The failed attempts at hiding the eye rolls. The shrugs. The hands thrown in the air. The cocked head. The laughing fit before she straightens herself to take reporters’ questions. The sheepishness with which the slightest hint of a compliment is received. The earnest smile when she says, “That’s a really good point, I hadn’t thought of it like that.” The manic run with clenched fists when she gets Mithali Raj out first ball, so she suddenly looks like the 24-year-old she is.
The steely stare at the top of her run up and that second of zen before she begins her stride. The purposefulness with which she undoes and reties her hair just before she takes her mark. The fury at the smallest suggestion of a misfield. The warmth in that unfailing smile off the field. A 27-year-old’s declarations of vulnerability. The love and gratitude to god, to teammates, to nieces.
Dane van Niekerk and Marizanne Kapp are so expressive, you never want to look away.
And why should you? Look hard, look close, look often, and remember. These are two of the game’s most talented right now. Both in the top five in the ICC’s rankings for Women ODI bowlers and all-rounders. The No. 1 and No. 2 wicket-takers of the ICC Women’s World Cup 2017 after the group stage. And two of women’s cricket’s biggest competitors.
So in the spirit of competition…
Who’s the best allrounder among us here?
DvN: “She is.”
DvN: “No, she is.”
MK: “I’ve not been making runs with the bat. Dane has been good with bat and ball.”
DvN: “I disagree. The talent she has is far superior to mine. She has to believe in herself a little more, I guess. I know how tough it is to open the bowling in a tournament like this, how heavy it is on the body. You have to concentrate. I’m a spinner, I walk and bowl. I hear that every day (Kapp laughs, making us think there’s more there). She runs in and bowls so it’s a lot harder. So for me, what she does, she’s a better all-rounder.”
If there’s anything frustrating about this duo, it’s the humility that just about stops short of feeling like imposter syndrome. You want to shake them and ask: Do you not realise how awesome you are? Van Niekerk has spent the tournament insisting she isn’t feeling her best. That her rhythm isn’t right. Not during that remarkable 4 for none against Windies. Not in the 4 for 22 against India.
Are they ever satisfied?
DvN: “I don’t think I am. That’s how I am. I’m not bowling my best … The day I’m satisfied I’m going to be worried. Obviously you can say I had a good day. But at this moment, it’s a good day if the team is winning. I don’t care how it’s going for me.”
MK: “I’m also hard on myself. It doesn’t happen a lot that I’m actually happy with it (how she bowls) because I’m a bit of a perfectionist. I also felt against Windies, everyone said we bowled so well, but I missed my line and lengths. But that’s the good thing about us, we always feel we can do better and we’re not happy with our performances.”
Is Dane, the captain, easy to satisfy? Who gets the last word out there?
DvN: “She always has the final word.”
MK: “It comes down to trust. She trusts me that I know what I’m doing. Because if you’re going to give me a field that I don’t agree with, I may not be at my best. I’m a thinker when it comes to cricket. She backs me to set my field. Ultimately I must back my decision. She will step in there if it doesn’t work out and we’re missing our lengths completely. But she gives us (bowlers) trust that we can do it.”
Before getting on a flight to travel the world playing cricket, van Niekerk has to braai (“I’m not going to say ‘barbecue’ because I don’t believe in that.”) You have to get together with friends and family before you go away, she says, and she’s skilled with the meats, veggies and potatoes.
“She braais better than most of the men,” adds Kapp. She’s done it for the team too. A Wikipedia lesson in culture later, I understand a braai is usually done by the men, but of course that is irrelevant to the first two girls to join a boys’ cricket academy in South Africa.
MK: “We were the first two females to join Eastern Province boys’ academy. It was quite an experience, the first time we faced boys that bowled at 130-135kph. It helped go that one level higher in our careers.”
DvN: “If you play with the boys, and they bowl quicker and they hit the ball a lot harder, and the ball is bigger as well – for us to get the ball away was tough. But it was an awesome experience, my cricket took off from there.”
MK: “The coach we worked with didn’t take it easy on us. He treated us like the boys. That helped a lot as well.”
Since then, the two have shared the journey, on and off the field. They made their international debuts within two days of each other back in 2009, and have played a similar number of matches.
In an increasingly professional women’s circuit, they’re top choices for teams in domestic T20 leagues. They’ve been home for only five-six months in the last two years. Amid the planes and hotel rooms and hours on the field, they lean on the other for support – in dealing with Kapp’s fear of flying, when van Niekerk misses her dogs, and in all the challenges of being a professional cricketer.
MK: “I don’t like going to new places where I don’t know people. So the first year when she played for Renegades (in Australia’s Women’s Big Bash League), it was a little tough for me. It really helps especially if you’ve been away from home for that long, just to have someone there that you know, that is from home. Mentally it does something to you. It’s always interesting when we play against each other, because I throw hundreds of balls at her every single day and the same with her to me. It’s good if we play in the same side (as with Sydney Sixers). It’s difficult to play against her because she knows me so well.
DvN: “It’s been good fun. Hopefully we can go back to Sydney Sixers and continue that journey. It’s so much easier. You miss speaking Afrikaans when you’re away so long. Having said that, the set-up with the Sixers is really comfortable. Midge (Alyssa Healy), Pez (Ellyse Perry) make you feel a lot more at ease. We spoke this morning, we really miss home.You miss your family, your house, your things. But again, your lifespan in cricket is so short so you’ve to make use of every opportunity you get. For the women’s game, it’s growing day by day, you don’t want to miss a single thing. Hopefully if our bodies stay fit and healthy, we can do this for a long time.
“But I miss my dogs. And my parents. But my dogs. They’re my babies.”
The team has named van Niekerk’s pup, the third in the family, adopted only a week ago and now being dog-sat by Kapp’s folks, Stella, after the drink they’ve taken a liking to in England.
But as far as memories of the country go, South Africa is keen to make more. In the past two years, it has developed by leaps, through a combination of hard work and belief (the skill, of course, was always there) and enjoying each other’s success. its motto, ‘always rising’, is in everything they do.
DvN: “We always want to get better, day by day, game by game. And when you get knocked down you want to rise above it. We’ve stayed true to that. Just before the World Cup, we got together and got the (‘always rising’) hashtag going. It was a team effort, and the girls took really well to it and they’re doing justice to it.”
MK: “This is what we want to be known for. I think the way we’ve played has showed exactly why that is us … In our religion, we have the saying, ‘Nothing is impossible with God.’”
DvK: “I’ve got it tattooed on my arm.”
MK: “We pray before every match. That’s also what we believe. Nobody really thought we were in the big four (teams, coming into the World Cup). In our religion, nothing is impossible with God on your side. So that’s a big thing we as a team hold onto.”
The captain has insisted that part of their job is to inspire more girls to take up cricket. And they’re not going to stand for any comments that come in the way of that, referencing recent remarks made by Waqar Younis suggesting thje game be reduced to 30 overs.
DvK: “That (the comment) is just daft.”
MK: “It’s unfair. It’s people who don’t watch the women’s game. You watch one game and make your assumptions. Look what happens in men’s cricket. Maybe it was just the bowlers that bowled well, why the game wasn’t that exciting, or the batters were just too good. But you can’t watch one game and make statements like that. This is the first time in World Cups the scores have been really high, it’s been really good cricket. You can see in our team, we’ve got Dane, Chloe (Tryon), Lizelle (Lee, who interrupts this chat with a vigorous cleaning of her shoes above our heads), who can hit the ball a long way, and then you have (New Zealand’s) Sophie Devine. So how can you tell me – what would the score be in 30 overs then if you want to play 30 overs? It’s just ridiculous because we know the hard work that the players and people around the world have put into women’s cricket and for someone to make a stupid comment like that, it just really upsets you.”
Well, we did say they were expressive. What you see is what you get.
Whatever you do, don’t look away now.