Full-strength SA women regain their mojo
The South African management is eyeing a semi-final finish or better for their women's team, who qualified for the World Cup with victory over Sri Lanka on Friday. South Africa missed out on automatic entry into the tournament after finishing outside the top four in the ICC Women's Championship but secured their spots through the qualifier, with a game to play, and are getting stronger as the showpiece event looms.
"We have the players to be in the top four. It is just about being consistent as a team and as individual players," Vincent Barnes, CSA High Performance Manager, who works with the men's, women's, A side and age-group teams told ESPNcricinfo. "If you look at teams like Australia or England, they have three or four match-winners in their side and those players will perform in three or four out of every five games. We need to develop that as well."
South Africa are currently ranked sixth in the ICC Team Rankings and lost recent series against New Zealand and Australia, which did not allow them to proceed straight to the World Cup. But they put their underperformance down to not having their best players available for all of those matches, either through injury or suspension. Pace spearhead Shabnim Ismail and wicket-keeper batsman Trisha Chetty were left out for disciplinary breaches - for which they underwent counseling - while Ayabonga Khaka and Laura Wolvaardt missed parts of the two series with niggles. Having all four back has made a big difference. "We've been able to put our best squad out there and we can see how well they have combined," Barnes said.
While Ismail and Chetty are experienced players whose quality is well-known, Khaka and Wolvaardt have made particularly crucial impressions now - Khaka for her aggressive bowling and 17-year-old Wolvaardt, who is the head girl at her school, for her composure opening the batting. But there have also been strategic changes to the way South Africa play. Lizelle Lee and Sune Luus have been moved up the order and Mignon du Preez handed the captaincy over to Dane van Niekerk, which has allowed both of them to blossom.
"Captaincy is still new to Dane but she is extremely knowledgable about the game. Dane is very focused, very hard on herself," Barnes said. "And it has allowed Mignon to concentrate on her batting because we always thought she could offer a bit more."
Since October, when du Preez effectively stood down, she has scored four half-centuries in 20 ODI innings. In the same time period, van Niekerk's has soared - she has been batting an average of 49.90 as captain, compared to 32.75 overall and has contributed with the ball. Doubtless, van Niekerk's experience at the Women's BBL has also had some effect on her performances and Barnes hopes more South African players will get opportunities in overseas leagues. "We want them to experience competitive environments because it really does wonders for them."
As women's cricket continues to grow and offer players more commercial opportunities, Cricket South Africa are doing what they can to keep up. Two years ago, they upped their contracts for female cricketers from six to 14 players and they have also moved women's cricket to the high performance division. That means the players have specialised camps at one of the world's best facilities at the University of Pretoria and there is also a women's academy intake who are trained there. The aim is to ensure there is a steady pipeline of quality women's players, who can join and ultimately take over from the current crop.
"What happens is that when the women graduate to international cricket, there is a big step up from domestic game, that gap is widening all the time. At the high performance centre, our job is to close that gap," Barnes said. "It's similar to the structure of international teams - you have a strong top eight and then the rest."
That top eight will compete at the World Cup, for which South Africa have one more series in preparation. They will host India, Ireland and Zimbabwe for a quadrangular rubber in Potchefstroom in May before traveling to the UK 10 days before the World Cup starts.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent