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Dane van Niekerk arrived in England dubious about The Hundred. Sitting in her quarantine hotel, she pondered the new rules. After months of rehabilitation because of a lower back injury, she was low on confidence and momentum. She needn't have worried. On a steamy night in south London, in front of a crowd fizzing with young families, the competition was launched with cheering swagger by two women's teams.
Van Niekerk lost the toss, but won everything else, making fifty and edging the winning runs for Oval Invincibles against Manchester Originals with two balls to spare. "I was pretty lucky," she says. "I should have been out twice, but it was special to start a tournament like that, and it put me in the right frame of mind."
The Invincibles powered on, watched by thousands, despite the pandemic. It felt like a giant leap for the women's game, as unknowns made headlines. "After the second game I was like, yes, I can do this. From not knowing what to expect, to it being such a success, and me enjoying every moment, was amazing. The support the tournament got was incredible."
A veteran of Australia's Big Bash and England's Kia Super League, van Niekerk ended up intrigued by The Hundred's quirks. "It challenged me as a captain. In T20, you have your plans, but with The Hundred you have the ten balls, and with its fast pace you have to think on your feet."
She hadn't been the Invincibles' first choice as captain. Australia's Rachael Haynes withdrew because of Covid restrictions, but coach Jonathan Batty had no regrets about his late signing, regarding her as a deeply underrated cricketer whose excellent fielding and shrewd leadership complement her leg-spin and fireworks with the bat. "She's really up there with the best," he says. "The word to use is 'warrior'.
She sets high standards on the field, she's happy to take on the difficult bowling, and she trusts her players. She's also passionate. She tries to keep a lid on that, but you can see how much it means to her. Some of the girls were worried she was shouting at them - I had to reassure them it was her way of communicating. I don't think there's a poker face in her."
And there was no hiding van Niekerk's delight when the Invincibles went on to win the tournament: tears flowed as she lifted the trophy, even if she was a little surprised. "Southern Brave really set the tone, but we had a special group who didn't take ourselves too seriously." Not just the winning captain, she was the competition's MVP, having top-scored with 259 runs at 43, and taken eight wickets at 20. She was planning to be back for season two.
DANE VAN NIEKERK was born on May 14, 1993, in Pretoria. Her brother, Gerrit, a year older to the day and unusually obliging, always let her bat in the backyard - knowing she would otherwise walk away - while their parents, Andri, who played korfball for South Africa, and Pieter, were very encouraging.
Little Dane was rather naughty and not a fan of school, but trudged along because of the sport. She played cricket with the boys, and by nine had been drafted into Northerns' girls age-groups side. She caught the eye of the South African set-up, and in 2009 made her debut, at just 15, during the World Cup in Australia.
Two days later, 19-year-old Marizanne Kapp also made her debut. "I was actually very, very afraid of her," says van Niekerk. "I'll never forget in 2008, when we both made South Africa's Under-19s, she bowled her first ball, and it went straight up in the air. I dropped it. She had a laugh; I almost wanted to cry." A few months later, they were in a relationship. In July 2018, they married.
It has had its complications. The day van Niekerk was made South African captain, in June 2016, the pair sat down and chatted about how they were going to navigate the situation. "I hope the team have seen over time that I have tried very hard, sometimes to the detriment of my relationship, to make sure they come first," she says.
The relationship also ran contrary to her parents', and her own, deeply held Christian values. "It was a big shock for them, because it is frowned upon. And I contradict myself, because both Marizanne and I say we don't think it is right, but we can't help that we love one another. I'm not going to give up my beliefs or my relationship because of what people say, because it is between me and God, and no one else." Her parents came round, and are now very close to Marizanne, while van Niekerk is quietly proud to be a role model to young gay South African women.
Although valued around the franchise world as an all-rounder, she says her heart lies with leg-spin. She doesn't turn the ball hugely, but is skiddy and quick through the air, and has been working on her googly: after a dozen years of international cricket, "you've got to change something". She's always had the ability to rattle through line-ups, becoming - at 19 - the first South African woman to take an international hat-trick, against West Indies in St Kitts; the second was Kapp, eight months later, in a T20 against Bangladesh. Van Niekerk also picked up four for none against West Indies and at Leicester in the 2017 World Cup. She hit her first international century against Sri Lanka at Potchefstroom in February 2019 - a long time coming - but next day was diagnosed with a stress fracture of the hip, the start of an unlucky run of injuries.
A career that began in the amateur age, and spanned the semi-pro era, is now fully professional - and the profile of the South African women's game has risen in tandem. The team reached the semi-finals of the T20 World Cup in 2014 and 2020; in between, they got to the last four of the 2017 one-day World Cup, where they lost, heartbreakingly, to England. Van Niekerk was the tournament's leading wicket-taker, with 15 at ten. She dreams of that World Cup win. Otherwise, she'll be happy "to leave a legacy, as part of an era that really put women's cricket on the map - if I can bow out saying I've done that, I'll be very happy." Mission, already, accomplished.