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Dané leading Proteas from the sidelines

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Dané van Niekerk has grown accustomed to the brace on her left leg and the crutches she needs to traverse the many steps around the Wanderers.

Proteas’ skipper Dané van Niekerk will be forced to watch the Cricket World Cup from the sidelines after fracturing her ankle in ’an accident’ at home
Proteas’ skipper Dané van Niekerk will be forced to watch the Cricket World Cup from the sidelines after fracturing her ankle in ‘an accident’ at home. Picture: icc-cricket.com

Dané van Niekerk has grown accustomed to the brace on her left leg and the crutches she needs to traverse the many steps around the Wanderers.

Johannesburg — Dané van Niekerk has grown accustomed to the brace on her left leg and the crutches she needs to traverse the many steps around the Wanderers Media Centre. Every step is a reminder of the journey that she can’t take.

“It’s been very emotional, it’s been very difficult. I’m angry with myself, it was an accident. With any accident in life you think you could have prevented it, so I’m quite upset about it,” says Van Niekerk.

She fractured her left ankle in that “accident” at home a few weeks ago, and as a result wasn’t considered for the World Cup in New Zealand.

ALSO READ: Moreeng doesn’t want Van Niekerk’s injury to distract Proteas Women

The sadness is tangible. Van Niekerk tears up when asked what message she would have for the team, if she was able to talk to them directly before they departed. “Sjoe, I’m not a cryer … ,” she says, dabbing away tears.

“Just enjoy it. You know, if you sit on the side, you start to realise how fortunate you are to be able to play for your country. It’s a World Cup, but it’s also another opportunity to make your family and your country proud, so just have fun.”

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She has been in the commentary booth – first for the men’s national team’s ODI series with India and then the South African Women’s side’s pre-World Cup series with the West Indies. However she’d much rather be on the field.

“When I watch the team, I do get emotional. It’s difficult for me to watch them and not be there. I’m still struggling … I struggled when they announced the World Cup team, that was hard,” she says while watching the Proteas wrap up a series win against the West Indies at the Wanderers last Sunday.

This is a Proteas team built in Van Niekerk’s image. She took over as captain from Mignon du Preez in 2016 and quickly demanded more of the players; not only in terms of runs, wickets and better fielding, but also self-belief.

“I’m not surprised with the development,” Van Niekerk states. “I’ve seen the work first-hand that all the players have put in.

“Chloe Tryon for instance, who’s been fighting injuries a lot and here she is, fitter and leaner than ever and she just looks great. That’s just one example of the work that the players have put in. You can see the team is a fit unit.

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“That doesn’t come from a week’s hard work, that’s years and years of hard work. I won’t be surprised if they win the World Cup.”

Neither will anyone else. South Africa go into the tournament, which for the Proteas starts on March 5 against Bangladesh, ranked No.2 by the ICC in ODIs. Van Niekerk was instrumental in engineering that improvement, but it is Suné Luus, as captain, who will oversee the outcome.

ALSO READ: Luus will lead Proteas for West Indies series

Luus, 26, has captained before, leading South Africa to the series win against West Indies, a home triumph against Pakistan last year, and most notably victory in India. However she doesn’t have Van Niekerk’s forceful personality, so will that hinder the side’s chances?

“Suné has done a great job. I don’t think they have to adapt to anything. You can see the results, they speak for themselves. I don’t think the team needs me. I probably bring an allround element. I don’t think leadership wise I’m the be all and end all,” says Van Niekerk.

“She doesn’t have the strongest personality in the sense that she is a quiet kid – I say ‘kid’ because I’ve grown up with her and still see her as Sunétjie – but she is quite reserved.”

Nevertheless when Van Niekerk returned to the team last year after Luus had led them at home and then in India, she pushed the all-rounder to continue playing with a captain’s outlook.

“Obviously when I was back, she stepped aside and let me do my thing, but I spoke to her before the West Indies series last year and told her that just because I’m back, she mustn’t take a back seat. She’s still very much a leader in the side. I told her that if she sees something in the field, she must tell me, because ultimately it’s for the better of the team.”

South Africa’s strength, even without Van Niekerk’s leg-spin, is again the bowling. “I’d be worried if I was an opposition batter. You finish against a really tough opening spell from Marizanne (Kapp) and Shabnim (Ismail) and then you still have Aya (Khaka) to deal with.”

The 29-year-old Khaka was the player of the series against the West Indies, taking 10 wickets.

ALSO READ: Khaka the unsung hero for Proteas

“She’s gone unnoticed. Ayabonga’s been bowling great for us for a consistent period of time, and that is what you want from your change bowlers. To see her stepping up and taking the new ball and when Marizanne’s not here (against West Indies) makes for a healthy environment and creates more decision making for Suné, for the coaches and gives options. We’ve got a lot of options, it’s about finding the right combinations.”

Australia are favourites to win the World Cup. They’ll be highly motivated having lost in the semi-finals to India in 2017, and will also be confident having just trounced England in the Ashes.

“Inevitably if there is a team that might stand in South Africa’s way it is Australia,” says Van Niekerk. “What we’ve done in the past is that we’ve started really well against Australia, we have them on the back foot and then they take it away from us in the middle or end of the innings with their batting.

“It’s a mindset thing – I don’t want the team going into a game thinking ‘we’ve never beaten Australia,’ because then in your mind you’re thinking ‘you’re not worthy’.”

This Proteas team won’t be thinking like that. Van Niekerk has ensured that.

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