South Africa bursting with pace potential
The biggest battle of the South African Women's World Cup squad has already taken place. It happened before the tournament, between themselves.
"Our pace bowlers are loving it here. They've hit us in the nets quite a few times. I think I am still hurt. All our batters are. Shabnim Ismail and Marizanne Kapp and Moseline Daniels - I don't know if it was a joke between them - but they tried to hit us as much as possible in the net we had," Dane van Niekerk, the South African captain said, three days before their game against Pakistan.
Despite nursing some bruises, she wore the biggest smile of the eight captains present at the glamorous opening event at Whitehall Place - a members' club so exclusive the women's teams would not have been let in a few decades ago. Van Niekerk believes on English pitches, under English skies and in English air South Africa have an advantage over all their opposition.
"I think we've got the best pace attack in the world," she announced. "Stats have shown that. We've got five top pace bowlers and we pride ourselves on that."
The leader of the pack is the deceptively built Ismail. She looks thin, almost wisp-like, but insists she is the "fastest bowler in the world". And when she pushes the speed gun up towards 140 kph, it is hard to argue. Van Niekerk certainly doesn't. "I will back her to the end of the world on that," she boomed in support of Ismail's claim. "She is brilliant. With that small body, the aggression she shows, I love it."
That fiery demeanor has not always been helpful. Ismail has been suspended from the national academy, and more recently from the national team, for almost three months alongside Trisha Chetty, for what were described as "repeat offences." Although the pair's wrong-doings were never made public, it was an open secret that Ismail's living on the wild side was in breach of CSA's code of conduct.
But that did not really stain her reputation. It may well have enhanced it. Women's cricket finally had its own bad girl. Besides, Ismail adds great value as a player to this South African team. In her absence, they lost to Australia 4-0, and van Niekerk admitted to "dearly" missing her spearhead. But on return, Ismail took her 100th ODI wicket - the only South African to have reached the milestone - and helped her team win six out of eight matches in a quadrangular series with India, Zimbabwe and Ireland.
Van Niekerk said Ismail "has been brilliant and couldn't fit in better," since rejoining them but she's still up for a fight, even if it is with her own team-mates. The latest spat, a friendly one, is with No.1 ranked bowler Kapp over what roles they play on the field. "They've sorted it out," Niekerk said. "Kappie says she is a swing bowler and Shabnim says she is a fast bowler. I'm glad I didn't have to be the mediator of that one."
Kapp is among the most sought after women's cricketers around. She played in the Women's Big Bash and in addition to her bowling, has an ODI hundred to her name. She would give South Africa the confidence that they can beat the best, because she is among them. "She is a workaholic, she just wants to work and she gets better by the day," van Niekerk said of Kapp. "She frustrates me sometimes because she just wants to speak cricket but that's the type of player she is."
With left-armers Daniels and Chloe Tryon and a fifth seamer in Ayabonga Khaka, South Africa's pace potential will headline their tournament and could put their spinners in the shadows. "In the spin department, it's not gripping as much as we want it to," van Niekerk said. "We've got to make a few changes to our lines and lengths and how we want to go about things here." Still, she expected everyone to play a part in what she has called the "best," South African team she has been part of. "The skill and the variation in our group is immense."
So too is the mental shift they have made since van Niekerk took over. Last June, when Mignon du Preez gave up the captaincy, the squad could easily have broken down in the lead up to the World Cup. Instead, they solidified under a new captain and allowed du Perez to focus on leading by example with the bat.
"Mignon and I had a chat before everything got announced and she told me she was stepping down," van Niekerk said. "She left the team in a very healthy state. I was sad when I heard she was not going to be captain because she is a great leader on and off the field but I'm glad the decision paid off for her personally. She has scored more runs since that. She knows what she needs. It was difficult to find out she was stepping down but we trust her. She thought it was for the betterment of the team, she felt, and you get a lot of points for that."
In the year since du Preez has been playing as a batsman only, she has scored a century and four fifties. With 18-year old Laura Wolvaardt, who made a stellar 149 in May, and the experienced Lizelle Lee, South Africa have all the ingredients of a team that can go far in this tournament. And even though we have heard it all from South African sides countless times before, it sounds a little different when it's said by the women. "I've said it a thousand times, we are coming to the World Cup to win the World Cup," van Niekerk said. "You don't come to compete and say you want to be fourth, you come to win and that is our expectation."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent