Proteas women seek T20 glory

The South Africa women’s national cricket team will return to West Indies next month in search of world dominance to continue their upward trajectory.

History is a true friend of women’s cricket. Though it is not commonly known, there was a women’s cricket World Cup before a men’s one. From the early 1900s women have been playing cricket for money. The Original English Lady Cricketers team, however, was robbed of their profits by their manager while on tour. Certainly women’s cricket has come a long way since England’s Enid Bakewell, one of the greats, had to pay for her airfare to Australia in 1968 by selling potatoes.

Women have always been a part of the major shifts in cricket, and the public is beginning to notice. South Africans will be treated to some world-class cricket when Proteas women captain Dane van Niekerk and her talented class of 2018 play in the T20 World Cup in West Indies, which will run from 9 to 24 November.

South Africa’s short series in the Caribbean in September gave them a taste of the conditions there. The Proteas women drew the three-match series 1–1 against the reigning T20 world champions. The third match was abandoned due to a soggy outfield.

Dependable leader

Van Niekerk is ranked as the third-best all-rounder in one day international (ODI) cricket. She’s approaching 100 ODIs, and has an impressive batting average of 35.38 runs and a strike rate of 65.36. These stats make her the dependable leader of a strong T20 World Cup squad, which will arrive in the West Indies after having toured the country in preparation for the global showpiece. Van Niekerk’s T20 career is also admirable. With 69 matches behind her, she has a batting average of 28.94 runs and best bowling figure of 4 for 17.

Together with Marizanne Kapp, who took 4 for 55 in the final ODI in Barbados, Lizelle Lee, an experienced opener with a strike rate of 103.45, and the exciting new fast bowler Tumi Sekhukhune, the team represents South Africa’s best chance of performing well in the Caribbean. There is depth to the squad and a good blend of experience and youth.

But the challenge for the Proteas women is the transition from ODIs to T20s. The change in format has tripped them up in the recent past, and they will want to rectify that swiftly. South Africa conceded the most runs in a T20 innings not once but twice in as many days earlier this year in a triangular series in England. First, it happened at the hands of New Zealand who scored 216 for 1. That was followed by 250 for 3 scored by the hosts England – a new T20 international record.

Proteas women head coach Hilton Moreeng has been vocal about his team’s shortcomings in the change of format. “The turnaround time regarding the two formats [ODI and T20] is something for us to learn to adapt to quickly,” he said. “You could see that most of the batters were still in ODI mode and then, as the innings progressed, they switched gears but, by then, it was too late. With the World T20 coming up really soon, this is something that we need to correct and very quickly.”

A blend of youth and experience

Van Niekerk has tremendous confidence in her players and, at 25, considers herself one of the oldies in the squad, which includes three 19-year-olds and 18-year-old Saarah Smith, who has just a handful of T20 matches under her belt. “This is the best bunch we’ve had in a very long while, so I am very excited with the mix of experience and inexperience. I am very excited for the World Cup,” Van Niekerk said in a recent radio interview.

Mignon du Preez, who has played 81 T20 matches and has a strike rate of 98.38, is one of the stalwarts in the squad. Her experience will hopefully rub off on the younger women in the team.

Du Preez stunned the cricket fraternity as a 12-year-old girl when she scored 258 in a provincial under-13 match. She made her senior national team debut at 17 and is still a key member at 29. She will bring stability to the high-pressure environment of a World Cup, knowing, no doubt, that it has been too long since South Africa has won an international cricket tournament – in any gender.

The sixth T20 World Cup will include 10 teams and will be played across three venues – Antigua, Saint Lucia and Guyana. South Africa will play in Group A in St Lucia against England, Sri Lanka, West Indies and World Cup qualifier winners Bangladesh. Group B comprises Australia, India, New Zealand, Pakistan and Ireland.

Playing on home soil, the current T20 world champions West Indies will be favourites to win the trophy, along with perennial contenders India, England and Australia. South Africa and New Zealand have an outside chance of winning the title – but it would take superb effort. Not that such high performance is beyond them.

State of women’s cricket in South Africa

Unsurprisingly, given their accomplishments, India, England and Australia support women’s cricket in ways that make South African cricket seem less progressive. In South Africa, women’s cricket has some way to go before it enjoys parity in the eyes of the viewing public and sponsors. Insurance company Momentum didn’t renew its support of the Proteas women after five years of backing the team’s development. Sport sponsorship is among the first to fall in a stressed economy.

Dave Richardson, International Cricket Council (ICC) chief executive, has more encouraging thoughts about women’s cricket than some sponsors. “There’s a groundswell of support for women’s sport across the world, generally, and in particular in Australia and England. In India, cricket is taking off among women. The momentum was created in the [2017 Women’s World Cup] final at Lord’s. We had a full house. No one thought that would happen, but it did. And this is just another step towards the incredible growth that we’ve seen in women’s cricket. This is a stepping stone towards the T20 World Cup in Australia [in 2020] with a 100 000-seater stadium, and hopefully, that will be a full house, too.”

In the meantime, Cricket South Africa (CSA), which has 14 contracted players, is picking up the tab for the Proteas women. The strain on CSA’s finances will no doubt be noticeable in months to come unless new sponsors are found. The administrative body is not exactly flush, which is why there was such a mad scramble to get the T20 cricket tournament Mzansi Super League underway. Perhaps, in all of the T20 fever, an opportunity to promote the women’s game in partnership with the tournament was lost.

In Australia, the Women’s Big Bash League runs parallel to the men’s version, and is partly responsible for producing strong players who can deliver top-quality performances at the international level. More opportunities for South African women cricketers to earn money at national and international levels are necessary.

New players

Her coaches describe Sekhukhune as a natural athlete, and this fresh face seems destined to stay with the elite team for years to come – something she embraces wholeheartedly. “When you come from the township, not a lot of girls are playing sport, but I was that girl who was into sport. It got me where I am and kept me away from a lot of negative things in the streets of Daveyton,” she said.

The unification of cricket and the dissolution of bodies tasked with nurturing the game among girls has had a stifling effect on player development and talent acquisition. In 2002, ICC amalgamated with the International Women’s Cricket Council. In 2010, CSA disbanded the women’s cricket committee because of a lack of “representivity” and an inability to hold an annual general meeting. Since then the women’s game has progressed, but without the major strides to match their Indian, Australia and English counterparts.

All-rounder Chloe Tryon’s summation of the status women’s cricket is encouraging though and will feed many young dreams. “It’s nice that the game is evolving, and you can see a change in South African women’s cricket, and women’s sport in general. There are a lot of girls coming, and hopefully that will continue,” she said.

Sekhukhune, Zintle Mali, Robyn Searle, and Smith will make their T20 World Cup debuts next month, and will hopefully make some history for women’s cricket in the West Indies, and in the years to come.

“It comes down to what you want to leave behind as a team. What are we going to leave behind in our country? As a unit, before the 2017 World Cup, we decided we want to leave a legacy,” Van Niekerk said. “We want girls and females around the world and the country to fall in love with the game and get into it. That’s what we want. That’s the driving force for us as a team. It’s something bigger than cricket, and it’s something bigger than us.”

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