions. You would bowl in your takkies and they would tear in two months or so and then you would have buy another pair. We just told ourselves that we’re going to do this.”
It also didn’t help that Unity Secondary School didn’t offer cricket as Sekhukhune’s junior school, Kgalema Primary School, had. That didn’t stop her though. “I went all out, looking for a team,” Sekhukhune says. “That’s when I started playing for Easterns [Women]. But for you to play for Easterns, you have to be selected from schools cricket. They just believed in me. I went there, trialled, and then and there they said come.”
She made her debut for Easterns at the age of 14, following in the footsteps of her cousin Kabelo. Her other cousin, Neo, also played for the club.
Music as a unifier
The sweet sound of wood connecting with leather is broken by the music coming from a small bluetooth speaker as the Proteas Women bat in the nets. They play a variety of music, a bit of rap and some R&B, which creates a relaxed environment.
“We listen to music whether we’re going to the game or are in the bus and we sing along,” Sekhukhune says. “The coach [Hilton Moreeng] usually says we mustn’t think about cricket all the time. Of course, we think about cricket a lot, but it shouldn’t consume our every thought, at least unwind and talk about other things.
“The reasoning behind the music is to give ourselves peace of mind and relax before we switch on. We play a variety of music because we believe that understanding each other’s differences is what brings us together.”
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Sekhukhune, like the Proteas Women, is on the rise. The side is the fifth-best one day international (ODI) team in the world. But they still have a lot to do if they are to capture the imagination of the country and the world as they did in the 2017 Women’s Cricket World Cup, when they lost by two wickets to eventual winners England in the semifinals.
The team took a step back when they crashed out in the group stages of the 2018 ICC Women’s World T20. But their 3-0 series whitewash of Sri Lanka in the 50-overs format proves that they’re back on the right path. It was their fourth successive series clean sweep at home following their T20 and ODI series wins over Bangladesh in May last year.
Sekhukhune was supposed to be starting her studies on 15 February, a day before the Proteas Women sealed the series against Sri Lanka with an unassailable 2-0 lead. But she is confident she can juggle her time as a Protea with working towards her bachelor of commerce degree in financial management at North-West University. Getting the degree is her main objective and if she can play for the senior women’s national team two years earlier than she expected, she can get it in the minimum time required while criss-crossing the world with the team.
“More than anything, it is appreciation,” Sekhukhune says in response to a question about what goes through her mind when she looks at where she comes from and where she is now.
“I appreciate where I come from. That’s the most important thing for me because whenever I accomplish something good, I think, ‘Okay Tumi, where are you from? What stood out for you when you had a little and now that you have more?’ I just want to keep on growing.”