South Africa Women have lost some of their biggest names, including some greats of the game. So where does the team go from here?
If you are a fan of South African women’s cricket – or even just a fan of the game – which recent retirement hit you the hardest?
Was it that of Shabnim Ismail, who called halt to her career just months after she bowled one of the fastest deliveries ever recorded? Or of Mignon du Preez, whose glass is not just always half full, but also runs over with matronly warmth? Was it that of Lizelle Lee, one of the most powerful strikers of the cricket ball before power-hitting became mainstream? Trisha Chetty, who holds the record for most dismissals in women’s ODIs? Or of Dane van Niekerk, a most inspirational, plain-talking captain and match-winning all-rounder?
Ismail, 34, and du Preez, 33, cited family as reasons for stepping away from international cricket. Chetty, 34, was undone by a bad back. Lee, 31, opted out after she did not meet CSA’s fitness requirement on weight. And van Niekerk, just 29, was another casualty of the board’s fitness standards: returning from a long injury absence, she ran the 2km time trial at a personal best, but still 18 seconds too slow for team selection to a home world cup.
All of them, bar Chetty, continue to be available for, and popular picks with, one-day and T20 tournaments around the world. Marizanne Kapp is the only one of the group of veterans who remains with the team.
Setting aside for a moment the circumstances of these individual exits, we can still mourn the collective end of an era. In just two years, South Africa have lost four of their top six batters of all time, two of their top three bowlers and their leading wicketkeeper. And that, more than an individual loss, has got to hurt.
So what now? Where does South African women’s cricket go from here?
On one level, women’s cricket in the country is at its peak. Early 2023 was the season for women’s sport there, with the country hosting both the Women’s Under-19 and T20 World Cups.
The final of the T20 World Cup at Newlands, where the hosts took on Australia, was sold out. With the match on free-to-air television, viewership increased by 790 percent from the previous edition in 2020. A whole new generation was inspired.
“The girls who did watch the game, their eyes went really big,” says Dinesha Devnarain, coach of South Africa Under-19s and the national academy. “They saw that could be you in a few years.
“And there was self-realisation that if I want to get there, there are certain things that have got to happen. I met a few girls at Newlands at semis and finals, and they can’t wait for it to be them. If you get that desire as a youngster, the tough part, the hard work, the grind, the grit, it becomes easier, because you can see what it’s about when you want to be there.”
The national team have enjoyed a fruitful few years. They made the semi-finals in the 2017, 2020 and 2022 world cups across formats, apart from the home final in February.
And considering that Sune Luus’ side got there without van Niekerk, Lee, Chetty, or du Preez, it’s tempting to suggest that they’re doing just fine without their flagbearers, that they’ll make it through this period of transition unscathed.
But that may be wishful thinking. The challenge for South Africa in the short term is to replace the stars. In the long-term, it is to put in place structural changes to produce more athletes, some of whom could go on to become such stars.
“We had the hashtag ‘Always Rising’. I think we’ve risen now,” says Devnarain, admitting that the big names would be hard to replace. “Now it’s ‘how do we get other people in there?’
“We’ve had our flagbearers for us – Shabnim, Kappie (Kapp), Dane, Minx (du Preez), Lizelle, Trisha – but what have we done underneath that? There’s going to be a void. I don’t think we’ve taken care of that step as much as I would have liked to.”
The Under-19s won all but one of their matches at the World Cup, losing only to eventual champions India. The format of the tournament and their run rate meant they narrowly missed out on qualification to the semi-final, though. It gives Devnarain enough reason to say the future looks bright.
She fully expects at least a couple of players from the very young team make it to the senior side, but it could take three to four years. And with the increased profile of the sport, there will be a lot asked of these emerging players.
“No team wants to be a one-hit wonder,” she said. “It does add pressure to the next generation, the emerging players, the U19 players, and the current squad. We don’t want to peak and then come down.
“Maybe there may be a slight dip, but we have to put into place programmes to make sure these ladies are exposed to international cricket and can perform in international standard where they have consistent performances like that.”
Cricket South Africa, for their part, recently declared their intention to streamline the functioning of the women’s game.
“We’ll soon be advertising the women’s role of cricket and having someone who can look after the entire pathway of women’s cricket, especially the top end of it,” Enoch Nkwe, director of cricket, was quoted in News24. “We need to make sure we build a strong feeder system into our national team.”
That is on Devnarain’s wishlist too. The former international believes a T20 tournament like the Women’s Premier League or the Women’s Big Bash League, as well as more domestic games will be vital.
The domestic set-up now has women playing provincial T20 and one-day tournaments. While the Top Six group play around eight one-day and eight T20 matches in a season, the two groups below (Pool A and Pool B), play just four games in each format every season. There is also a Women’s T20 Super League, featuring four teams.
“That’s nowhere near close to become a seasoned cricketer,” she says. “To find a diamond in the rough, to get some professionalism going, I would like the girls to play during the winter period.”
During the South African winter, top internationals travel abroad for leagues or county cricket, while some others stay back for camps. Around 16 players also attend the winter academy in June and July. The provinces, however, are not working with their teams – which means the off-season could be an opportunity to add game time.
A short season makes the step up to the rigours of international cricket that much harder. “If we get someone from the domestic structures into international cricket, they’re not going to be conditioned for that,” she explains. “They’re conditioned to play five months of cricket, a game every month, training twice a week.”
CSA’s fitness standards have come under scrutiny following the retirements of Lee and van Niekerk. But, this is something that is being emphasised at all levels, to be part of the “DNA” of South African cricket. Even under-19 players have missed out on selection because of falling short.
“It’s a policy that S&C is non-negotiable,” says Devnarain. “The [under-19 and emerging] group is lucky enough to have a full-time coach, provincial coach, S&C, physio, so it mirrors the Proteas environment.
“The problem that I have with the system as it is now is … players play provincial cricket unfit and that’s what we’re trying to change.”
Perhaps hardest to replace are the intangibles – say the aggression of an Ismail, the comforting hug of a du Preez, the fighting spirit of van Niekerk: “From a talent point of view, there are players. It’s on the coaches to make people believe they can achieve [great things].”
But, she adds, South African cricket has to make sure that this sudden exodus without having ideal replacements in place “never happens again”.
“If you sort that out, the DNA of the system can be better.”