Kapp in hand: the Proteas’ underdog story

Marizanne Kapp can do wonders with a bat and ball. But she’s an even better all-rounder off the pitch as a voice for women’s and queer rights.

On a gloomy day in Hove, England, history was made in front of a sparse crowd. There were around 500 people according to the summary in the Wisden Almanack. Some reports suggested watching seagulls might have been more entertaining, but the importance of the first ever T20 international being played in August 2004 cannot be overlooked. 

The New Zealand women’s team beat England by nine wickets that day. It would be another six months before the first men’s international in the shortest format of the game would be played. But the coloured clothing revolution had begun, even if not many knew it yet.

Almost 15 000 kms away, Marizanne Kapp was completely oblivious to the historic event that would become the reason she gets to travel around the world and earn a living.

Just a 14-year-old back then, it would take another few years before Kapp’s own revolution would begin. But, just like in Hove, it was already beginning to bubble. 

“I didn’t really know that there was such a thing as international women’s cricket then. I was only playing indoor cricket then and only really started to take things seriously when I was about 16,” Kapp said in Australia, where the Proteas beat England by six wickets in their opening match of the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup. 

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Kapp’s own cricket journey began just two years before that. She started playing indoor cricket with boys. Two to three times a week, she’d go and do her thing. 

“I actually played for South Africa at Under-13 level [in the boys’ team]. I was the first girl to do so,” she recalls. 

Playing with the boys is a familiar anecdote for many women of Kapp’s generation. Admirable as it is, it comes with its own set of challenges.

“The boys would always try to hit you or bowl you just because you’re a girl. But I think that’s the kind of stuff that makes you stronger,” Kapp says. 

The 30-year-old needed that strength to get to where she is today. One of the most recognisable faces in the women’s game and a coveted player for every T20 league that mushrooms across the world, her revolution has been televised.

Stubborn resolve 

But it could have been so different were it not for her innate stubbornness. A few years after finishing school, Kapp’s mother insisted she should “get a real job”. 

“We were only paid per tour back then,” she recalls.

These days, there’s nothing more real than her being a professional cricketer. Last year, she was named in the Women’s Big Bash League Team of the Tournament, and in the ICC official rankings she’s second in the bowling rankings and third in the all-rounder position.  

She has the record for the highest score by a South African at a Women’s World Cup (102* vs Pakistan at Cuttack in 2013) and her four for 29 was pivotal in the Proteas first ever T20 series win over New Zealand.

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Kapp’s the kind of bowler who will first think you out, then execute it. And while the boys she played indoor against might have thought they were getting her down, they were actually helping her learn. 

“I think I learned my swing technique in indoor cricket. It definitely set the foundation for being an all-rounder – because in indoor cricket you have to be good at batting and bowling to be the best,” Kapp explains. 

Another thing she inherited from those days is the fire in her belly. If you’ve never spoken to Kapp away from a net session or match, you would never guess that she can be quite shy, especially when talking about herself. 

Despite her accolades, she doesn’t rate herself as being up there compared to some of her teammates. But she does acknowledge having a work ethic that supersedes almost everyone in her team. By her own admission, that can sometimes be to her detriment. In 2019, coach Hilton Moreeng gently explained that hitting 3 000 balls when 2 000 will do isn’t always the best way to approach things. Kapp says she now focuses more on the mental side of the game, too, trying to find the perfect balance. 

“I see sport as a way to deal with personal stuff in a way. I never thought I would get to do something I love for a living. And even though I’m quite shy, I can be myself when I’m playing cricket,” Kapp says.

Sportstars tackling social ills 

Being herself includes acknowledging the role sportspeople play in society, despite never asking for the burden of being a role model. And while sportspeople don’t always feel comfortable speaking out over issues beyond the pitch, equal rights is something there is a strong camaraderie about among women cricketers.

This year’s T20 World Cup is taking place in Australia, the home of Israel Folau, the former Australian rugby player sacked for posting homophobic messages on social media.

Somewhat reluctantly, Kapp has become a sort of poster girl for same-sex marriage in Australia. She’s married to teammate and captain Dane van Niekerk and while the couple have no qualms sharing their love on social media, she’s had to learn to be comfortable when talking about her relationship to the media. 

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“When Dane and I got married and played in the same team, it was such a big deal in Australia. Everyone just wanted an interview all the time. I actually became a bit negative about the whole thing,” Kapp remembers.

“But one of the girls told me that it’s an important thing to do because same-sex marriage was only legalised here some time ago,” she adds.

Back home, meanwhile, Cricket South Africa (CSA) announced recently the Proteas and Australia women will wear black during a T20 scheduled for after the World Cup. The aim is to support the fight against femicide and violence against women and comes in the wake of high-profile murders in the country in 2019.

Another revolution 

It might seem unusual in some circles for sport to take such a strong public stance, but South Africa is an unusual place. Last year, Springbok wing Makazole Mapimpi publicly acknowledged the rape and murder of University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana, with the words “RIP Nene” etched onto his wrist strapping. 

A few weeks later, when Mapimpi scored the first ever try for a Springbok in a World Cup final and Siya Kolisi went up to accept the William Webb Ellis Cup – which nobody expected them to win – Kolisi didn’t shy away from admitting that things were tough back home, and remain difficult.

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The tournament will be tricky for the Proteas. But skipper Van Niekerk has already said that they want to try to do something special, just like the Boks. Last time out, the team won just two of their four group games and didn’t progress to the semifinals. 

Kapp is under no illusion about the team’s previous struggles. 

“We’ve been very inconsistent at tournaments. When the bowlers do well, our batters fail and the other way around. We just need to fire together at the same time,” she says.  

For years, the team has been on the doorstep of victory. There have been glimpses, most recently in the series against New Zealand, of what they can achieve once they shed their underdog tag, even if South Africans carry that mantle with grace.

At this year’s Women’s T20 World Cup in Australia, there’s a drive to break the record for the highest-ever attendance at a women’s sporting event – a far cry from circling seagulls 16 years ago. 

The world is watching, waiting for the next revolution. 

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