South Africa captain Dane Van Niekerk says World Cup heartache drives her on

South Africa and Surrey Stars all-rounder Dane van Niekerk explains her laid back nature and how she is aiming to become her countries first World Cup winning captain, as she talks to Kalika Mehta…

For most South Africa’s semi-final berth at last year’s Women’s World Cup was an achievement in itself, even before taking in to account that they came within two balls of reaching their first-ever final.

It was the first time the Proteas had reached the final four of the tournament in 17 years and only the second time in their history.

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England narrowly defeated South Africa by two wickets in the final over in a World Cup classic, but while the hosts were celebrating, captain Dane van Niekerk and hr team were left hurting.

“I didn’t want to see cricket for two or three months,” the 25-year-old admitted.

“It was tough for me, you always think about what could have been if I took that catch, hit a few more runs, and didn’t run when I got run out.

“I tried not to show during the tournament but I was injured and didn’t play in the Kia Super League (in 2017) and I was relieved that I could be home and reflect on a very successful but not successful World Cup.”

Despite the disappointment, the World Cup was littered with numerous successes for South Africa as they became the first women’s side to score 300 chasing, albeit in defeat during the group stages to England.

Former captain Mignon du Preez became the first Protea to play 100 WODI’s in their opening match and Van Niekerk became first-ever bowler – male or female – in international cricket to take four wickets without conceding a run during South Africa’s group game win of the Windies.

And, after the two-time Women’s Big Bash League champion achieved so much in her first major tournament as captain, Van Niekerk has even loftier ambitions going forward.

“You have to go on and make sure you don’t feel that heartache again,” the leg spinner reflected.

“I never lost the love of cricket, I just needed the time to reflect on where I wanted to go as a captain.

“We showcased a little bit of what we could do as a team but I don’t think we showed everything we can do.

“The passion to win a World Cup, that drive is there and it is the ultimate goal. Personally I want to retire as a World Cup winner, I don’t want to just be a player that played cricket for South Africa.

“I’ve found my purpose in what I want to do with the bat and that’s the best thing that came from the World Cup.

“I always hated doing something that I didn’t want to do and then going out and thinking that’s not me, so I believed staying true to me, doing what works for me, and taking it out to the middle.”

Van Niekerk was thrust into the South African side at the age of 16, during the 2009 World Cup in Australia, a bowling all-rounder.

Van Niekerk took over as skipper of her country in 2016 at the age of just 23, a loft promotion for someone so young.

Former captain Du Preez, who relinquished the mantel – after four years in charge – as she sought to improve her form with the bat, guided the all-rounder through the opening stages of her added responsibilities.

And, the Surrey Stars’ player credits her first captain in the South African side, Cri-Zelda Brits, for moulding her into the player she is today.

“Cri-Zelda Brits drove me most, she came hard at me – in a good way – and I learned the hard way with her.

“It made me the person I am today and I am very thankful for that. She was always pushing me to better and set high standards for myself, so I try to push the players now.

“The only thing that is different (to when Mingnon Du Preez was captain) is just how laid back things are now.

“I don’t want it to be a serious place because then you won’t flourish as a cricket team, you need to enjoy your time with the team and I always say that it should be the best time of your life.

“Growing up in the side, having the experience I had, I knew what was best for the team and I’m trying to implement that now.”

At times Van Niekerk’s on-field persona can seem fiery – she was spotted giving her side some choice words during the T20 Tri-series when South Africa’s bowlers were on the receiving end of two world records scores in a day – the spinner reveals her truer nature is far more relaxed then at first glance.

3:28 The best of England's innings as they break the Women's T20I record for the second time in a day, smashing 250-3

While other captains have described becoming consumed by the sport after taking on a leadership role, the Sydney Sixes all-rounder believes she is not defined by cricket.

“I don’t take stuff too seriously,” she explains. “I always say cricket is an aspect of my life, it’s not my whole life even though I love what I do.

“If you come in to the team and you’re young you put so much pressure on yourself and there is so much expectation on the team, so from my point of view I try to keep everyone as relaxed as possible.

“What are the odds that you’re part of a game where two teams score world records against you in a day? You have to see the light side of it as well and we did that.

“I told them the sun is going to come up anyway, they can score 300, it will come up tomorrow and we will still have to play cricket.”

Having initially been brought in to the side primarily for her leg-spin, Van Niekerk has flourished into more of a batting all-rounder in recent months.

The change in her strengths as a player seems to have been two-fold, with head coach Hilton Moreeng suggesting a move up the order having averaged around 50 at No 7.

Like many international captains who are all-rounders – such as England’s Heather Knight and New Zealand’s Suzie Bates – since taking over as skipper Van Niekerk has chosen to put her faith in her bowlers ahead of herself.

“Hilton told me if I can average 50 at seven, I could do that up the order, do it more often and it has been working,” she explained.

“It is more nerve-wracking as a captain because I don’t want to fail. I want to be there and win matches for my country and my team.

“My batting is outshining my bowling right now but I love to bowl and I prefer it because it is an art to bowl leg-spin. Leg-spinning is why I got into the side and I’m very grateful for the gift I get to be able bowl.

“I do a lot more different things to other captains but I got picked to be the captain because I did something right.”

Van Niekerk knows her role in the cricketing machine and is more than happy to play her part for as long as possible.

“Cricket is always going to be here, I am going to come and go and it’s not going to stop for me. I’m enjoying playing cricket for my country and the ride but you can’t take life too seriously.”