Thursday, August 11, 2022

Cricket South Africa – Van Niekerk: Our team has gone from strength to strength

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They say with risk comes reward.

For instance, appointing a 23-year-old to lead the Momentum Proteas Women in 2016 could be considered risky.

Breaking new ground with a third-place finish in the ICC Women’s Championship and a guaranteed spot in next year’s ICC Women’s Cricket World Cup – well that can be considered a reward.

In 11 years as a player and now five years a captain, Dané van Niekerk has been hugely influential in elevating the national team to new heights.

With over 100 ODI appearances to her name, she has scored over 2 000 runs at an average of 36.46 in the middle order. Her all-round prowess garnering 130 wickets and a top 10 ranking.

Yet, despite being deserving of plaudits, she does her best to shy away from adulation.

“I’d be lying if I said I led the team to that third spot,” insisted van Niekerk, “It was a collective effort from the team.”

It is easy to see why van Niekerk is quick to praise her teammates.

South Africa started the second 50-over cycle on the back of an agonizing 2017 World Cup semi-final defeat to hosts and eventual winners England. Van Niekerk’s side came within two balls of reaching uncharted territory for any South African cricket team, female or male. Alas, the wait for a Proteas team in a World Cup Final goes on.

That devastation eventually crafted a path of hard work and desire that has shaped the team’s evolution to date.

“The heartbreak motivated everyone,” said van Niekerk.

“In the last few years, I have never seen the team work as hard as they have. Everyone bought into what we wanted to achieve as a team.”

The result is automatic qualification for the 2021 Women’s World Cup achieved with a historic 3-0 whitewash over New Zealand in South Africa’s penultimate ODI series earlier this year.

“When Hilton (head coach) and I sat down at the start of the cycle, we always wanted to be one up on the last time we’d face teams. If we beat them 2-1 we wanted to beat them 3-0. That was always the goal.”

The summer of 2018 started with a 2-1 series defeat against India. The results might not have been as desired but stand out performances signaled improvement.

Mignon du Preez’s 90 not out, coupled with Shabnim Ismail’s 4-30, ensured South Africa ended the series with a seven-wicket win.

A few months later, the Proteas travelled to England, where Lizelle Lee’s class shone through at the top of the order with an unbeaten 92 in South Africa’s opening win. Though the hosts went on to secure the series 2-1, other individuals were starting to establish themselves.

A rain-affected drawn contest against the West Indies in the Caribbean soon followed. And when Sri Lanka arrived at the start of 2019, the women’s ascendancy towards the top half of the Championship table was confirmed with a 3-0 win.

Van Niekerk starred with a career-best 102 in the first ODI before a fractured femur ruled her out for the remainder of the series. Just as players stepped up with performance, it was Suné Luus who stepped up with the captaincy with the regular skipper sidelined for nine months and subsequently missing the home series against Pakistan. Luus helped marshal a 1-1 draw.

“Our team has gone from strength to strength,” beamed van Niekerk. “We have grown as a team and our skills are up there with the best in the world.”

This was particularly evident against New Zealand in what would turn out to be the final series of the Championship with COVID-19 ruling out any chance of an inbound tour against Australia in March.

“The big success story for us was the New Zealand tour. Whitewashing one of the best teams in the world was really special and to go one further and qualify for the World Cup was an exceptional effort by the team,” concluded van Niekerk.

For now, the road to next year’s World Cup is temporarily on hold. But the growth of this side continues at pace.

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