For a long time, the Proteas Women’s team have been in awe of their opponents. As in, they looked to compete rather than actually go out there and dominate.
Matches against the torchbearers of women’s cricket – Australia, England and New Zealand – were viewed in the context of gauging the progress made since the last contest. Close defeats were lauded for the “guts and character” displayed and “lessons learnt” for another day.
There was something very self-deprecating about it all. This is not criticism, for much of it could be understood. In essence, South Africa were for a long time a “bunch of girls” coming up against professional women.
I am loath to compare apples and pears – men’s and women’s cricket – for they are entirely two different beasts. And to search for the similarities is frivolous and missing the point entirely. It is a bit like 15s and sevens in rugby union. They were born from the same mother, but they are siblings with their own personalities and unique characteristics.
However, I cannot stop myself from finding the connection between Dané van Niekerk’s 2017 World Cup team and Kepler Wessels’ 1992 World Cup virgins. Both teams were young and talented, with Laura Wolfvaardt’s exquisite cover drive a striking resemblance to that of Andrew Hudson.
Equally, there were grizzled veterans to guide the fearless, with Van Niekerk, Mignon du Preez and Trisha Chetty playing the roles of Wessels, Peter Kirsten and Dave Richardson.
The fact that both teams had a pace attack that was the envy of the world – Allan Donald, Meyrick Pringle, Richard Snell in ’92, and Shabnim Ismail, Marizanne Kapp and Ayabonga Khaka in 2017 – cannot be lost in translation either.
History tells us both campaigns ended in tears at the semi-final stage, with England the inflictors of pain at both Bristol (2017) and the SCG (1992).
It is for this reason that Saturday was a seminal moment for the Proteas Women’s team at New Road. The magnitude of the victory was immense – especially for the fact that it came over the world champions – but not only because of the seven-wicket margin that helped erode some of the Bristol pain.
For the first time, South Africa looked like a team who were prepared to employ risk for ultimate reward. Perhaps the spirit of Siya Kolisi’s marauding Boks reverberated all the way from a heaving Ellis Park to the west of England’s midlands.
Whatever it was, the nagging, even irritating plague, better known as “fear of failure”, seems to have been thrown overboard. This Proteas ship is ready to feel the wind in its sails and forge full steam ahead.
For this to happen, it had to be steered by its revered captain Van Niekerk. There were times during the last World Cup when it seemed the blonde all-rounder was following a template when it came to her bowling changes – there’s that Wessels analogy again – but on Saturday, there was a far greater desire to maintain the pressure through taking wickets rather than simply being content with keeping the run-rate down.
Although England possibly scored more than she would have liked in the last 15 overs of their innings, the strike bowlers were brought back much earlier than usual, with Ismail, especially, responding to her captain’s call.
I have always been a firm believer that for a game-plan change to be successful, it needs to start in the selection room. And this is where coach Hilton Moreeng and convenor of selectors Clinton du Preez have to be afforded due praise.
They realised that South Africa’s batting at the World Cup, while talented but not quite threatening, needed to adapt to the modern demands of women’s cricket. Players such as India’s Harmanpreet Kaur were transforming the game, and the Proteas could not be left behind.
Too much pressure was being placed on South Africa’s own slugger Lizelle Lee to generate early momentum.
Out went wicket-keeper/batsman Chetty, with Lee handed the gloves. It was a major decision, especially if the complexities of the Proteas Women’s dressing room are to be understood.
Lee may not be the answer to South Africa’s long-term keeping problems, but it allowed Van Niekerk to move up the order, along with the promising Suné Luus. The latter may have been guilty of over-balancing and falling to the brilliance of Sarah Taylor behind the stumps at Worcester, but her time will come.
Instead, the stage was set for Van Niekerk, promoted to No 4, and Lee to add 113 runs for the third wicket that calmed all the nerves in the dressing room after being reduced to 5/2.
Van Niekerk’s six on bended knee off Jenny Gunn, followed by two rasping boundaries, was – for me – the embodiment of the new positive mindset.
Saturday may only be one victory and there is still a series to win, but Van Niekerk and her team have now dared to enter unchartered waters. They now need to remain strong, for it is only the beginning of the journey.