Mignon du Preez may have quit internationals but she's still in cricket full-time
The former South Africa batter and captain looks back at her career, ahead to the World Cup in her country, and league life after
Mignon du Preez broke cricket's glass ceiling in heels. Sort of.
"When people hear the word 'cricketer', they think you need to be a little bit more butch. They don't think you can be a cricketer and be girly. They think if you've got your nails done, surely you can't catch a ball. I tried to show that you can still be a girly girl and be competitive," she says. "There was a definitely a time when people would think cricket and that it's only for boys."
Du Preez was one of the "Iconic Women" who took part in the ICC Women's T20 World Cup Trophy Tour recently. Now retired and hoping to start a family, she played international cricket for over 15 years in a career that spanned South African women's cricket's transition from amateur to professional. And she did it all with long blonde hair.
"We had to change people's perception," she says. "There was lack of visibility. Nobody knew about us. Our games were not televised and girls' cricket was not a mainstream sport in schools. The hardest thing was to get girls to take up the sport."
Her own primary school did not have a girls' team, so, like so many from the pioneering generation of women's cricketers, she played with boys. "There was one parent that had a complaint because there was a girl [du Preez] in the team and their son was not playing and I remember the coaches said, 'But she's better than him,'" she says.
There was no arguing with that. Du Preez was only 12 years old when she struck 258 in a 40-over match and "kind of realised that cricket could be a career choice".
Five years later she made her international debut. "It was during the holiday time and one of the players got injured and I got a call-up," she says.
It was only seven years into her career that South Africa's matches were first televised. In September 2014, SuperSport screened the three-match T20I series between South Africa and England. Earlier that year the team du Preez led reached the semi-final of the T20 World Cup. The broadcast interest in them was reward for a decent campaign but they were unable to repay the faith immediately. South Africa were completely outplayed in the first two matches in England and also lost the third, though they put up more of a fight in that game.
At the time du Preez was halfway through her captaincy, a role she was thrust into almost by accident at 22, when the regular captain was injured. "I was a very young captain, so tactically I felt like I kind of was thrown into the deep end and I didn't really know much," she says. "On the first couple of tours, I almost needed to have script notes for who is going to bowl when and where.
"But what I thought I was really good at was people-management skills. I had an open-door policy and definitely wanted to get the best out of the players. We weren't professional and so we were just trying to change perceptions."
That same year du Preez played her first, and only, Test, where she scored the century she describes as one of her career highlights, although not for the reasons you may think.
"It was really special but also quite a challenging experience. What I remember most was how I got out in the second innings," she says. "Because I did so well in the first innings, I just kind of hoped I would pick up where I left off. Poonam Yadav was bowling to me and I had this plan that if she tossed it up, I was going to use my feet and hit her. But then also, she's a legspinner, so a sweep was a good option if she tosses it down leg. She ended up tossing it up and down leg, I double-stepped and missed it completely and got stumped. It was not your typical Test-match shot. Today you can get away with it, with a lot of innovative cricket being played, but then it was not the typical dismissal you would see in a Test."
Most South Africans would not even have been aware that the match took place. The women's team didn't become a big part of the national cricket conversation until 2017, when du Preez stepped down from the leadership but played in her 100th ODI and South Africa made the semi-final of the 50-over World Cup. "That's when people started taking notice and our players started becoming role models. That was where the big change happened," she said.
Now in 2023, South Africa find themselves in focus in women's sport. Last month they hosted the inaugural Under-19 women's T20 World Cup, and this month they host the senior event. In July-August, they will stage the netball World Cup, and the national women's football team will compete in the World Cup for the second successive time - an incredible feat against the backdrop of the men not qualifying for the same event in 20 years (they qualified automatically as hosts in 2010).
Du Preez is no longer involved in a playing capacity for South Africa but remains a keen observer from the sidelines, and is still a sportsperson through and through. On the day of this interview she was also in the nets.
"It's almost like riding a bike but sometimes it's not like that," she says. "The last time I didn't play for a while, I struggled to get the timing because I was just so eager to get bat on ball and I'd be too early on every shot. But today I think it was a lot more relaxed. I think that comes with age. Practice is there to make mistakes and it ended up being fewer mistakes than I thought."
Like so many female cricketers, du Preez has put her name in the hat for the WPL auction, where she hopes to get what could be a life-changing deal. Although she recognises that the growth of leagues could be a threat to the international game, having spent so much of her career in the amateur era, no one will begrudge her cashing in. "These leagues pay their players really well but ultimately you want your best players to be available for national selection, and to do that you also need to ensure that you pay them well enough so that they want to play for their country," she says.
Essentially that's part of the story for her own reasons for retiring. After she opted to step away from ODI cricket in April last year, du Preez was unable to keep her central contract because CSA do not offer single-format-only deals. With bills to pay, du Preez decided to call it quits completely and seek opportunities in franchise leagues.
She won't be lured into a national comeback for the World Cup but will be involved in the tournament in a commentary role. She will be rooting for South Africa, though."If I think with my heart, I'm going to say they are going to win," she says. "But if I think with my head, realistically, Australia have dominated women's cricket in the last couple of years and they are just so far ahead. They've got a lot of talent to pick from. In South Africa we don't have such a big pool. But I am excited to see a few other teams. England - they've also invested quite a bit - and then India, they've been really good recently and it will be really good if they do well because if India does well, women's cricket does well."
Closing the gap between those top-tier teams and the rest is a subject that interests du Preez. She was involved in the inaugural Fairbreak T20 tournament in the UAE last year and has since become a marketing consultant for the organisation. She sees competitions like that one as a way to level the playing field.
"Fairbreak gives opportunities to players that come from Associate nations to earn a living from cricket. They get their first professional contract and they get to play alongside their heroes. We had all the big names, from Stafanie Taylor and Sophie Devine to Marizanne Kapp and Ayabonga Khaka," she says.
And though events like Fairbreak are competitive, it's less about which team wins or loses and more about individuals gaining from it. "What made that tournament even more special was the camaraderie. When you go to a World Cup or the WBBL or the Hundred, it's really feisty and the competition is fierce. This tournament was where sport just united everybody. It was so good just to see the interaction between the players and how the players from the Full-Member nations shared their knowledge with the Associate players and how everybody was rooting for them to do well. I remember everyone cheering for Wini [Malaysia captain Winifred Duraisingam]. It's growing and it's going to offer more opportunities."
One of the players at the tournament was then 18-year-old Henriette Ishimwe from Rwanda, who went on to take four wickets in four balls at the U-19 World Cup, leading Rwanda to a historic first win at a major tournament. Well before Ishimwe achieved that feat, she had fans from her time at Fairbreak. "My husband actually asked me to speak to Henriette because he wanted her shirt," du Preez says.
And in doing that du Preez and her husband, Tony, shattered another glass ceiling. It's only recently that female sportspeople, especially in team sports, have become role models and du Preez believes that as perceptions continue to change, that will only increase. "I was part of the commentary team for the U-19 Women's T20 World Cup and I was looking through the player bios and so many of the girls had women role models, and I was like, wow, we've done something right. Finally."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent