In their opening game of the 2020 T20 World Cup, South Africa restricted England, a team they had beaten only twice in their last 18 T20Is, to a modest 123 for 8, and were well set on 90 in the 16th over. But when they lost two batters in five deliveries without scoring, the required run rate climbed and at the start of the final over, they needed nine to win. Two singles later, Mignon du Preez met a length delivery from Katherine Sciver-Brunt with the full force of her bat and sent it over backward square for six. South Africa won with two balls to spare and went on to top their group.
"If you would have asked anybody who would have been the person to hit Katherine Sciver-Brunt for a six that day, I can promise you 99% of people would not have said it would be me," du Preez says. "To be that person, at the back end and to be able to say, 'Listen, I have worked on this part of my game and I have added power to my game,' that was a highlight."
That was du Preez's 41st T20 six, and came two years before the end of her decade-and-a-half long international career. In 115 matches before that day, du Preez had struck sixes at an average of one every three matches. Since that match, she has hit 31 sixes in 73 matches, around one every two games.
She says that clearing the boundary became a focus later in her career, thanks in part to a conversation she had with Trent Woodhill, then the Melbourne Stars coach at the WBBL. "He used to say: power over placement. That doesn't mean being reckless, but it helped me take indecision away. For someone like me, who is not a big hitter, it gave me a way to clear the boundary and the confidence to go for it."
Between 2004 and 2014, in 160 T20Is played by England, Australia, South Africa, West Indies, New Zealand and India, the average strike rate of women batters was 94.61 and they hit a total of 291 sixes - almost two per match. Since 2015, the collective strike rate for those teams has improved to 107.55, and in 195 T20Is there have been 626 sixes or more than a three a match.
The confidence to clear the ropes is one aspect of power-hitting but there are other ingredients that make a big hitter, like anatomy and positioning.
"A few years ago we got a lot of our players marked up and told them they had to hit the ball as far as they can, against seam and spin from a bowling machine," says Lisa Keightley, the former England women's coach, who spoke to this writer during her time as tactical performance coach with Paarl Royals in the men's SA20. "We didn't tell them what to do. We just said, 'Hit it as far as you can.'
"One of the things that came out was how players hit sixes in different ways. Nat Sciver-Brunt does it with strength. Heather Knight generates momentum when she gets into the ball, so she will take a couple of steps to go big. Sophia Dunkley is hand speed and bat speed. Tammy Beaumont really whips her bat to get bat speed.
"But the general thing is the launch angle. If you want to hit a six, the launch angle of your bat helps you get it over the rope. If you have a good launch angle, you've got a really good chance of hitting it over the rope."
Launch angle refers to the angle of the bat face relative to the ground when it makes contact with the ball. It determines how much power a batter can get into their stroke. The optimal launch angle is dependent on the positioning of the batter's whole body.
"Boundary-hitting is all about an open blade, getting the bat flow going to the optimal height at the right time and then hitting with your back hip," says Neil McKenzie, the South Africa men's batting coach. "You see it in golfers and tennis players - when that back hip comes through, that's power-hitting.
"It's all about loading that back hip up. You've got players that drag the front leg back to the back leg and guys that get the back leg to the front leg and then keep that position. The key in power-hitting is an open bat face, which keeps the blade going through the ball for longer, and it's about hitting with your whole body.
"If you get too wide, you only hit with your arms. In the past, a lot of players used a closed bat face, which limits the swing. At the point of contact, the back hip and the blade come through the ball and that's called keeping your shape."
Working on power-hitting has been a part of men's cricket for some time now. In 2021, West Indies allrounder Fabian Allen talked about learning to "keep my shape and keep my base" as part of his training routine, but it was not a part of the conversation in women's cricket when Keightley was playing for Australia between 1995 and 2005. Cricket back then was not set up to accommodate a female power game.
"We definitely had longer boundaries," Keightley says. "The ICC have [now] made the boundaries certain sizes. You've got a minimum of 55 metres and a maximum of 65, so boundary sizes are fairly standard across the board and that's made a big impact. The other thing is international venues where the outfields are quick and you have pitches where the ball is coming on pretty well. And then the bats - the distance they can hit has really evolved over time.
"Female athletes are now getting to be full-time professionals, so they can get stronger. I wouldn't say fitter - the Australia team I played on were pretty fit - but I think the strength factor has increased significantly in the top teams. And there is also the explosion of the T20 format. In T20 if you've got some power-hitters, they can really change the game. Most females can generally hit fours, but in T20s it's about players that can clear the rope."
Increasingly there is an understanding that a team that hits more sixes has an obvious advantage. "If someone can come in and hit three or four sixes in their innings, they are changing the game," England allrounder Nat Sciver-Brunt says. "I've typically tried to be someone to play through the innings and not really think too big too soon, but if I can change the game in my first ten balls or my first 20 balls or whatever it is, then that will almost put the team in a better position. In the best T20 innings, people are facing 40, 50 balls and scoring a hundred."
To date, there have been 40 centuries scored in women's T20Is, all of them after 2010, and 37 after 2017. The turning point was, as Keightley suggested, the result of professionalisation.
In 2013 the Australia women's team, who had part-time deals since 1997, were given a major raise, and tour payments and marketing bonuses were included in their packages. In 2014, England, New Zealand and South Africa announced their first women's contracts. It's no surprise that the increased focus on power-hitting has come from these countries, followed closely by India (who have quickly kept pace) and West Indies.
The increased investment in some countries has meant that some women's teams are now fully professional and their cricketers can spend more time training and honing their skills. They are also likely to have better facilities to train at, and their teams can employ specialist batting coaches and full-time strength-and-conditioning coaches, who work on creating what Keightley called "strong, robust athletes", for whom the development of a skill like power-hitting is the next logical step.
The legs, hips and core are the engine of power-hitting, so players' gym workouts need to focus on those and not just the upper body. "I like to carry weights in the gym, I like to work on my fitness because as a power-hitter, I have to be in shape," says Ayesha Naseem, the 18-year-old Pakistan batter who slammed an 83-metre six against Australia. "On off days, I work on my base - my legs. If they are strong and stable, I can hit more sixes and they go at a distance."
Also included in these workouts are plyometric exercises - explosive movements that are aimed at developing speed and power. These include box jumps (standing on the ground and jumping with both feet onto a raised box) and knee-ups (jumping up to stand from a squat position), which aim to develop leg strength.
Batters also train to create muscle memory of the sensation of hitting the ball. "To hit big, you've got to have some sessions where you take the shackles off and get what it feels like when I want to go for my six," Keightley says.
Du Preez calls it a "round-the-world middle-practice" where batters hit the ball all around the field from a centre pitch to see which areas they can target best. "In the nets it can feel good, but a lot of the time, it doesn't actually clear the rope."
Even junior players are regularly training to power-hit. "Every alternate week or day, the players have hitting sessions with their coaches," says Tanuja Lele, a BCCI strength-and-conditioning coach, who most recently worked with India's World Cup-winning Under-19 squad.
"We work on the power and the rotation aspect: hip rotation, trunk rotation, along with the strength aspect of upper body and lower body, and we combine it with the skills. We try to plan it in a way where players are used to hitting it and simultaneously the strength work in the gym is being used in hitting time. We see the building of strength along with the translation of it. And we combine that with plyometrics exercises, where you end up having strength to move into the power zone."
And it's paying off. At the time of writing, 136 sixes had been hit in 18 WPL matches so far, more than seven sixes a match. With boundaries set at a maximum of 60 metres, there have also been four totals over 200, all successfully defended. (The reasons for the high scoring have been explored -the quality of the bowling is one.)
"Before it used to be only one or two players who could come and hit, but now we have players like Shafali and Richa Ghosh, and you see the different skill sets. One is an opener; one is a finisher. Every single person needs to be able to hit in T20. It is expected that even if you play two balls, you can hit a six - that's a skill that's required."