Van Niekerk shakes off nerves on debut but Sunrisers can't shake off Stars
Paige Scholfield and Bryony Smith provide telling contributions at Lord's
South East Stars 135 for 6 (Smith 38, Scrivens 2-22) beat Sunrisers 132 for 8 (Gray 34*, Scholfield 3-24) by four wickets
A friendship forged half a decade ago at Surrey Stars turned into a surprise opening partnership as Dane van Niekerk played her first game for Sunrisers alongside Mady Villiers in what turned out to be a fighting defeat at the hands of South East Stars in their Charlotte Edwards Cup clash at Lord's.
Villiers had batted at No. 5 in Sunrisers' first game of the campaign, a loss to Central Sparks, and scored 70 from her usual position of No. 4 as Sunrisers upset Vipers in the Rachael Heyhoe Flint Trophy, which remains their only win so far in the history of the competition which started in 2020.
But she strode out with van Niekerk, the former South Africa captain in the next phase of her career following her tumultuous retirement from international cricket, after Sunrisers won the toss and elected to bat. The move didn't quite come off this time as they put on just 32 runs before van Niekerk fell attempting to slog-sweep a Paige Scholfield delivery which rattled into her off stump and Villiers fell a short time later, bowled by Phoebe Franklin to make it 37 for 2.
Van Niekerk's last competitive match had been on April 11 at the FairBreak Invitational and it showed in her 17 off 19 balls with flashes of her brilliance permeating some scratchiness as she struggled to get Freya Davies off the square initially before clubbing the third and fifth balls of Davies' second over for four, with Villiers having also found the boundary off the first. And van Niekerk admitted to having a few nerves before she walked out to bat.
"I was shaking," van Niekerk told ESPNcricinfo. "I didn't shake like that in a long time, in the first over, but I just told myself, 'don't be a wuss, you've been doing it for a long time,' and got over it and hopefully I can just get a good contribution going in this tournament for the team.
"I think with everything that happened, you say 'I don't want to prove a point', but in the back of your mind you go, 'I probably should', but I think it was just I didn't want to fail. In the back of my head I was like, 'just don't get a duck, don't get a duck, don't get a duck' and when I got that first run, the nerves settled. It's been a while since I played a competitive game, there was a big crowd out so it was just a bit nervy but I'm glad I got it out the way."
"My strike rate [89.47] didn't show probably how I felt," she added. "I felt like I was hitting 85% out of the middle so that's good signs for me. At least I didn't walk off thinking I'm in trouble here. I'm obviously disappointed I wasn't hitting gaps, but that will come with the more I play."
Scholfield's 3 for 34 were crucial in keeping Sunrisers to 132 for 8, which looked below par but could have been much worse after they had slumped to 64 for 6 until a 48-run stand for between Jo Gardner and Eva Gray, who top-scored for her side with an ubeaten 34 off 24 balls, salvaged something from the innings.
Sunrisers weren't helped by the chaotic run out of Amara Carr, attempting a second run off Alice Davidson-Richards when she and batting partner Cordelia Griffith almost collided then engaged in an ungainly sideways dance, moving wider and wider of the pitch as they tried to get round each other. Carr was caught short of her ground as Davidson-Richards collected Scholfield's throw from deep backward square and whipped off the bails at the non-striker's end.
Grace Scrivens, dropping from opener to No. 4, had already been run out, and when Griffith holed out off a full toss to give Scholfield her second wicket and Florence Miller was trapped lbw by Bryony Smith, Sunrisers were in disarray. It was only down to Gardner and Gray that they had something to defend. But then Garder was run out in another mix-up and captain Kelly Castle was bowled cheaply by Scholfield to leave Sunrisers with plenty of work to do with the ball.
Smith, who scored 83 in Stars' loss to Vipers on Tuesday, set the run chase off to a strong start with three fours off Gray's second over, the fourth of the reply.
Villiers, who had taken three wickets against Sparks to add to three three-wicket hauls from the 50-over competition so far this season, trapped Aylish Cranstone lbw with her first ball but it was to be her only wicket for this match.
Alice Capsey sped to 24 off just eight balls but fell as Abtaha Maqsood also claimed a wicket with her first ball. Villiers and Maqsood both missed difficult caught-and-bowled chances off Smith, who reached 38 before picking out Gardner at deep midwicket off Gray. By then, Stars needed 42 runs off 52 balls and while Scrivens picked up the wickets of Tash Farrant and Scholfield to take the match deeper than had looked likely, Stars eased past their target with an over to spare, leaving Sunrisers still chasing their second-ever win in the competition, now in its third season.
But van Niekerk, who could be seen advising England Under-19s captain Scrivens while she was bowling, was confident success would come.
"The nice thing is I've been through that with the South African team over the years and it just comes down to, first of all, the belief," van Niekerk said. "You need to believe that you can beat any team. You can't go on what happened in the past, you have to believe. Also the experience in these crunch situations, and we don't get it right all the time, but just having a reference point and I think that's why I'm here. That's me trying to speak to the players, trying to give my knowledge to them in certain situations.
"It's just about making sure we're making the right decisions in those crunch situations. We brought it back really well today. The focus just shifted a little bit and that's stuff that we will speak about more often, just shifting the focus to being very goal-based every single over. This team has got a lot of talent and a lot of potential. It's just about getting in everything clicking."
Villiers' bond with van Niekerk - both were part of the Surrey Stars side which won the WCSL in 2018 - had been instrumental in her making the move to play in England on a two-and-a-half-month deal ahead returning to Oval Invincibles for the Hundred in August.
"I want to play cricket, that's a fact, and I know Mady very well, and I know, Eva [Gray] and Jo Gardner, so it was a no-brainer for me," van Niekerk said. "To walk out in the first game with Mads at the top there just in a way put me at ease. We have a good laugh together."
Speaking to ESPNcricinfo last week ahead of her reunion with van Niekerk, Villiers said: "I played with her at Surrey Stars so I've known her for five years or so. We get on really well. She's a great laugh and she'll do anything for anyone and she's great to have around the side. She just wants to enjoy her cricket again and I think she's going to be brilliant for us."
Valkerie Baynes is a general editor, women's cricket, at ESPNcricinfo