The build-up to the World T20 is well underway, and unofficial warm-up games between England, West Indies, South Africa and India drew huge crowds to the Sir Vivian Richards cricket ground in Antigua on Thursday. South Africa captain Dane van Niekerk called the atmosphere at the ground "the best" she had ever experienced at an international.
"It was close to one of the biggest [crowds]," said van Niekerk. "The atmosphere was the best I've played around. It felt like an official game, and it was India South africa so it was quite daunting."
India reached 146 for 4 in their innings, having opted to bat first, and though Laura Wolvaardt managed 42 in South Africa's chase, van Niekerk's team fell three runs short in front of a crowd enlivened by celebrations for Antigua and Barbuda's 37th independence day.
"I got a bit nervous there at the end and kept on telling myself it's just a warm-up game, but with everyone around it just made for a really good cricket match," said van Niekerk. "And then with the England West Indies game, the way the West Indies women played, it just shows you what a team can do when the crowd gets behind them."
The very first stand-alone women's World T20 is less than a week away, and van Niekerk said that women's cricket thoroughly deserves the "alone time".
"It's due and it's well deserved," she said The growth of women's cricket has shown that it deserves the time - the alone time if I can say it like that. You have to pinch yourself when you see how quickly it's grown. And the entertainment factor is there now, with bigger hits, quicker bowlers, athletic players, it's a lot more exciting. It's well deserved for women's cricket at the moment, and hopefully we can do justice to the tournament."
South Africa reached the semi-final of the 2014 edition of the World T20, while last year they came within touching distance of a berth in the final of the 50-over World Cup, only to fall to England in a tightly contested encounter in Bristol. With match-winners in almost every department this time around, van Niekerk believes this is "definitely" the best chance her team have ever had to reach - and win - a global final
"The team we have is the best we've had. We have experienced players and young players, exciting players. It is our best chance, it's just up to us if we want to win it or not."
South Africa blooded several rookies on their tour of the Caribbean in September, drawing the one-day series 1-1 and then fighting back from 2-0 to hold the reigning T20 champions to a 2-2 draw in the T20Is. Wolvaardt, the 19-year-old top-order batter, averaged 43 in the T20s, striking the ball at 111.68, while fellow teenager Tumi Sekhukhune played a similarly vital role, taking seven wickets across both series. One of the main things the youngsters have brought to the side, van Niekerk said, is "fearlessness".
"The massive thing is the fearlessness," she said. "The younger ones are fearless. They don't quite know yet who's bowling at them or who they're facing. It's exciting for me just to watch them go about their job, because they just play the ball. When you play as long as we have, you start knowing the players and you know who's bowling at you or the aura a player has around them. The younger players don't have that. It's something some of our senior players have taken away from them: just play the ball. I told them to flourish and just have fun."
The Decision Review System (DRS) will be used in an ICC World T20 event for the first time ever, and it will also be the first time that van Niekerk and her team will be using it.
"We're not experienced at all, this will be my first time," she confirmed. "I'm just trying to keep all the bowlers calm. Because I think Lizelle [Lee] is the only one who has used it. We had a bit of a chat about it. It's going to be an experience. We've felt like in the past we've got a few hard [decisions], but hopefully now we can use the DRS to our benefit.
"We spoke to the keepers in Trisha [Chetty] and Lizelle, and they are going to play a massive role. They are going to see if it's going to hit or not. We said if you feel like it's really far fetched, just don't go for it, but I'll back any player if they want to use it. It's not there just for me to use it or make that decision, we are a team. If you feel it's out, go up. But the keeper is going to be the most important player for those decisions."