Women's Cricket: Dane Van Niekerk says South Africa must change mentality to challenge at elite level

Dane Van Niekerk

South Africa must experience a significant mentality shift if they are to really challenge on women’s cricket’s biggest stage.

The stark warning comes from no less a figure than Proteas skipper Dane Van Niekerk as she reflects on her country’s near-miss at the World Cup two years ago and its seeming failure to progress since.

Few who witnessed it will forget that epic semi-final against hosts and eventual winners England, where Van Niekerk’s side threatened to upset the odds, only to come up short at the death. 

The television pictures of Van Niekerk, hands-on knees at mid-wicket after Anya Shrubsole drove Shabnim Ismail through the covers for four in the final over to signal their exit, cast a haunting shadow. Injury has ruled Van Niekerk out of South Africa’s current tour to India, but looking back on that fateful day, she reveals behind the sense of devastation there lurked a danger to any would-be winner in elite sport, namely the sense she and her team had, in the end, simply been too happy just to be there.

“It’s fair to say there hasn’t been the bounce from the World Cup two years ago,” she admits. “We’ve stagnated. I think even though we went out there to win that World Cup, we still exceeded a lot of expectations. In some ways, it was enough, which it wasn’t. We just made the semi-final, that’s it. We didn’t win a World Cup. We didn’t do anything. We went up the rankings, nothing. We just got to the semi-final. “We were happy with that and we don’t want that to happen again. We want to push on.

"We want to push women’s cricket and we want to push the world. I think we have match-winners within our side - a lot of match-winners. So, it is about parking the World Cup and saying that happened, we never won anything and we have to do a lot more to win something.

“I think if you come from never playing the big names into the last three or four years of starting playing the big sides, you don’t quite believe in yourself as a brand.

“We can’t go out there just competing anymore, giving other teams practice. Good practice yes, but just competing. We have to go out there really wanting to win games. It’s not that we don’t want to win, I’m just saying it’s a mindset more than anything else. That is the difference between us and the other countries that are above us - a mindset."

What’s fascinating as our conversation unfolds is the revelation this change of mindset is not just a collective issue for South Africa, but Van Niekerk herself is somewhere along that same journey.

The 26-year-old all-rounder presents something of a puzzle. Hugely articulate, knowledgeable, accommodating, open, candid, driven. Yet at the same time remarkably self-deprecating. Back at the World Cup two years ago Van Niekerk returned figures of 3.2-3-0-4 as The Proteas skittled out the West Indies for 48 – the second-lowest score in the tournament’s history.

Yet in the post-match press conference, she waxed lyrical about new-ball pair Ismail and Marizanne Kapp, making no reference to her own remarkable feat. When challenged, she brushed off her spell saying: “Not to sound naïve or anything the ball is not coming out great at the moment, so I don’t know what happened.

“I can’t tell you I bowled to a plan. I was just hoping to land it to be honest because I bowled so many full tosses (in practice) yesterday. So, I was just thinking don’t bowl a full toss.”

There was no sense of false modesty, just self-deprecation. On the one level, this was welcome in a world where the line between self-confidence and arrogance is too often crossed. On the other it suggested self-limitation working against her obvious sense of ambition. Yet, even she concedes she’s always had a flair for cricket.

“The love of the game stemmed from the family,” she continues. "We are all sports nuts. We watch rugby, we watch football, cricket.

“We played cricket in the backyard when I was younger with my brother who is a year older than I am.

“I guess I just fell in love with the game. My dad spotted a lot of talent and got me to my first club the day after he first saw me play in the backyard. I think cricket just stuck as I seemed blessed with a natural talent.”  

Dane Van Niekerk

With the women’s game very much in its infancy, all her role models back then were male. Graham Smith, Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers are all mentioned in despatches. Without idolising them, she was in awe of their talent. Yet as a leg-spinner, it’s the memory a meeting with the greatest exponent of the art, Shane Warne, which really brings a smile to her face.

“Obviously, Warne being a leg-spinner is a massive idol for me,” she says. “I got the opportunity to meet him in 2014 at the World Cup in Bangladesh. Morne Morkel actually sorted that out for us. It was incredible to meet him. “If people ask me today what am I first then I’m a bowler first. I’m a leg-spinner.

“I always had the ability to bat, but it came later in my career, so I pride myself on being a leg-spinner. I think it is a very difficult art to get right, so I think any leg-spinner is special. I guess I’m just very biased when it comes to leg-spinners.”

That natural talent blossomed early with Van Niekerk earning her first ODI cap in March 2009, before she turned 16, and her entry onto the T20 international stage came just three months later. Despite that rapid progression, she claims she never had a lightbulb moment and it’s evident that even from those heady early days, self-deprecation was a part of her sporting kit bag. “I went through the ranks with people telling me I was really good at what I did but I never quite believed it,” she says candidly.

“Even getting into the South African side it took two or three years to believe in my skills and back myself as a bowling all-rounder at the time. So, I don’t think I had a lightbulb moment. I think probably only the last two or three years I’ve felt like I’m actually not too bad at what I do.”

There it is again, self-deprecation, remarkable for a woman who assumed the captaincy of her national side in all formats in 2016, aged just 23 when she took over from Mignon Du Preez. 

Dane Van Niekerk

The Pretoria-born right-hander has already clocked up 85 ODIs and 57 T20s taking 120 and 47 wickets in the respective formats. Her batting average is considerably higher than her bowling average in both cases.

Van Niekerk has graced five T20 World Cups and three ODI equivalents and was the leading wicket-taker at the 2017 tournament with 15 scalps. It’s possible several serious injuries have birthed a sense of simply being grateful to play the game and not take it for granted. But, in the sporting world where ego and self-confidence play such a huge part, Van Niekerk’s journey poses the question is there a point where such self-effacing humility becomes a drawback as opposed to a strength?

She believes franchise tournaments such as Kia Super League and the Big Bash are giving exposure to herself and fellow South Africans and feeding a much-needed sense of their belonging on the world stage. But even now there are times when self-doubt gets the better of her.

“It was my first year in the Big Bash this year and even though I was already a senior when it comes to international cricket, I was thinking what am I doing here, I’m not good enough,” she confesses.

“When you bowl at somebody you think, ‘They’re going to smash me,’ or if you’re batting it’s, ‘They’re going to get me out.’

“That again is a mindset thing and the more you train with these players and play against them you think, hang on I’m not too bad. I’m actually bowling really well at them or I’m facing them more easily than I thought. When you chat to them you see they are just mere mortals. They are all human.

"All of us are going to make mistakes, once, twice and it’s just the way they go about their game.

“Sometimes we take it too seriously and we think it is the end of the world if we get out for nought, but when you listen to these people that have been around and the way they may be bounce back from a disappointing innings or two or three even, it just puts things into perspective.”

While there may be a way to go in the self-belief stakes, there’s no doubting Van Niekerk’s desire to push beyond the feats of 2017 and get her hands on the World Cup. 

Dane Van Niekerk

However, almost as important is to create a set of role models in the women’s game that youngsters back in South Africa can aspire to – something she and her current teammates never had.

“First ambition would be to win a World Cup,” she concludes. “Before I hang my boots up, I’d like to lift the trophy with my teammates.

“For any cricketer, if that’s not your ambition then I don’t know why you’re playing the game. You want to be the best in the world, don’t you? You are always competing against yourself. I just want to be a better cricketer today than I was yesterday and I’d like to leave a positive mark in women’s cricket.

“So, obviously winning a World Cup is a massive goal for us, but our primary goal is to get girls and women interested in the game.

“I think girls in South Africa are beginning to see people like Marizanne and Lizelle (Lee) as role models. We didn’t have that so that’s something as a team we brought in. I think we have done that really well.

"We still have a long way to go and a lot of support is needed, but it’s coming slowly but surely, so I’m really excited. If it doesn’t happen in my era then maybe it will be the next. Hopefully, we can be the pioneers for women’s cricket in South Africa.”

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