|Photos||Video & Audio||Blogs||Statistics||Archive||Fantasy||Mobile|
As the 22-year-old Morne Morkel summoned up a performance that was sure to catch the eye of the national selectors, an established international sat and watched from the space behind the sightscreen. Though Cri-Zelda Brits is only a year older than Morkel, she has already played 22 ODIs and three Tests for her country, opening both the batting and the bowling during the women's World Cup that was held in South Africa in March-April 2005.
Unfortunately, such is the nature of women's cricket that neither she nor her team-mates have played an international since a three-match one-day series against West Indies soon after their World Cup engagements were over.
The World Cup campaign was hardly a success, with four losses and a solitary win against West Indies. Brits, though, played her part, making 72 and taking 4 for 37 in the thrilling one-run victory over West Indies, and contributing scores of 49 and 46 against Australia and England. And in her last outing, in the series against West Indies, she made an unbeaten 62 in an emphatic ten-wicket win.
Brits now coaches the Northwest women's team, who are based in Potchefstroom, and is eagerly looking forward to January, when Pakistan's women's side tour South Africa. Being a female cricketer is no picnic though. Even if the women's game has come under the Cricket South Africa umbrella, the players are still amateurs, who have to work for a living. Brits coaches the provincial team and also runs her own academy, but several of her team-mates are not so fortunate.
The World Cup illustrated just how far South African women's cricket has to go to catch up with the top teams. "The one thing we found we lacked most was experience in the middle," she says. "The Australians, the English and the Indians play a lot of cricket. We just don't play that often, and it shows."
The game is extremely popular among girls at school, where it competes with hockey. "We have Under-16 and U-19 teams," says Brits. "And we also have inland and coastal leagues." Most of those games are played out in front of non-existent crowds though, and Brits reckons that the game needs to be marketed a lot better to bring in the punters.
"It's a domino effect, isn't it?" she asks. "If people aren't aware that we're playing, they won't come and watch us. Maybe once they do, they'll come back again. It wouldn't be a bad thing, for example, if we could play before the men play a Pro20 game. We could play in the afternoon, like the under-card in boxing, and then they'd play under lights."
How hard is it to keep going though, with neither the financial rewards nor the attention? "You just have to keep the passion going," she says, with a half-smile. "I don't want a situation where girls play the game in school, and then stop because they feel there's no future in it. You have to satisfy yourself with the inner rewards you get from playing a game you love. At the end of the day, you're not going to make a living from it."
She says that England's Charlotte Edwards, who she has played with at Kent, is her favourite player - "A classy batswoman" - and she also looked up to Jonty Rhodes for the excitement he brought to the game and his guts. And having been on a couple of tours that overlapped with the men, she says that there has been some encouragement from the marquee names as well. "They've never turned their backs on us," she says. 'Whenever we've met, they've wished us luck."
And what does the future hold, both for Brits, and for women's cricket in this country? "I'd love to see it become at least a semi-professional game," she says. "There'd be more rewards, and more people playing." Can she see that happening? "I hope so," she says, with a shy smile. And as cricket strives to enhance both its audience and its playing base, you can only wish that her optimism isn't misplaced.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: Dileep Premachandran
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Associate editor Dileep Premachandran gave up the joys of studying thermodynamics and strength of materials with a view to following in the footsteps of his literary heroes. Instead, he wound up at the Free Press Journal in Mumbai, writing on sport and politics before Gentleman gave him a column called Replay. A move to MyIndia.com followed, where he teamed up with Sambit Bal, and he arrived at ESPNCricinfo after having also worked for Cricket Talk and total-cricket.com. Sunil Gavaskar and Greg Chappell were his early cricketing heroes, though attempts to emulate their silken touch had hideous results. He considers himself obscenely fortunate to have watched live the two greatest comebacks in sporting history - India against invincible Australia at the Eden Gardens in 2001, and Liverpool's inc-RED-ible resurrection in the 2005 Champions' League final. He lives in Bangalore with his wife, who remains astonishingly tolerant of his sporting obsessions.