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First taste of success for Women's Hundred leaves players wanting more

Dane van Niekerk, captain of defending champions Oval Invincibles, has high expectations for the second year

Valkerie Baynes
Valkerie Baynes
"Bigger and Better" is what Dane van Niekerk is expecting from the second year of the Women's Hundred after a hugely successful beginning.
Playing televised matches in front of big crowds - averaging between 7000-8000 with a record 17,116 watching the final at Lord's - and alongside some of the world's best, has been repeatedly referenced by international players as helping to launch fledgling careers.
Take Alice Capsey, the 17-year-old allrounder who burst onto the scene as a key part of Oval Invincibles' title campaign in 2021 and recently played an important role in England's run to the bronze-medal match at the Commonwealth Games. For the host nation, their defeat to New Zealand in that contest was a failure, but Capsey's performances batting at No. 3 in a line-up hit by the loss of injured captain Heather Knight up to that point has been one of the success stories of the English summer.
That the story began during last year's Hundred, where Capsey finished as Invincibles' joint-second-highest run-scorer and third-highest wicket-taker, came as no surprise to her captain, van Niekerk.
"It's just a credit to, first of all, the programmes that are here England and secondly all these leagues, that a 17-, 18-year-old can catch on to international cricket as well as she has," said van Niekerk, who is also South Africa's captain. "I'm glad she's on my team this year, especially having that international confidence."
Upon being called up to England's T20I squad for their recent series against South Africa and the Commonwealth Games, Capsey said: "I went into the Hundred a bit naive about how big it was actually going to be. That Lord's game was the first chance realising what I'd done and the steps that I'd taken in my career."
Capsey, who turns 18 on Thursday, the day Invincibles kick off this year's Women's Hundred by hosting Northern Superchargers in the 6.30pm headline slot, is not the only youngster to have flourished since playing in last year's edition.
Charlie Dean, the 21-year-old offspinner, played alongside Knight at London Spirit, went on to make her international debut against New Zealand a month later and has now replaced the injured Knight as Spirit's skipper. Issy Wong, the 20-year-old quick who has been on the fringes of England selection for the past two years, made debuts in all three international formats this summer and returns to Birmingham Phoenix after experiencing a Commonwealth Games in her hometown.
The competition is also a draw for experienced overseas players returning to increased salaries. The paycheques of the top-paid women this year have more than doubled to £31,250 (US$ 41,500) compared with £15,000 (US$ 20,000) in 2021, while the lowest-paid receive £7500 (US$ 10,000), up from £3600.
Former South Africa batter Lizelle Lee and former West Indies allrounder Deandra Dottin will have the Hundred as the first stop on the franchise circuit their careers will now be centred on after both recently made waves retiring from international cricket.
The Women's Hundred has also attracted a large Australian contingent with 10 of their gold medal-winning Commonwealth Games squad, including Tahlia McGrath, who played in the final against India while Covid-positive, staying on for this year's tournament after pandemic-related travel restrictions cut their numbers dramatically in 2021.
Three stars of India's silver-medal team - Smriti Mandhana, Jemimah Rodrigues and Deepti Sharma - return and there will once again be a strong South African presence, including van Niekerk who is set to play her first match since November after fracturing her ankle.
"I'm just thankful that I can be here playing cricket again," van Niekerk said. "I needed it. I'm built to play cricket and mentally I need to do that.
"It's very hard to get six to seven months right in six to eight weeks. I'm still on a journey and I'm certainly not done but I need to get back playing cricket. This mentally has taken the biggest toll, this injury, on me just because of the length of time that I was away and obviously it being such a bad injury that I was almost technically bedridden for three weeks."
Van Niekerk was player of the match in last year's season-opener against Manchester Originals, which began with Marizanne Kapp bowling a leg-side wide to Lee and ended with Van Niekerk's unbeaten 56 seeing the Invincibles home with two balls to spare. Van Niekerk ended as the tournament's MVP and leading run-scorer while Kapp, her wife, was the match-winner in the final, tearing through Southern Brave's top order to return competition-best figures of 4 for 9.
The pair unexpectedly had some training time together at home when Kapp left South Africa's tour of England - she also missed the Commonwealth Games - because her brother-in-law had been injured in an accident. Now that the situation had improved back home, van Niekerk hoped Kapp, who was in excellent form before leaving England, could have as big an impact on this year's tournament.
Invincibles have recruited the experienced former England opener Lauren Winfield-Hill from the Superchargers, who have an excellent batting line-up including Alyssa Healy, Rodrigues and Laura Wolvaardt.
Not only does van Niekerk have to manage her comeback from injury and captaining her side, but she admitted to feeling some pressure to ensure the competition lives up to the highs of its maiden season.
"This league has grown in leaps and bounds in a year," she said. "What it's going to do in the next five? So we need to do justice by that.
"I love the fact that it's on the back of a very exciting Commonwealth Games as well. It is important for women's sport in general, not just cricket, to be on this global stage. It is the right time and I hope that that the young girls back home, who watch this tournament first of all, and watch these tournaments around the world, really want to get into it.
"It's really good money as well. At the end of the day, you want to get paid to do what you love, and that's what we've been able to do."
While the women's salaries still lag a long way behind the men's, the competition has introduced a scheduling twist - albeit just once for this year - whereby Thursday's corresponding men's match at The Oval will be the 3pm curtain-raiser. While that perhaps adds another element of pressure to the women's game, van Niekerk saw it as an important statement.
"That's what this platform is and what the Hundred brings, is that equality where the females have the headliner," she said. "And hopefully we can do justice by that."
Given the increased visibility of women's cricket in England through the Hundred, not to mention the benefits that exposure has had on developing rising talent, van Niekerk's expectations remain high.
"The crowds and support for the teams has been incredible and, watching the men's games, I just got really excited for our games as well, remembering how electric and amazing it was to play in front of a packed crowd," she said. "I expect nothing less, I only expect more so I'm really excited to get going.
"Every single team is just ready and raring to get this Hundred underway. Even though it's the second one, let's make it the best one yet."

Valkerie Baynes is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo