‘I thought I would never play again

Even now, nearly four months later, it’s clearly not easy for Raisibe Ntozakhe to talk about the circumstances that denied her a World Cup appearance. The pauses and slight croak in her speech suggest as much.

“It was very heartbreaking … so disappointing,” she explains. “There were just too many emotions in the moment at once. To overcome that kind of situation and pull through shows the character in a person.”

Ntozakhe is not one to downplay the mental strength it took, and is still required, to regain her place in the Proteas Women squad. The timing of her losing it was, to quote Cricket SA (CSA) chief executive Thabang Moroe, “inopportune”.

Days before the Women’s World Twenty20 was to begin, the International Cricket Council suspended her because of what it deemed to be illegal bowling. Further testing at the High Performance Centre at the University of Pretoria confirmed that her typical action violated the 15-degree rule. The regulation, in place to prevent dangerous “throwing” or “chucking”, states that a bowler’s arm cannot fully straighten as it rises above their shoulder. If the elbow joint does flex, it cannot do so by more than 15 degrees. The CSA had no option but to withdraw her from the squad and the competition.

Yet to turn 22 at the time, Ntozakhe had earned her spot and lost it even quicker.

“It got to me. It affected me in a very big way. I had no choice but to try remain positive at all times. I lost it at some point. There were points where I thought I’m not going to be able to play for my country again.”

She would take a modicum of solace from her Google results that showed her predicament was far from uncommon, especially among her fellow off-spinners.

Pakistan virtuoso Saeed Ajmal, a player with 178 wickets from 35 Tests, was suspended in 2014 for the same reason. Within two months of Ntozakhe being dropped, Sri Lanka’s Akila Dananjaya and the West Indies’ Shane Shillingford would share the same fate.

The Proteas Women’s situation is a small blip in a debate that’s raged essentially since the advent of the game. What constitutes a bowl that is not in the spirit of cricket? Think of the exasperated looks on the faces of the British in Bollywood epic Lagaan as the 1893 Indian villagers add a bit of imagination to the delivery rules.

Current rules were only adopted as recently as 2003 and, to some, still carry an arbitrary tinge to them.

All that considered, it still doesn’t explain why nobody, internally or externally, identified Ntozakhe’s balls as problematic until a World Cup was around the corner.

“I wouldn’t know, to be honest. I don’t want to lie,” she admits solemnly. “I honestly don’t know.”

The only option she had was to remodel her action and fight for her spot in the team.

Fortunately, unlike Ajmal, she had age on her side.

She began training with the assistance of the side’s performance analyst Abram Ramoadi and high-performance manager Vincent Barnes. Once she adopted a legal technique it was all about forcing her muscle memory to learn it too.

So far, the hard work seems to have paid off. Ntozakhe was called up to join the squad in Potchefstroom last week ahead of the visit from Sri Lanka.

It’s a chance she’s determined to grab. “The comeback needs to show that you are hungry to get back into the game, show a bunch of character and give back to the team for missing out on the couple of months that you were away from the team.”

Her teammates distinctly lacked some of that character in the World Cup she missed — falling too easily out of the first stage. These ODIs and T20s represent a chance to reaffirm their mission to be part of a first-class cricketing nation. Ntozakhe will hope it’s where her own story and the team’s redemption intersect.

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Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham is a features writer at the Mail & Guardian

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