May 27, 2014

'The more you win, the more people will get interested in women's cricket'

South Africa captain Mignon du Preez talks about the team's improvement in the last few years, the need for professionalism, and the country's attitude towards women's sport

Subash Jayaraman: You were some kind of a cricketing prodigy, weren't you? You had an early start in cricket, as a four-year-old?

Mignon du Preez: Yes. Actually, I started in cricket by accident. At the age of four, my brother was playing in a mini-cricket event and my dad was the coach of his team. I had gone there to support my brother. One guy in the team didn't turn up in time and they asked me to fill a spot. I was the best "Batswoman of the day" and it started my love for the game.

SJ: I read that you scored 250 runs in a 40-overs game. That's what legends are made of, but you did that as a 12-year-old!

MdP: That was a very, very special day. That's probably one of the highlights of my career up until now. I was playing for a Gauteng girls Under-13 team. Actually, I was not supposed to play on that day. Again, somebody couldn't make it and they asked me the night before to help them out. I was very excited to go to this game. I scored 258 not out off 96 balls with 16 sixes and 28 fours.

SJ: You make it sound like everything was just an accident, the way you started your cricket and the kind of runs you have been scoring, but it seems you were destined to play cricket.

MdP: Sure, but the thing is, more good things follow hard work as well. From a very young age, I knew that I had this god-given talent, and I have this saying that, "My talent is god's gift to me, and what I do with it is my gift back". I give my 100% and that's probably paid off, and that's why I am where I am today. I'm fortunate that I got the opportunities from a young age and I had a wonderful support structure off the field, with parents who supported me.

Obviously, a girl playing cricket isn't common and it's mainly a male-dominated sport. It wasn't always easy. A lot of people thought I was a tomboy, and one day my dad bought me a shirt that said, "I'm not a tomboy. I'm just better than you." That helped me get to the place where I am. There were stages when it wasn't easy, because you play with boys and they think, "Well, you are a girl and you are just supposed to be pretty." But then they saw me in the field, saw how I played and the talent I had, and they respected me. After that it was never a problem again.

SJ: I want to ask you about sexism. Now that you've become an accomplished batsman and also have become the captain of South Africa, do you feel that sort of thing exists?

MdP: Deep down, I think it's still there. That's unfortunately how it goes. There will always be people who have strong opinions about things and think that cricket is mainly a male sport and a girl should not play it. But there are also people who support good skills and good talent once they see what we are capable of doing. We are at that stage where we are turning people's perceptions around and making them see that women's cricket is a sport in South Africa.

From where we were up until last year, we have now a few girls contracted, and also reached the WT20 semi-finals. We can also get fully professional and make sure that women's cricket is something people here take note of.

SJ: When a boy starts to play cricket, no one even gives it a second thought. I have heard from other women cricketers from other countries that when a 13- or 14-year-old girl drags her kit to practice, everybody looks at her as if to say, "What are you doing here?"

MdP: Yeah, there is a perception that if you play cricket, you are a butch type of girl. That's basically one of the things I have worked hard [against]. Basically, when I am on the field, I am fearless and I play my heart out. When I am off the field, I'm a girly girl and I like doing girly stuff. It's not that if you play a male-dominated sport you have to be built like a guy or have the same mannerisms that they do. You can still do girly stuff and play a mainly male sport if you have the skills. I think that's what I've done very well.

SJ: So have you seen little girls in South Africa come up to you and say they want to take up cricket and be like you?

MdP: Unfortunately, women's cricket still is not something people are aware of at the moment in South Africa. We are changing the perception and we have people starting to take note now. However, when we play or train at the same stadium as U-16 or U-17 girls, they come up to you and talk to you about these things, but girls other than that don't know about us much. It doesn't happen often but there are a few times when little girls ask for some advice and say, "I want to play for the country. What do I need to do now to make sure I get that spot?"

"Unfortunately, in South Africa, a lot of women's sports are almost seen as 'Cinderella' sports. We haven't got many schools playing girls' cricket yet, and our pool of women's cricketers is very small. Broadcasters just think sponsors might not be interested"

SJ: You had mentioned that you started playing cricket with your brothers. Initially, you played amongst the boys but when you reached a certain age, you started playing with the girls. Was there any change in your game or in your approach when that happened?

MdP: I made the transition from men's cricket to playing with the girls because around the age of 13 or 14, going to high school, my parents felt that the guys are starting to grow a little bit faster, getting a bit more muscular and tend to bowl faster. They didn't want me to get injured, so at that stage we made the call that I'd play with the girls.

Obviously playing with the girls, they are not as strong as the boys, so you are not able to hit the ball as hard or as far. But at a later stage in my career, like last year, I was able to start playing against the boys again. Just to challenge myself. I do think playing against the guys, because they do play at a competitive level and they do hit the ball hard, bowl faster - if you can handle that, obviously women's cricket becomes a little bit easier for you.

SJ: You are only 24 years old and we have heard of you for so long already. You made your national debut as a 17-year-old. What was that like?

MdP: It was obviously very special. Initially, I didn't make the team. I was very sad because I thought I'd done my very best and I'd made sure I was fitter at the camp and did everything according to plan. At the end of the day, they decided that I wasn't part of the squad and they had someone else to play that specific role in the squad.

Unfortunately, one of the girls got injured during the holidays and I got the call-up. They said Pakistan would be in South Africa in January [2007]. "Would you be interested in being part of the squad?" I still remember, I was standing outside my school with my coach and it was very, very special and I couldn't believe that something that you worked all your life towards is actually happening. I was very fortunate that in the third or fourth game with the team, I made my first fifty for South Africa, and that was special. In the same year, I went with the team to the Netherlands, and was really fortunate to be part of a world-record partnership for the fourth wicket with Johmari Logtenberg.

At that time I was not always part of the playing XI. We played a Test then, the only Test South Africa has played since I began playing for South Africa, and I was the 12th man that day! You had to work really hard and since I didn't like sitting on the sidelines and I wanted to be part of the team and compete, I made sure that was the last time I was left out of the XI, and I did everything I had to do. After that, my performance spoke for itself and they couldn't leave me out.

SJ: Your name had been in the papers for a while, so when you came into the squad, there must have been seniors in the squad. Also, you became the captain in 2012. How were your interactions with the existing members of the squad, considering you had to lead them as well?

MdP: We are very fortunate that we all are like a family. Even though I wasn't in the national team, I had played with a lot of the girls who were in the team, at the age of 13. All of them were quite familiar to me. Obviously, you are the youngster coming into the team and you know where your place is, but they try to make you feel at home and try to make it easy for you especially when you are away from home, and take care of your worries and also have fun.

They make you part of the squad because they see that your skill speaks for itself. When you perform on the field, off the field becomes easy for you and they can't really be naughty to you if you are the one pulling the team through.

I became the captain towards the end of 2012 in the series against England because the captain had got injured and I had to step in. The coaches decided that that was the route they were going to go in, and I was to be the captain. Obviously, it was scary initially as I had not been the captain before. It was a very big honour but at the same time, it was a bit scary.

I think what helped me at that time was that in the team there were still two or three girls who had captained the team before and they were all supportive and chipped in and helped me through the first stages till I got used to the position. The more I played, the more I started understanding the game and the position. I hope it can continue for a few more years and I can become the most capped captain!

SJ: How would you compare South Africa's performance in the 2012 World T20 and the 2014 World T20? You reached the semi-final in 2014, so based on results, it was better, but how would you assess the performances of the players. What changed between 2012 and 2014?

MdP: Before 2012, in the 2009 and 2010 World T20s we hadn't won a single game at those tournaments. So 2012 was already something special for us since we won a game in the group stages. We really celebrated it since it was the first one ever!

When we got back to South Africa, we decided that we should have a plan of action to go forward. It's no use if we go there every other year and we aren't really competing for one of the top spots. So we decided to make a few changes and Cricket South Africa decided to buy into it. We got a sponsor on board. Momentum was the first official sponsor for women's cricket in South Africa and then we were fortunate enough that we managed to get a contract for a few of the girls. Six girls got contracts and started to play cricket full time. I think all of that added to [what we accomplished in the WT20 in 2014].

We also added a lot more cricket to the calendar. We played at the end of last year against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in home series, and in the beginning of this year we went to Doha to play in a triangular series against Pakistan and Ireland. The players that played in those were part of our squad for the WT20. We started as a young team but the same squad has been playing together and there was a bit of consistency. The coach has been with the squad for a full year now. I think all that stability and consistency is what really helped [us reach the semi-finals].

We had to make sure we were getting better. We were a team that had never beaten a team from the top four, and by beating New Zealand, we kind of broke that barrier. We showed the world that we can compete with the best. We've just had a taste of the cake and hopefully, two years from now, we can go back and put the cherry on top and make sure we bring the cup home.

SJ: The semi-final was a very one-sided game with England winning by nine wickets. However, you had a ringside view of two of the premier women cricketers of the game - Charlotte Edwards and Sarah Taylor. So what were the things that you were observing them do?

MdP: The thing was, England are fully professional. Just before the World Cup they announced that they are turning fully professional. We are probably where they were two or three years ago. We are still moving towards professionalism. We are not there yet, but we are working towards it. I think you can see that they are a team that have played together for some time. They had only one or two changes from their squad from two or three years ago. They have good game plans, they have senior players who perform consistently. That has been something that we are still lacking. We have had players chipping in, but there is not a lot of consistency. One game it is me, another game it might be [Marizanne] Kapp, another game it might be Dane [van Niekerk]. We need players like myself to consistently score for the team, like Jacques Kallis for the South African [men's] team and AB [de Villiers], who always scores. We need to have that person to stay in the middle so the team can sit back and relax because they know you are going to do the job. That's what [England] have done very well.

And Anya Shrubsole had bowled phenomenally throughout the World Cup. I don't think there are a lot of girls who can swing the ball the way she does. They utilised her extremely well. If she can do the damage early on and put the opposition on the back foot, then it is convenient for the other bowlers - they just put the ball in the right areas and there wasn't a lot of pressure on them. Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened with us. They picked two of our wickets up front and we were already on the back foot and it was really hard to recover from there.

I do think it was an amazing learning experience for us. It is the first time ever that we played on television. It was a big moment for the girls. To just be there at such a world event and to play in the semi-final was in itself one of our main goals. We are proud of that. I think if we can just go back and work on performing under pressure situations, and if we can have game plans, the rest of the bowlers can bowl wicket to wicket and share the burden. It is hard to put bad balls away if you are already on the back foot and trying to just make sure you are not losing another wicket. That is something that we would like to work on.

England's batting - that is something very interesting. They got to the finals but they are not big hitters of the ball. It just shows how important the ones and twos are in T20 cricket. In IPL we see Chris Gayle, who hits every single ball out of the ground for six. I don't think the girls have the same strength. If we have to play England again, if we can get anything above 120, it would be a very competitive score if we can bowl well with the ball. Even in the game we lost, we scored only 100, but they only got it in the 17th over. If there was an extra 10-15 runs on the board, they might have been under a bit of pressure. Anything can happen in a pressure situation. It takes one ball and the momentum can shift.

I don't think we need to change too much. We shouldn't focus too much on the opposition. We have to execute our game plans better. Like I said, a few unfortunate run-outs, things that we can control in the future. The biggest challenge in the future will be to work on a game plan against Anya Shrubsole and try and save wickets up front and then work out the Powerplay once she has bowled out. We will be happy to keep her out and score from the other end.

SJ: South Africa is a sports-mad country. You have the Springboks, you have the Proteas. Sports are encouraged actively. However, it was surprising for me to hear that it was the first match South Africa's women had played that was on TV. Why isn't there more enthusiasm?

MdP: That is a sad point. Unfortunately, in South Africa, a lot of women's sports are almost seen as "Cinderella" sports. Women's cricket falls under that category at the moment. We haven't got many schools playing girls' cricket yet, and our pool of women's cricketers is very small. [Broadcasters] just think sponsors might not be interested, and due to lack of funding - it is quite expensive to air a game on television. I think that might be the biggest problem - lack of funds.

At least the semi-final of the World Cup got televised and hopefully that got the people a little bit interested. We have now created an awareness and hopefully [the broadcast situation] changes in the near future. It is an obstacle that we have been facing and unfortunately it is not the only sport. Other team sports - hockey - they also struggled for recognition till a sponsor got involved. They have got a little bit more television time. The netball girls are also starting to get theirs.

A lot of women's sports are frustrated that we are not getting the recognition that we deserve. Hopefully in the near future there might be talk of playing curtain-raisers. If it is New Zealand v South Africa, maybe the ladies' teams can come and play curtain-raisers and we can play along with the guys' games. That can get the fans that currently support men's cricket more interested in women's cricket. As soon as they see the talent that is on display, they will be very keen to watch women's cricket.

It is just that people are not educated enough, they don't know that there is something like women's cricket. That is the biggest obstacle. We are trying to change people's perception, and show that women can play cricket and it is actually fun to also come out and watch.

SJ: In the World T20 in Bangladesh, for the men's tournament, even the practice games were broadcast on television. Whereas, for all the games that happened in Sylhet, the ICC produced only three-minute highlights clips that were available on their website.

MdP: Yes. That is actually sad.

SJ: It doesn't take much to stream a game with two still cameras, which they do in a lot of domestic matches in Australia.

MdP: Yes. It is very, very sad. We also understand that, and it is something that we have been fighting for. But, like I said, the more games you win, the more people's thoughts you get. Maybe that can get people interested to ask the question, "Listen, can SuperSport please show a little bit more of women's cricket? We want to see it."

SJ: My question is not just about your domestic broadcaster in South Africa, I am talking about the ICC.

MdP: That too. We just need people to change their perception and also take women's cricket seriously. At least we are getting the opportunity to play curtain-raisers at big T20 World Cup events. It would be nice if we can get all the girls' events televised, and also even play more games in South Africa so people can come and watch both [men's and women's] games.

There is a lot of talk about the WICL - Women's International Cricket League, which should be similar to the IPL format. If that gets off the ground, that would be something special. That is what we might need to make people across the globe aware of the women's game and the talent that is available. It is a competition with the best women cricketers from the world. Not like Kolkata against Mumbai, but like teams playing against each other with a lot of international players. That would be something special, to see the best of the best competing against each other.

SJ: In a recent interview on ESPNcricinfo, Suzie Bates mentioned the WICL. We have heard about the WICL for a little over a year now. Do you have any idea about when that is supposed to get off the ground?

MdP: Initially the plan was to get it done in September this year. but unfortunately a lot of behind-the-scenes things have to happen first. They have been working on it for 18 months. [It could happen] either this year or not later than next year. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people that have to first give the go-ahead before a tournament like that can take place. They are just working towards getting all the boards and the ICC happy to approve a tournament like that.

SJ: How do you see South Africa's women's cricket progressing and catching up with England and Australia, because they are not going to be standing still either? How do you expect to make up the gap and get ahead of them?

MdP: That is a very good question. Currently for us now, we have two tours this year - to England in August and we play against Sri Lanka in October. The first thing for us is to do well and win some games in England and in the tournament against Sri Lanka, and make winning a habit. That might get sponsors interested. Once you get the sponsors interested, we can get the whole squad contracted. At the moment only six players are contracted. Hopefully, by this year or the next year we can get the full squad contracted.

One very exciting thing that has happened for us now is that Cricket South Africa invited ten girls to participate in the National Women's Academy, consistent with the men's Academy. Some of the guys played at franchise level or at the U-19 level in the recent World Cup that South Africa won. It is a three-month programme. Not just the cricket skills but nutrition and off-the-field stuff as well. All these will help getting the right resources for us. With the coaches getting involved and all working together, we can definitely become one of the best teams in the world.