While many of the world’s leading cricketers will surf straight into the Women’s Hundred from the Commonwealth Games, match-honed and tournament-ready, Dane van Niekerk will be anything but. Since she lifted last year’s trophy as captain of the Oval Invincibles, the South African has played just 25 times and not at all since November, her year so far having been completely ruined by a freak dog-feeding accident just weeks before March’s World Cup.
“I do a lot of stupid things but probably that wasn’t one of the best decisions I could make so close to a World Cup,” Van Niekerk says. “Marizanne [Kapp, her wife and teammate with both South Africa and the Invincibles] always tells me I’m a loose head. It was an honest, freak accident. It was raining and I was on the wooden deck outside the house. I needed to go down to feed my dogs and I tried to climb down from the edge, and as I did that my feet gave way. I heard a snap, and I knew straight away that was my World Cup.
“I still hate myself to this day. If I’d just made one split-second decision different I could have been there and maybe helped my team, made a bit of a difference. That is life and that’s how I learn.”
One phrase in Van Niekerk’s description of her accident stands out. She made her international debut at 15 and 13 years later stands 20 away from being South Africa’s leading women’s T20 run-scorer, sits No 3 on the list of her country’s leading wicket-takers in both women’s T20s and ODIs (Kapp is No 2 in both formats) and is a hugely respected captain. It seems jarring that such a brilliant and successful sportsperson so casually, and for such seemingly trivial reasons, admits to feelings of self-loathing.
“I’m my worst critic, and my worst enemy sometimes as well,” she says. “I’m always going to be my worst critic because I still expect better from me, and more than what I’ve given. Sometimes I’m a loose cannon and I don’t think. At that moment there were stairs just next to me but I wanted to climb down. When it rains do you do that? The truth is I needed to support my team in any way possible, and I wasn’t there. That’s why I’m upset with myself, because I wanted to be there.”
Van Niekerk speaks quickly, and always with an upbeat tone. When asked to describe herself in a single word, she chooses “humorous”. But she uses that same tone when describing events that were clearly anything but – and since 2019, when a stress fracture to her right femur became the first of a run of injuries, there have been plenty of those.
“At that stage I was very close to the best I could be as a cricketer,” she says. “I always tell people something had to stop me then to bring me back to earth and it really did. I’m not thankful for it, but it did put things into perspective. After that it’s been a continuation of injuries and mentally it’s taken a massive toll on me.
“I lost both my grandparents within the space of two months in 2020, just 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 cannot break, but we all have our breaking points and sometimes you reach one without even realising.”
There could be nobody better positioned to understand Van Niekerk’s problems and to support her through them than Kapp, her partner of 13 years – they married in 2018 – and teammate in 163 of her 194 international appearances. “We are 100% complete opposites, that’s a fact. We’ve got a couple of things in common but we are complete opposites in how we think about stuff,” Van Niekerk says.
“I’m lucky I have someone like her in my life that understands me. I don’t think a lot of people would be able to. She’s seen the toll my injuries have taken on me, not just physically but mentally as well, and it’s tough to be there for somebody when they’re not there for themselves. The fact that she understands the pressures and stress of injury, it makes it a bit easier. I’m very thankful that she’s been the pillar for me.”
Last week Van Niekerk posted an Instagram video of her bowling to Kapp in the nets, and perhaps that run of injuries might now be over. “Skill-wise I’m happy, I’m content with where I am,” she says. “It’s been a process but I’m getting there.” She and Kapp, who returned home before the Commonwealth Games when her brother-in-law was involved in an accident and admitted to intensive care with serious burns – he is now out of danger and on the path to recovery – left home on Saturday to travel to London, and should be available when the Invincibles open the Hundred’s women’s competition at the Oval against Northern Superchargers on Thursday.
“At the start of last year’s tournament I didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “A hundred balls, what is this? Is it cricket or is it not? But I loved it because tactically it really challenges you, it changes the way you think. I really enjoyed myself, and I think most players did.
“Also the crowds that came out, how big it boomed, the support all the teams got – not just male and not just female, every team, every crowd was pretty close to packed. It was so electric. I think it’s an even stronger league this year, and I can’t wait to get back out there.”