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Dane van Niekerk: “My feet gave way, I heard a cracking sound – that was my world championship” | The Hundred

WWhile many of the world’s top cricketers will surf straight into the Women’s Hundred from the Commonwealth Games, game-hardened and tournament-ready, Dane van Niekerk will be anything but. Since winning the trophy as captain of the Oval Invincibles last year, the South African has only played 25 times and not at all since November. Their year to date was completely ruined by a freak dog-feeding accident just weeks before the World Championships in March.

“I do a lot of stupid things, but that was probably not one of the best decisions I could have made so close to a World Cup,” says Van Niekerk. “Marizanne [Kapp, her wife and teammate with both South Africa and the Invincibles] always tells me I’m a bobble head. It was an honest, crazy accident. It was raining and I was on the wooden deck in front of the house. I had to go down to feed my dogs and I tried to climb off the ledge and my feet gave out. I heard a crack and knew immediately that this was my world championship.

“I still hate myself to this day. If I had made just a split-second decision differently, I could have been there and maybe helped my team, made a little difference. That’s life and that’s how I learn.”

One sentence in Van Niekerk’s description of her accident stands out. Making her international debut aged 15 and 13 later, she is 20 from becoming South Africa’s leading women’s T20 run scorer and is ranked No. 3 on her country’s list of leading wicket-takers in both the T20s and also at the ODIs (Kapp is No. 2 in both formats) and is a well-respected captain. It seems staggering that such a brilliant and successful athlete should so casually and for seemingly trivial reasons admit feelings of self-loathing.

“I’m my worst critic and sometimes my worst enemy,” she says. “I will always be my worst critic because I still expect better of myself and more than what I gave. Sometimes I’m a loose cannon and don’t think. At that moment there was a flight of stairs right next to me, but I wanted to go down. When it rains do you do that? The truth is I needed to support my team in any way I could, and I wasn’t there. That’s why I’m angry with myself for wanting to be there.”

Oval Invincibles captain Dane van Niekerk with the trophy and his teammates after winning The Hundred final against Southern Brave at Lord's last August.
Oval Invincibles captain Dane van Niekerk with the trophy and his teammates after winning the 100 final against Southern Brave at Lord’s last August. Photo: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Van Niekerk speaks quickly and always with a cheerful tone. When asked to describe herself in a single word, she chooses “humorous.” But she uses the same tone when describing events that were clearly anything but – and there have been many since 2019, when a stress fracture to her right thigh became the first in a string of injuries.

“At that stage I was very close to being the best I could be as a cricketer,” she says. “I always tell people that something had to stop me to bring me back down to earth, and it really did. I’m not grateful for it, but it put things in perspective. After that it was a continuation of the injuries and mentally it took a lot out of me.

“I lost both of my grandparents within two months of each other in 2020, shortly after dealing with another injury. It’s just been one after the other. People think you’re strong, that you’re a leader and you can’t break, but we all have our breaking points and sometimes you reach one without even realizing it.”

Nobody could be better placed to understand and support Van Niekerk’s struggles than Kapp, her partner of 13 years – they married in 2018 – and teammate on 163 of their 194 caps. “We are 100% complete opposites, that’s a fact. We have a few things in common, but we are completely opposite in the way we think about things,” says Van Niekerk.

Oval Invincibles' Marizanne Kapp (left) and Dane van Niekerk during the Hundred game against Trent Rockets at The Oval in August 2021.
Oval Invincibles’ Marizanne Kapp (left) and Dane van Niekerk during the Hundred game against Trent Rockets at The Oval in August 2021. Photo: Ben Hoskins/ECB/Getty Images

“I’m glad I have someone like her in my life who understands me. I don’t think many people would be able to do that. She’s seen the toll my injuries have taken on me, not just physically but mentally, and it’s hard to be there for someone when they’re not there for themselves. The fact that she understands the pressure and stress of an injury makes it a little bit easier. I am very grateful that she has been the pillar for me.”

Last week, Van Niekerk posted an Instagram video of her bowling with Kapp in the nets, and maybe that injury streak is over now. “I’m happy in terms of ability, I’m satisfied with where I am,” she says. “It’s been a process, but I’m getting there.” She and Kapp, who were returning home ahead of the Commonwealth Games when their brother-in-law was involved in an accident and was admitted to intensive care with severe burns – he is now out of danger and on the road to recovery – left their home on Saturday to travel to London and should be available when the Invincibles open Thursday’s hundreds women’s competition at the Oval against Northern Superchargers.

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“At the start of last year’s tournament, I didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “Hundred bullets, what is that? Is it cricket or not? But I loved it because it really challenges you tactically, it changes the way you think. I really enjoyed myself and I think most players did.

“Also the crowd that came out, how big it was booming, the support that all the teams got – not just men and not just women, every team, every crowd was pretty packed. It was so electrifying. I think it’s an even stronger league this year and I can’t wait to get back out there.”

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