South African women’s batsman Mignon du Preez opens up to www.wisdenindia.com about captaining the team, professionalism and the way women’s cricket is viewed in South Africa.
How did you to take up cricket in the first place?
I actually started playing by accident aged four. My brother was playing in a Mini Cricket tournament and my father was the coach of his Under-7 team. I had gone to support him at one of the matches. I always made sure I was dressed in a team T-shirt and shorts even when I went to cheer him. One of the guys hadn’t turned up and my dad asked me to fill his spot. And I was eventually awarded the ‘Best Batswoman of the Day’. I just fell in love with the sport.
You hit a double century as a 12-year-old. Talk us through that experience.
I scored 258, hitting 16 sixes and 28 fours in a provincial game. I was not supposed to play on that day. Because someone had pulled out, I was informed only the night before the game that I’d have to help out the Gauteng Northern Girls Under-13 team. That was a special day for me, probably the best in my career so far.
Would you say that you are an accidental cricketer who was destined to play the game?
(Chuckles) Maybe. I believe I was given the talent from my Lord. I live by the saying that my talent is God’s gift to me and what I do with it is my gift back. I was given the talent by God and now I’m trying to use it to the best of my abilities.
Women’s cricket hasn’t yet taken off in SA. What challenges did you face when you started playing?
In South Africa, cricket is still a male dominated sport and there is still some kind of sexism involved. There is this misconception that you need to look like a guy or be a tomboy to play cricket. That is one of the biggest things we as a team have tried to change. We’ve shown that you can be a girly girl and still compete because it is all about skill. One of the other issues I faced was there was no awareness about women’s cricket at all. So now I’m trying to address that issue by creating awareness back home. These girls start playing at a young age, they are a part of Mini Cricket sides but once they reach high school, they tend to get into other sports like softball or hockey. People didn’t know that there is a national women’s cricket team. But now that we have a sponsor and Cricket South Africa is doing everything from their side, we get a lot more exposure back home.
What was it like making your international debut at 17?
You always dream to play for your country. Also, again, it is a funny story. I went to the training and selection camp but didn’t make it to the final squad. The team was supposed to go on tour in November the previous year . During the summer holidays, one of the girls got injured and wasn’t fit to go on tour, so she had to withdraw. That opened up a spot for me. I was standing outside my school when I got this call, it was quite unexpected and I just couldn’t stop smiling. It was so unreal. My dad is one of my biggest supporters. I just ran home and told him about the call-up.
You then had the world record partnership with Johmari Logtenberg that same year …
It was my first overseas tour. I was getting close to my century but she was also nearing her 150. She was hitting the ball brilliantly. I realised that getting to 150 is a once in a lifetime opportunity. So I made sure she reached the milestone. I ended up on 81. It was a very special partnership because we were two of the ‘babies’ in the squad. She is considered the Jacques Kallis of women’s cricket, so sharing that record partnership with her was special.
You were appointed captain when only 23. Were you ready for the responsibility?
It was an opportunity that just came up and I grabbed it. Initially, just to play for my country was a major achievement. I never really thought about captaining the team. Out of the blue one day, one of the coaches approached me and said, ‘Listen, what do you feel about leading the side’? And I realised that it was an opportunity that wouldn’t come by every day. When you are not the captain, you play with freedom. During my first tour (as captain), it was very tough, I must admit. While I was batting, I was already thinking of whom should I be bowling in this situation and how would I place my field. But eventually, I got the hang of it. Having a few senior players in the side, who had already captained before, was really helpful.
You said you were nervous as a captain initially. Did captaincy ever affect your game?
During the World Cup last year, I had a few ducks in a row and I thought that it was due to being the captain. Initially, I just played with a lot of freedom and that involved a lot of rash shots, I just enjoyed batting and it came very naturally to me. Now it is very different, we’ve been working with different coaches and we’re a part of the national academy, so I’ve just grown as a cricketer. I now try to follow the concept of ‘lead by example’.
South Africa hadn’t won even a World T20 match before 2012. But in 2014, you reached the semi-finals. What changed?
This time around, we made sure that everything was in place. We had a few girls contracted already, the first six girls to be contracted ever. So that helped a lot because those girls could focus mainly on playing the game full time. Our last group stage game (against New Zealand) was almost like a final because the team that won would make the semi-final. A night before the match, the New Zealand girls had already packed their bags and were ready to leave (for Dhaka) for the semi-final. That actually pumped us all up.
Was it one of the reasons why 14 players in the side have earned contracts?
Yes, that’s how it all started. Our board realised that if we wanted to compete against the best in the world, it was necessary to hand out contracts. If you look at England and Australia, who are currently the top two sides, that is the kind of structure they have in place. That’s what we are aiming to do.
Apart from the contracts, how is the team looking to catch up with the big teams like Australia, England and New Zealand?
I think we’ve already caught up with New Zealand (chuckles). The more matches we play, the better it’ll be for us. The ICC Women’s Championship is going to help us the most. The only way to get better is to play against the best. This tournament will hopefully give us the opportunity to at least play against everyone so that we can up our game.
The recent Test against India was South Africa’s first in eight years. How would you assess the performance?
The last time we played a Test was way back in 2007 against the Netherlands. So to step out now and captain the side was quite interesting and to top it all, scoring a century on my Test debut was very special. In this Test, I feel we were let down by our fielding, because our bowlers bowled brilliantly, but we didn’t take our chances. That put a lot of pressure on us while batting.
What’s your take on the progress of women’s cricket in South Africa?
It’s grown tremendously with us moving into professionalism. It is something the ladies before us had only dreamt of. I think we were the pioneers, when the first six girls bagged contracts last year. Now we’ve got 14 of us with contracts.
Original interview by Disha Shetty @disha_shetty