by Ralph Staniforth

MAIDEN INNINGS

Leadership talks to South African cricket captain Mignon du Preez about the future of women’s cricket in the country and her own outstanding career

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Sport is often used in South Africa as a way to unify the country, a way to bring people from different cultures and backgrounds together. It has been this way since Nelson Mandela famously wore Francois Pienaar’s number six jersey to hand the winning captain the World Cup trophy on that memorable day at Ellis Park 20 years ago. Further examples followed, with the African Cup of Nations victory in 1996 and the 2007 Rugby World Cup victory.

But all these achievements have one thing in common—they have all been achieved by men. Our female competitors through various sporting codes are often forgotten or, worse, not even recognised. There are many reasons for this and blame cannot be laid at one person or organisation’s doorstep. It’s not a uniquely South African problem either, as women in sport are often marginalised the world over. Just a few years ago women were still getting less prize money for winning the world’s largest grand slam tennis tournament, Wimbledon.

Fortunately, changes are taking place. Women in sport are being recognised more now, and while the situation is by no means ideal, things do seem to be more on the right track.

South Africa has celebrated many female sporting icons over the years—the likes of Penny Heyns, Amanda Coetzer and Hestrie Cloete, to name but a few.

A gifted sportswoman

As we celebrate Women’s Month in August, Leadership caught up with the country’s women’s cricket captain, Mignon du Preez, who, at 26 has reached the heights in a sport she loves.

Born and bred in Pretoria, Du Preez’s love for cricket started at a very young age. Her early break came when at the age of four, her elder brother’s mini-cricket team was short of a player and she had to fill in.

Du Preez’s sporting career grew from there during her school years. While in primary school at Doringkloof Primary, she had to compete alongside the boys, as is the case with most team sports at junior level. It was only once she reached high school that her parents finally said it might be time to start “playing with the girls” and fortunately for Du Preez, her high school— Zwartkop High School—had a girl’s team.

Du Preez was a gifted sportswoman during her early years. She participated in softball, hockey, cricket, gymnastics etc, but cricket was always her first choice. Her first national colours came at the age of 10 when she represented South Africa at indoor cricket. But she says that it was in her matric year that she made the decision to focus on cricket, as she began to realise that she could play internationally.

It was January 2007 when Du Preez made her international debut in an ODI fixture against Pakistan, followed by a T20 debut later that same year.

Since her debut, the scenery within women’s cricket has changed somewhat. For a long time it was viewed as an amateur sport, but with six national contracts handed out in 2013 and 14 in 2014, things are changing.

“I wouldn’t say we are professional yet, but definitely semi-professional and moving in the right direction,” says Du Preez.

She says the biggest challenge currently faced by women’s cricket is a “lack of media awareness and exposure,” but this too is changing, with Cricket South Africa looking at the possibility of televising some home tours.

Momentum, who sponsor the men’s ODI team and the provincial one day tournament, seem to be the biggest shakers of the lot as they get on board in the women’s game. As with any sport, money talks, and as soon as sponsors come on board and possible television deals are discussed, awareness will naturally follow. It is only since Momentum’s involvement that contracts have been handed out.

Test cricket

Du Preez hopes that within the next few years South Africa can follow in the footsteps of Australia and England, “who already play cricket as a full time job”. But what is clear is that England and Australia’s women’s teams have had exposure for quite some time—they even play their own Ashes series, like their male counterparts.

Women’s cricket’s fastest growing form is T20, with a women’s “Big Bash” tournament coming up at the end of the year, but outside England and Australia Test cricket in the women’s game is still at a very low point.

Du Preez’s involvement in the national cricket side started in 2007 and now, in 2015, she still only has one Test match to reflect on—vs India in 2014. Her one Test match also saw her score her maiden Test century.

“There is definitely a shortage of Test cricket in the women’s game; it is only Australia and England who play regular Test cricket. I really hope that in years to come we will have many more Tests to look forward too—as captain it’s a different sort of challenge, a tough one, but I guess that’s why it is called Test cricket—it tests your ultimate skills,” says Du Preez.

Touring

While their male counterparts have toured the globe for many years, Du Preez says that being away from home is sometimes tough, although she really enjoys it. “In recent years we have toured the sub-continent quite a bit—I know people say it’s dirty, but it really is quite an experience seeing different cultures. It’s really great, and we are very fortunate to be able to tour the world and see so many amazing places and meet so many wonderful people.”

Touring the sub-continent, she says, “also just helps you get perspective on life again. Some things that we take for granted here—like running water—they can’t do over there.”

However, Du Preez says she has also had the opportunity to tour wonderful places such as the Caribbean, Australia and the Netherlands, “which are wonderful holiday destinations”.

Captaincy

Captaining a national side is a stressful job, and this is one of the reasons why Cricket South Africa have shared the captaincy role through the three different formats in the men’s game. For the women, with much less cricket to play, the job is less stressful, with less media attention, but it still commands a lot from players.

Du Preez says while there is media pressure, it does not compare to the sort of pressure faced by her male counterparts, but she adds that she was rather young when the captaincy role was handed to her due to an injury to the then captain during an England tour to South Africa.

“At 22 it was all really new to me. I had been in the setup for a few years and understood the game, I had the knowledge, but doing it is a different story.”

However, the coaching staff approached her for the job and she says “the fact that they showed faith and belief in me helped me believe that I could do the job”.

Experience in any sport is crucial and Du Preez found herself in the fortunate position of having two or three former captains in the side, and she says the coaching staff also helped her a lot.

“From there it just got easier and easier, and although I am not where I want to be just yet, as I have plenty still to learn, I am a lot better than I was at the start.”

With the recent growth in the women’s game, more opportunities have also opened up for them to meet with their male counterparts, interact and share experiences which, according to Du Preez, “has really helped me and the team”.

T20 World Cup

In 2014 Du Preez and her team travelled to Bangladesh to play in the T20 World Cup and achieved their first ever semi final berth.

South Africa were not expected to do as well as they did, and Du Preez tells of a very special victory that took place in the tournament. “New Zealand were pre-tournament favourites and we faced them in a must-win group game. The night before the game they already had their bags backed in the hotel lobby, as if victory was a mere formality.”

This was hardly a surprise as the New Zealanders must have known that South Africa had hardly managed to win any group games in previous tournaments. But it’s never over until the fat lady sings, as was evident the next day as the New Zealanders fell at the hands of Du Preez and her girls.

“I think it just really irritated us that they thought the game was won before it had started. We went in as underdogs with nothing to lose and we played that way—in the end we fortunately came out on top and made it through to the semis.”

Women’s Month

Having made the semi finals of the World Cup, they returned home satisfied. Defeat to England in the semis had a lot to do with pressure as it was “the first time for many of the girls to play live on television”, but the future of women’s cricket looks bright and television will soon be the norm.

As for Women’s Month, Du Preez chuckles that she is “grateful that women get at least one month, while the men take the other 11.”

On a more serious note she says in future she would like to see women in all sports get more attention, more funding and more sponsorship.

“The effort we put in is no less than the men, and although I realise they bring in the money, I do hope that women in all sports can get closer to their male counterparts in terms of earning.”

Competition

In previous years, it was the top four—England, Australia, New Zealand and India who competed against each other but with the exciting ICC Women’s Championship, all top teams have to play each either at home or away, which is a very good thing in terms of exposure.

“It opens up more opportunities for us to play against Australia and New Zealand which allows us to test our skills against the top nations,” says the captain.

“In the past,” she says, “we have only played against them at World Cups, which is obviously a lot different to a series where you get to play the same nation in a three or five match series.”

Emerging talent

With the future looking bright for women’s cricket in terms of sponsorship and television, the talent coming through the ranks is equally as vital.

Our provincial scene has weakened over the years in the men’s game as the national players hardly ever play—indeed, the top players never play in the four day competition. However, the women’s game seems to be improving at provincial and lower levels. With no massive lure of money to the IPLs of this world, women have little option but to battle it out among themselves.

Du Preez believes Cricket South Africa (CSA) has done great work in this regard, “as we now have a women’s emerging (SA A) team, as well as high performance and the National Women’s Academy.

“CSA has invested a lot into grassroots women’s cricket and are looking at starting an under 13 cricket league and also a high school cricket league.

“This is because they have found that many girls play mini-cricket but as soon as they get older they stop, mostly because they have to compete against boys.”

“For the first time we also had a national cricket week in Bloemfontein this year where we got to see all 8 provinces competing against each other on a promotion relegation basis, which was very exciting,” she says.

Conclusion

With another tour to Bangladesh looming in October and a very exciting programme for 2016, Du Preez is quietly optimistic about her and her team’s future.

From the four-year-old who played her first game with the under sevens, to the 12-year-old girl who smashed 258 in a 40 over game, she grew into a young woman who made her international debut in her matric year—with captaincy following four years later. It was a rapid rise to the top.

At the end of 2015 Mignon du Preez will play her greatest match when she walks down the aisle to marry her “high school sweetheart”, now fiancé, who she refers to only as “Tony”. Leadership wishes her well on her future journeys, and trusts that she and her team return from Bangladesh victorious.

Ralph Staniforth

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