On 11 March, South African cricketer Dane van Niekerk uploaded a cryptic Instagram story, which read “You have to accept that some chapters in our lives have to close without closures. There is no point in losing yourself by trying to fix what's meant to stay broken.”
On the face of it – a rudimentary social media post. Simple? Yes. Unambiguous? No.
But beyond masquerading as just another Instagram story, those couple of lines accentuated, in an unprecedentedly unabashed tone, the ceaseless trials and tribulations which have been a part of her life for two years now.
With one simple status, South Africa’s Dane van Niekerk laid bare her decision of not holding on to what was ‘broken’ beyond repair. And on 16 March, she officially called curtains to his international career.
Barring the usual ‘thanks for your contribution’ narratives, her retirement should elicit a deeper exploration. Dane is South Africa’s third-highest wicket-taker in both ODIs and T20Is, and second-highest run-scorer in the latter format. Her figures prove why, if not the best, she is among the nation's crème de la crème.
And she is proud of these figures, proudly claiming “I truly believe that what I have given for my country is enough, and the records speak for themselves,” during an exclusive conversation with The Quint.
Finding a Middle Ground Between Fitness and Talent
Those figures, however, were not enough for Cricket South Africa (CSA) to vacate a place for her in the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup 2023 squad. The reasoning was plain and simple – she was 18 seconds too slow in the mandatory 2-kilometre run.
That, she had just recovered from an ankle injury, was not taken into consideration. That, she had lost 10 kgs recently, did not provide a reprieve. That, the 9:48 mark was her personal best and a testament to her progress, proved to be inadequate for a national team call-up.
Now at the Women’s Premier League (WPL), where she is representing Royal Challengers Bangalore, Dane advocates a desideratum for a ‘middle ground’ – a place where fitness requisitions and talent can co-exist simultaneously.
She tells us "I believe there should be parity in everything. Fitness is a crucial part of cricket, I know this first-hand. But ultimately, you want to win matches for your country. You can have the fittest players of the world, but it’s of no use if they can’t win you a game of cricket. There should be a middle ground. You can always make a fitter cricketer, but you can’t make a cricketer. It’s about finding out where to draw the line."
Whilst she missed out on playing the T20 World Cup on her home soil, her team managed to break the ceiling and make it all the way to the final.
How was the feeling? Dane, as always, does not hold her feelings back.
“I won’t lie, the feeling was bittersweet to be very honest with you. I wanted to be a part of a World Cup-winning squad – not watch the tournament sitting at my house. The girls were the first South African team to play in a final of an ICC event, and obviously, I wanted to be part of it. But then again, I am massively proud of the team and also of the South African people, who rallied behind the girls all throughout the competition,” she says.
'Conversations on Mental Health Need To Start'
A prodigy gifted with multi-faceted skill sets, Dane’s journey with the Proteas was a smooth sailing since her ODI debut at the age of 15. Yet, an injury, followed by fitness complications, led to the unceremonious collapse of a seemingly adamantine castle that she had impeccably built – brick by brick, over 13 years.
From a sanguine perspective, however, it taught her the importance of mental well-being.
"I have had a pretty smooth journey – maybe not from the physical side of things, but in terms of skills. Everything happened naturally, so I never really gave much thought to mental health. But being out of the game for two years, I really do understand it now. The conversations on mental health in sports need to start, because at the end of the day, we are all humans and we go through the same emotions as everyone. No cricketer should ever feel bad for feeling vulnerable."Dane van Niekerk
Marizanne Kapp: The Partner, the Support System
Here in Mumbai, Dane is accompanied by her dad, who first recognised her talent and made it a point not to let it go unutilised. Besides him, the all-rounder has found another indelible source of support in Marizanne Kapp – her partner since 2018, and national teammate.
“Marizanne has been incredible. She has been my biggest supporter since Day 1, but the last few years have been particularly tough for her. She has cried more than I have, but has brilliantly handled everything, which is a testament to her character and personality,” the Pretoria-born player informs us.
A split second later, she also acknowledges her own frailties, unvarnished as ever before, as she adds “I haven’t made things easy for her. Sometimes you feel the entire world is against you, and you take the anger out on your loved ones. But she has been incredible through all of this. I owe a lot to her.”
The Overwhelming WPL Experience
Partly owing to the restriction on the number of foreigners in a playing XI, and partly because of the incredibly talented pool of foreigners every team possess in their arsenal, every overseas player is bound to be in a battle for a place against an equally renowned teammate.
Dane, however, is overwhelmed just to be a part of the occasion – something she did not expect during the auction.
"I’m not gonna lie, getting picked up was a shock. I haven’t played much recently, so had thought that I would go unsold. I was nervous ahead of the auction, but decided to throw my name into the hat. When my name came up and they (teams) skipped past me, I told myself ‘Well, at least you tried.’ But then to be picked up RCB, the franchise that I have loved for many, many years, was truly unbelievable," the all-rounder states.
Lost and Found
Now that she is here, the narratives have shifted to a plausible ‘the great Dane van Niekerk redemption.’ Not for Dane though, as her predominant aim is to find what she has lost over the last couple of years – that is, a piece of herself
“People will say that I am out here for redemption, but I need to identify where I’m at. I don’t want to say I was deprived, but the truth is that I have not played any competitive cricket for over a year now. A cricketer needs to play cricket to have confidence, so for me, it is about getting back what I lost – slowly, but surely,” she concludes.Dane van Niekerk
The curtains have been called. Yet, the battle has not concluded, just yet.