The 19-year-old Van Niekerk will be one of South Africa’s key players in the ICC World Twenty20 tournament in Sri Lanka next month and her confidence must be sky-high after her phenomenal performances in the domestic women’s league last season.
Van Niekerk was a leading light as Northerns defended their title, finishing second in the batting averages with 494 runs at an average of 123.50, including two centuries and a half-century and her brilliant highest score of 203 not out. She scored her runs at a strike-rate of 92.55.
But it is as a bowler that Van Niekerk shows tremendous promise. Her leg-breaks saw her also finish second on the bowling averages with 17 wickets at the laughable average of just 4.29, plus she conceded just 73 runs in the 41-and-a-half overs she bowled!
The national women’s team are fulsome in their praise of their coach, former Dolphins mentor Yashin Ebrahim, and he, as a former spinner himself, has been able to guide young Van Niekerk.
“Yashin has taught me about different tactics, about when to bowl over the wicket or around the wicket, and when to use the googly,” Van Niekerk told supersport.com on Wednesday.
“But I was fortunate at a young age to work with Johan Rudolph – Jacques’ father – and he has a real passion for leg-spin, as well as Harry Shapiro [who modelled his Cricket Coaching Institute on the Australian Academy] and now Henry Williams.”
The South African Women’s team had a morale-boosting series win over the England Academy side in their last competitive outing in April and Van Niekerk believes they are a closing in on the top four of undisputed leaders England, Australia, New Zealand and India.
“We tested ourselves last year against the full English team and came up short, but we’ve made huge strides in the last year. There’s still a gap between us and the top four, but twenty20 cricket is always a huge gamble, you never know what will happen and it depends on who wants it most on the day,” Van Niekerk said.
With the ICC World T20 being held alongside the men’s competition in the sub-continental conditions of Sri Lanka, Van Niekerk’s leg-spinners should be more than useful, but, having had previous experience of those kind of pitches, the Centurion resident knows she can’t just rock up and expect success.
“I’ve been to Bangladesh on a previous tour and, although it’s nice to bowl in the sub-continent, you still have to work hard and sum up the conditions. You need to work out what pace to bowl, whether you need to bowl quick or slow,” Van Niekerk said. “But I’m fortunate in that the team also has another leg-spinner in Sunette Luus and I’m ecstatic that we’ll be able to work as a pair. Leg-spin is always a weapon in any form of cricket.”
South Africa have been placed in the same group as hosts Sri Lanka, New Zealand and the West Indies, with the top two teams going through to the semi-finals.
“New Zealand will hopefully not be that familiar with the conditions, so one of our goals is to beat them. They’ve been in the top four for a long time, but their recent results against England were not much different to ours. We have not played them since the last World Cup in 2010, but our scores against England were pretty level,” captain Mignon du Preez said.
“Our first game against Sri Lanka is a big one too, if we can win our first game, then we’ll be on the front foot. They’ll obviously know their home conditions better than us, but matches have always been close between us. We then play New Zealand, and end with the West Indies, who’s strength is more in the twenty20 game.”
It is clear that the South African women’s team are not overawed anymore on the international stage.
“Our goal is to make the semi-finals, even though we have not made the playoffs before,” Du Preez said. “For the first time, we are really well-prepared, we’ve had a strict fitness programme and our own academy.
“Yashin has given us the mindset to perform at international level and we now have different options and styles when we’re bowling, and several batting options too. We’re much more like the men’s side now. There’s not that much awareness about women’s cricket and there’s a misperception, people think you have to be butch to play cricket. But cricket is for any girls – and pretty ones too!” the petite Du Preez smiled.
Those with a longer memory of women’s cricket will be hoping the current crop of young stars does not go the same way as Johmari Logtenberg, the batting phenomenon who gave up cricket in 2007 to take up golf.
Van Niekerk, who is so dedicated to cricket that she is completing her matric through home-schooling, is confident she will not be forced down a similar path.
“I think it’s possible for me to become a professional cricketer, although there’s still a long way to go. We need sponsors, but Cricket South Africa are doing a lot for us. It will take time and performances, but for any sportsperson, the goal must be to do what you love for a living,” Van Niekerk said.