Van Niekerk has come a long way in a short time

The Star Early Edition - - SPORT - STU­ART HESS

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 legspin­ner 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 all­rounders 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.”

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