Proteas must dare to be elite

The Proteas Women must decide where they fit into the international cricket hierarchy. Are they worthy of concern Down Under? Or are they destined to scavenge perpetually for scraps from the subcontinent’s lesser offerings?

We had all hoped it was the former after they came within an over of beating England and making the final at the one-day international (ODI) World Cup in 2017. But then they failed to kick on, instead delivering a distinctly average 2018.

A series draw against champions West Indies before the International Cricket Council Women’s World T20 revived some of the belief, until it was shot down by an early elimination in the tournament itself.

Which brings us to today: Sri Lanka have arrived in town for a six-game series over both short formats. How they leave will go a long way towards answering our question.

“It’s very important; it will set the tone of the year for us,” agrees coach Hilton Moreeng. “Playing at home in front of a home crowd after such a disappointing World Cup, we have an opportunity to rectify what we couldn’t get right.”

The diagnosis of what went wrong is found in one area.

“The disappointing part for us is how we batted. We didn’t get substantial partnerships. If you look at it overall, our disappointing department has been the batting. We couldn’t get enough runs on the board to give ourselves a chance as a team.”

It’s the continuation of a criticism that was floating about even before November’s showpiece. It’s something the team has been openly introspective about; captain Dane van Niekerk has lamented that the work with the bat has done no justice to the bowlers. As arguably one of the best all-rounders in the world, such remarks are not mere finger-pointing.

There’s an inherent understanding, maybe even self-resentment, that it was a failure to adapt to the conditions in Guyana and St Lucia. The unpredictable wicket denied the Proteas the option of picking off regular boundaries and instead were forced to put in awkward, tiring runs.

For this reason, Moreeng has specifically focused on fitness in January’s training camp; a fit team is able to maintain collective focus far longer. He says he has put in much effort to ensure everyone knows their roles and what’s expected of them to contribute at different times.

The squad has also undergone some not insignificant changes to aid the endeavour. Four players have returned: Tazmin Brits, Nadine de Klerk, Lara Goodall and Faye Tunnicliffe. They replace Suné Luus, Trisha Chetty, Raisibe Ntozakhe and Laura Wolvaardt. Although Chetty continues to be plagued by injuries and Wolvaardt, the 2018 South African Women’s Players’ Player of the Year, will return for the ODIs, the other two continue their personal battle to earn back favour.

Ntozakhe lost her spot in the World Cup after she was found by the ICC to have a faulty bowling action and she continues her efforts to remodel her technique. Luus, meanwhile, has drawn no shortage of criticism after a series of substandard games. She was recalled on the eve of the first match after Chloe Tryon withdrew with a groin injury and is now in a battle against time to be fit by the start of the ODI series.

In particular, the ambition of the selectors is that Brits and De Klerk can make a substantial impact on the line-up by bringing stability to the middle order. “Yes, I think there’s always pressure on you, especially when you come back into the side,” says De Klerk when she was asked whether the responsibility of helping to turn things around adds extra pressure. “So, for me, there’s obviously a lot of pressure on me because I’m back after a year out. Pressure is on but I think that gets the most out of the players.”

Much is expected of the 19-year-old De Kock. After making her international debut in 2017, she took last year off so that she could focus on matric. She has yet to decide what’s next education-wise now that it’s done, but “for now, it’s only cricket”.

Which is good news for the Proteas. Given her indomitable provincial form, she may be a key tool in boosting the self-imposed slow wicket that Moreeng so openly bemoaned.

“I’m an aggressive player. I like to try go for the boundaries and play my different shots,” she says of how her presence could help the side. “At this stage, I have worked on a lot of shots at home — fancy shots, if I can call it that — that will allow me to manipulate the field and score more runs. I hope at the end of the day that that will be a huge asset for the team — to have a player in the team that can play around the field. That is something I have been working on [because] that is something we lack.”

Although an injection of youth is certainly appreciated, Moreeng also issued a rallying call for the more experienced players to step up and not be blown over so easily.

To their credit, it’s a demand they have acknowledged and they have spent hours in training working on solidifying their presence at the crease before the Sri Lanka series.

“I feel like we haven’t taken the responsibility as soon as we lose those two-three wickets up front,” Tryon, Cricket SA’s T20 International Cricketer of the Year, said. “For me as a batter, when I come in at middle period, I have got to just take it towards the end.”

Although the transparency in the camp is refreshing — the players can openly criticise themselves in a constructive fashion, arguably something that is not seen in South Africa’s other national teams — it’s how the feedback is put into practice that will determine how they’re judged.

Van Niekerk may have issued an apology to the whole country after they were rolled over at the World T20 but that won’t be good enough if they fail to back up the talk with solid, winning actions.

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Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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