Ever since the headband-wearing Pat Cash climbed over into the Wimbledon players’ box in front of Britain’s royalty to celebrate his Championship success on the famed grass of Centre Court with his family and friends 32 years ago, it has become commonplace for sports people to seek out their loved ones in the immediate aftermath of their respective triumphs.
Spanish goalkeeper and captain Iker Casillas even embraced his reporter-girlfriend Sara Carbonero during an interview immediately after leading the Iberian nation to their maiden World Cup title at FNB Stadium in 2010. Although Casillas’ actions caused a stirring debate regarding whether it was the appropriate time for the skipper to have planted one on a visibly embarrassed Carbonero, it had nothing on the ruckus that erupted at this year’s Fifa Women’s World Cup in France when Swedish defender Magda Erikkson located her Danish partner and fellow professional footballer Penille Harder in the Parc des Prince crowd to give her a kiss after helping her team progress to the quarter-finals.
The moment was captured, and in this modern age of social media, the picture went viral in a matter of seconds. Both players’ Twitter accounts exploded with Harder’s following increasing by over 3000 instantaneously for something they both regarded as pretty normal.
The global reaction, which was immensely positive hailing Erikkson and Harder as “role models” for the LGBTQ+ community, immediately made me ponder how such actions would be viewed in traditionally conservative South Africa, and particularly, cricket circles.
Just imagine this for a moment...
The Proteas women’s cricket team overcome their arch rivals Australia in a pulsating ICC World T20 final next year March at the MCG on International Women’s Day and captain Dané van Niekerk rushes to her wife and fellow Protea Marizanne Kapp and gives her an almighty kiss.
It would be a perfectly natural thing to do. But even though both Proteas are immensely proud of their relationship with regular status updates professing their love for each other through inspirational Twitter messages and doting photos, it is an unlikely occurrence.
“When we’re out in the middle it is always just about work, work and work. We are just teammates out on the field,” Van Niekerk told Independent Media after receiving her second consecutive CSA Women’s Cricketer of the Year award.
So, with any form of on-field intimacy ruled out, how do they go about being in the unique position of performing their hugely-pressurised jobs in the company of their most dearest, particularly with Van Niekerk holding a leadership position?
“It is quite intense. Marizanne always says I come harder at her than others, but it is important to set those boundaries that we are just teammates on the field. I do get upset and a bit harsh sometimes as well I must admit. It is to make sure the team understands that even though she is my wife, we set boundaries within the team capacity.”
Van Niekerk, 26, takes her role of national captain immensely seriously. Besides the triple-fold responsibility of leading, batting in the top-order and bowling high-quality leg-spin, Van Niekerk is also the driver of the team culture within the squad.
Much like Faf du Plessis and #ProteaFire, Van Niekerk goes to bed every night and wakes up every morning with her mind racing with ideas to ensure the Proteas Women’s team are #AlwaysRising.
“My biggest dream was always to captain my country, but I never thought it would happen because of all the leaders within our squad. It was a massive surprise for me when they called me in that day for a meeting. I was literally crying. That’s where the female part comes in,” she chuckles before getting serious again rather quickly.
“I do feel that it’s my responsibility. I would be worried if any captain did not look it at from that perspective. My character is someone who wants to lead and take everything by the scruff of the neck.”
The passion and desire runs much deeper than ensuring the environment is conducive for both veterans like Shabnim Ismail and Mignon du Preez to perform alongside youngsters such as Laura Wolfvaardt and Saarah Smith. It is about every young girl’s dream to play for the Proteas. The same dream that Van Niekerk harboured when she was a youngster back in Pretoria.
The only difference now is that Van Niekerk wants to ensure that it goes beyond purely for the love for the game. Playing cricket professionally must now be a viable career option for young women.
She has no illusions about earning the same as “the big boys”. She jokes that “I can afford a house and car”, but is acutely aware that the Proteas’ performances have the potential to forge a trailblazing path during this fruitful period for women’s cricket.
Equally, the advent of T20 Leagues much like their male counterparts, are blossoming around the world. Having recovered from a stress fracture of the right femur, Van Niekerk is currently plying her trade in the Kia Super League for the Surrey Stars in England. She can also count Australian superstar Ellyse Perry as one of her teammates at the Sydney Sixes in the Women’s Big Bash League. With India also forging ahead with the Women’s T20 Challenge in what is likely to be a precursor to a full-blown Women’s IPL, the opportunity for growth in women’s cricket is exponential.
But while this is indeed exciting, Van Niekerk warns it is also a potential threat to the national team.
“I think if the IPL comes it will make it more viable for us (to be freelance cricketers). That’s the reality and everyone knows that. I think with the currency differences it will become a massive option for some players to think about,” she said.
“Hopefully by then we don’t have to think about it. CSA has done a lot behind the scenes to get us as close as possible. It is not just overnight stuff. I just believe in parity and fairness. Hopefully by the time the IPL does indeed come about we are in the position where it doesn’t matter.”
Van Niekerk does also not live in a fool’s paradise. She knows Corporate South Africa and potential sponsors are only interested in a winning team. It’s for this reason that she is champing at the bit to get back on the park for the Proteas having missed a large part of last season due to a hip injury.
In her absence, there was a string of mixed results, with the Proteas sharing the ODI series with Pakistan before coming from behind to claim a thrilling 3-2 series victory in the T20I series. The latter was crucial for the team’s confidence with the Women’s T20 World Cup just a few months away
“The T20 series was awesome to watch against Pakistan. It was also frustrating, but it was good to watch the game from the outside to see where the team was going. When you are in the team it is so different, and I think it will help me a lot when I go back into the team because things aren’t as easy as it seems. It is about understanding that people do make mistakes.
“We want to win a World Cup. Shimmy (Ismail) sat next to me at the Awards and tapped me on the shoulder and said: ‘Bud, we’re going to win a World Cup. Don’t you worry’. She just it said randomly and it really hit home. We do have the best chance that South African women’s cricket has ever had to win a World Cup.
“We are hoping to win the Cup in Australia next year, but this team is building and we building at a rapid pace. Nobody is going to slow us down. We will have bad tours, but that is all part and parcel of the game. If it was easy, everyone would be very successful in the game.”
With Cricket SA seemingly in flux related to the men’s game with a shake-up of the national team’s coaching staff, it’s domestic structure and senior players retiring almost en masse, it is refreshing to see that at least the women’s team ship will be steered by the impressive Van Niekerk for the foreseeable future. Whether it was by accident or design, they could not have hoped for anyone better.