JOHANNESBURG - Dane van Niekerk was having a bad day with the ball in a primary school game when her dad recommended she try spin.
“The bowling wasn’t going well so I tried it and the ball came out as a ‘leggie’ which is unusual because you’re naturally inclined to bowling ‘offies’. Anyway it landed, my dad was ecstatic,” smiled Van Niekerk. “I have to take my hat off to my parents, they sacrificed a lot for me to be the leg-spinner and cricketer I am. I’m glad he saw the potential and went with it.”
Van Niekerk made her international debut as a 16-year-old in a World Cup match in Newcastle, Australia in 2009 picking up one wicket in a narrow loss to the West Indies in which South Africa scrapped hard in defence of a poor total of 116.
Fast forward eight years and the shy teenager has been replaced by an accomplished, hugely respected, still young all-rounder, with a better hairdo and who now, captains her country.
“I just want to be the first South African team to win the World Cup, you go to the World Cup to win, you don’t go there to compete, you don’t go there to be in the top four, you want to go and win. I don’t want it to be about me to be honest ... it will be about my team, they way they’ve played, trained and performed.”
Van Niekerk took over the national captaincy from Mignon du Preez in June last year. She had surprised Cricket SA’s officialdom with her poise and plans for the team and her forthright manner is something the rest of the players have grown to appreciate about her, even though she’s still relatively new in the position.
“I’m quite a tough person, I wear my heart on my sleeve, the girls know that. They are very receptive and very accepting of it. I’m fiery. I’ve spoken with the girls about that because you don’t want my fieriness to come across as aggressive or angry. But they know where I’m coming from,” she explained.
“I want to win every game of cricket, I know it’s not always possible, it’s not easy. The nice thing about my team is they are accepting of the way I am, my personality, so far it’s been working, and hopefully it works for a few years to come.”
It helps that along with Marizanne Kapp, Van Niekerk is arguably the best player in the national team.
She’s one of three South African players ranked among the top 10 all-rounders in the women’s game by the ICC and her standing as one of the best players in the world is further underscored by her earning contracts to play in the Women’s T20 Super League in England and the Women’s Big Bash in Australia.
The exposure in those two competitions has proved valuable to not just her personal development, but that of her South African teammates, who haven’t had the opportunity to play in those competitions. “The thing is you learn other things and play with some of the best players in the world you learn what they do, bring it home and try and integrate that. It’s closing the gap (in the women’s game).”
By helping to elevate her own and her team’s game particularly in the last 18 months, Van Niekerk’s side go into this year’s World Cup in a much better mental space than previously. Whereas once upon a time there was happiness just in being at the tournament, now there’s a genuine desire to make a lasting impression.
“We’ve beaten some of the best sides in the world. In the past we never really competed with them, but now with the team we have and the skill we have, (opponents) see us as a team that can win this World Cup,” said Van Niekerk.
That change in mentality is largely down to Cricket SA taking the women’s team more seriously, while the impact of sponsors Momentum is something all the players appreciate deeply.
“At the end of the day, the team wouldn’t be professional (without that support). And that mindset change - that ‘I can concentrate on cricket’ - it took our skills to the next level and our performances have shown that. We’ve got players ranked among the top 10 batters, we have the No 1 bowler (Kapp) and because that’s happening, the world is seeing that we are a team that can beat any other team on any day.”