After making it to the semi-finals of the 2020 T20 World Cup, the South Africa women's team return to the field from a ten-month hiatus to kick off their six-match assignment at home against Pakistan. ESPNcricinfo caught up with their senior batter and former captain Mignon du Preez to talk about the team's rise in the recent years and her personal evolution.
The rain-curtailed T20 World Cup semi-final at the SCG was the last time South Africa took the field. The Covid-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of your home series against Australia and the tour of England. How does it feel like to be back and playing the game again at the international level?
When you go through a time like the Covid-19 pandemic, and something you're so used to doing all the time is taken away for you for a bit, I just think it makes you realise how you need to appreciate those times you get on to the park. For us, it's definitely been challenging not being allowed to play.
When the pandemic started taking hold, the break we got was somewhat nice, that we got some downtime. But once it started going on for months, you actually realise how much you miss it. For us, cricket is our life, and all of a sudden we couldn't do it anymore.
For me, it was good to reflect that it's important to never take anything for granted. You never know when it's going to be taken away. At this point, I think I've got this new hunger to want to get back on the field again. I'm extremely excited that Pakistan are here, as are the other girls who are all fit and raring to go. We are grateful we finally have the opportunity to represent our country.
That 2020 T20 World Cup was a memorable one for South Africa - you made the semi-finals for just the second time in the tournament's seven editions. How do you look back on the team's campaign?
It was one of our best performances yet. Unfortunately the semi-final didn't go our way. Australia played better than us on the day. But I do think we have a lot to be proud of, the way we played as a team, lots of individuals stepping up at different times for us in the competition. That was a really exciting aspect of our performance. The biggest highlight from the World Cup would be beating England for the first time at an ICC event.
"The mindset is part of the process. That's one of the biggest elements when it comes to your power game, because it requires you to believe you can actually do it"
Your unbeaten 15 in that game was one of the most impactful innings of the tournament. Where does that knock rank for you among your best innings across formats?
It would be right up there, probably among the top three for me, personally, just for the reason that I've never really been seen as a big hitter. I think if anybody had to put money on who would be the one hitting the six in the final over, I doubt my name would be among the ones on top.
It's something I've been working on over the last few years of my career. I've really worked up my power game, and been playing with a lot of freedom. But then it's different when you have to do it at the right time. I think it was the first time it came together. I know it was not a big knock, not a fifty or a hundred that was a game-changer, but at that moment we needed those six runs. And facing a world-class bowler like Katherine Brunt at that, in my 100th T20I. To step up for my team when they needed me most definitely made the knock special and it was something I will remember for a long time.
Eight months later, you would go on to sharing the dressing room with Brunt, who was debuting for Melbourne Stars in the WBBL. You were playing your fourth season for the Stars. What was it like to have Brunt as a team-mate?
She is a phenomenal team-mate. She is one of the world's best players and one of those who wears their heart on their sleeve. She is immensely passionate about the game. It doesn't matter where she is playing or what team she's turning out for, she gives it her everything and leaves everything out on the park. And contrary to her intimidating on-field personality, a lot of people don't realise that she actually is a softie, something you can tell easily if you spend some time with her. It's nice to have her in my team rather than having to play against her, and we've had an amazing time together at the Stars.
We had one conversation about that T20 World Cup over in the bus. It was like me against her (laughs). She insisted it was a top edge. I kept telling her it came off the middle of the bat; it was a good shot! She had to get back on video and get some of the girls into the conversation, saying, "Listen, can you please look at this footage and tell us if that was a top edge or she did indeed middle it." So we had a bit of banter in the bus on our way to and from training sessions.
What are the other knocks in your top three?
An innings against the Brisbane Heat in the 2019-20 WBBL; it was one of my highest scores in the competition - 88. I'd probably rank it top of the lot. Internationally, my highest score was against Ireland. It was one of those days when you get to the middle and think about a shot you want to play, it just comes off, if you identify a gap, it just works out.
Aside from the power hitting, what aspects of your batting have your honed since stepping down from captaincy in June 2016?
The mindset is part of the process. That's one of the biggest elements when it comes to your power game, because it requires you to believe you can actually do it. I also started doing a lot of range hitting. A lot of times the likes of Lizelle Lee, Dane van Niekerk, Chloe Tryon would in their training sessions spend time in the middle and do range-hitting and I'd always just stand there and go, "W-o-w! Look at this." And, then, I just actually told myself, "Let's try this. I need to challenge myself." It might not go as far in the first few hits, but actually getting out there, getting a sense of how far you are hitting it, are you timing it, all of that is important. I realised I should not be thinking of hitting the ball hard and instead focus on timing the ball, because if I focus on hitting the ball, I tend to lose my shape. To just think of timing the ball helped me hit it a lot further than I thought.
One of the other aspects I've changed in my game is to identify space, not think about a specific shot and instead identify an area I can target. That allowed me to get into a better position. And over the last few years a lot of people would have probably seen that I've started to use the crease a bit more, whether it's giving my stumps away to allow my hands to move freely or whether its going deeper back to get under the ball - it just helps play a bit of a mind game with the bowlers. And I definitely think the big thing is to have a strong base. That's something I'm still working on. I tend to get it a bit wrong every now and then, tend to fall over sometimes. And, most importantly, the biggest change: just enjoying it more than ever and having fun. I mean, what's the worst that can happen? (laughs)
How much of an influence has the WBBL been in your growth as a batter?
The WBBL has been amazing, especially the last season where I got to work with Trent Woodhill. He is an amazing coach, both in the men's and women's environments. Also playing alongside somebody like Meg [Lanning] and just seeing how different players go about their game. Overall, the tournament has been great because it's quite a long competition; you play 14 games, and it gives you the opportunity to play the best players in the world consistently.
If I look at the South African players who have had the opportunity to play in the WBBL, I'd say it's taken everybody's game forward. In the first few years [of my career] especially, we basically never had the opportunity to play against Australia. We only saw them once every four years in a World Cup event. All of a sudden you start playing against these players regularly. The gap that was there between the top and the bottom teams around the world - the WBBL has been helping narrow it down and almost help put others on an equal footing with them. It has taken my personal game forward, too, helped me play with a lot of freedom, been a highlight of my career. The enjoyment aspect is also crucial. The WBBL is the IPL [of the women's game] at the moment; going there and playing is a lot of fun. They invest a lot of money in it to make the competition enjoyable for the viewers and players alike.
"The gap that was there between the top and the bottom teams around the world - the WBBL has been helping narrow it down and almost help put others on an equal footing with them"
Trent Woodhill has, for a long time, been at the forefront of innovations in the 20-over format. Could you break down his coaching style and approach to women's T20 cricket?
He is a really relaxed coach. He has this laid-back, informal attitude which kind of flows through the squad. It's easy to have a chat with him and he loves sharing his knowledge.
The biggest thing that stood out for me was he said, "Power over placement. When in doubt, try to hit the ball hard."
I have, for a long time, thought that it's more about hitting through the gap. But he just said, "You know what, when in doubt, just try and get into a good position and hit the ball as hard as possible." That actually allowed me to play with a bit more freedom - at times, when I get in trouble, it's probably because I'm indecisive over whether to take the bowler on or just hit the gaps and pockets and try and run hard. But by just giving all of the players that freedom to go out and hit the ball because no matter the result it won't be held against us, Trent brought back the big element of having fun. Every player that walked to the crease expressed themselves freely, and beyond too. He encouraged us to enjoy the environment and each other's company, both on and off the field. He created an environment where everyone could flourish.
Also, he outlined everyone's role clearly and made it clear that everyone has their uniqueness, which can help each other complement well, so there's no need to compete with the person next to you. He is extremely good at understanding what every individual needs to make them tick, to get the best out of them. He's helped bring about a transformation in several individual players and the Stars women as a unit. Even Meg Lanning, her game has gone to another level. Even though we thought there's no room for another level for Meg (laughs), she still managed to take it there. She and Trent worked really well together.
Walk us through the experience of watching Lanning go about her job as the Stars' premier batter and captain since her return to the club after two seasons with the Perth Scorchers.
To be captained by her - she's phenomenal on and off the field. It's easy when a player leads by performance and example. She always does. The big thing about Meg is she knows her game and doesn't over-complicate it. Playing with Meg in the first season of the Big Bash, when she was a bit younger, to where she is at now, I can also see a transition in her preparation and the way she goes about the game.
This season, the key thing I noticed was that pre-match and the day before, she knew what she had to do. Many young batters, at times, including myself when I was younger, always thought I had to do more. I had to get that much in the last session to make sure I am ready for tomorrow. Meg has that clarity. She got in the nets, knew what she had to work on today, and she got out. That's all with her. She backs her preparations. And after that she'd always be around to throw some balls to other players and have some chats.
She knows how to get the best out of her players. She is really calm in the middle. Batting with her was fun. She's taken her power game to the next level. I remember she scored a fifty inside the powerplay or something in a game. It was one of those days where we got to see the best of Meg.
It's always special being at the non-striker's end, getting to watch her bat. We all know how amazing Meg is, but also sometimes she is just… human. Sometimes she would say worriedly, "Oh, Mignon, I tried to hit that ball for 12! I am trying to hit too much of it when I should just try to time it." So, even someone like Meg doesn't middle it every now and then.
Actually, the big thing for me was to see Meg in her relaxed moments. She was having a good time off the field, I think. Getting to know her as a person was really special for me.
There were eight South Africa players - the largest overseas contingent from one country - at the 2020-21 WBBL. That, along with the team's 2020 World Cup campaign, has led to talk about how the stage is set for South Africa women to win their maiden world title at the 2023 T20 World Cup at home.
I was initially a little bit sad that it got postponed. I was looking forward to a really jam-packed 2022 since we've lost so much time in 2020 due to not being able to play. But now the excitement gets to last a little bit longer, I guess. As for gearing up for the tournament, even last year we really thought we had the squad to make it all the way to the top. From where we were a few years ago to where we are at the moment, it's worlds apart. So we can imagine what another year or two as a group can bring to the table for the 2023 T20 World Cup. And, truly, what better time to win a World Cup than on home soil and make sure the trophy stays in South Africa.
The girls are training with that goal in mind. We all know we are good enough cricketers. It's just that in the past we weren't able to manage to get that perfect game. It was either our batting department firing and bowling and fielding not being up to the mark, or vice-versa. Last year's World Cup was probably the first time we got everything to click. Hopefully in another year or two we will be on the top of the world.
What have been the key factors in South Africa's rise as a force to be reckoned with?
Sune Luus and Ayabonga Khaka were phenomenal in the Women's T20 Challenge. So many of our girls are now WBBL regulars. These opportunities around the globe are helping the girls measure themselves against the world and say, "Listen, I am right up there, because I'm also good enough." The [opposite] attitude was a big thing in the past.
I think we must also give credit to the ICC for starting the Women's ODI Championship. Ever since that began [in 2014], although it's just in the 50-over format, we actually started playing on a consistent basis against the bigger teams in the world. There was this big gap in the past: South Africa, Pakistan and Sri Lanka played against each other, and Australia, England, New Zealand and India among themselves. Fortunately with the ICC Women's Championship, all of these teams were forced to play against each other.
Last year was the first time we toured New Zealand. I have been playing for my country since 2007 and I hadn't done that before. We were really looking forward to hosting Australia on home soil last year but unfortunately that was cancelled due to the pandemic. All of these factors have played a part in narrowing the gap and there's no team you can take lightly anymore when it comes to big events.
With three major multi-team events lined up between 2022 and 2023, what are your goals for the immediate future?
I'm extremely excited about the Commonwealth Games next year and that South Africa will be part of it for the first time in my career. Now I just need to make sure I make the squad (laughs) and get to represent my country in it. It will definitely be one of the highlights of my career. And then, like you mentioned, the 2023 T20 World Cup on home soil and next year's World Cup in New Zealand.
I've been around for so long, and I feel we have got the squad, but I want to put my hands on a World Cup trophy. That's definitely the aim for the next two years: to make sure I finish on a high and then, obviously, still enjoy playing in the clubs around the globe - the WBBL, the Hundred in England and, hopefully, a Women's IPL, too. That's what we're all hoping for in the near future. The most important thing for me would be to stay fit and healthy and make sure I'm in a position to be picked in the team at all times and lead by performance and example.
How about this series against Pakistan?
We haven't played ODI cricket in a while, so I've decided this time around I'm going to change my focus a bit in terms of goals. In the past I'd put down a specific number of runs I wanted to score during the series, but this time around, after speaking with one of the coaches, we have come up with the number of balls I should be looking to face. And I know if I am in the middle long enough, I will actually be able to score those runs, because spending time in the middle will allow me to play with freedom in the back end. And all the 20-over cricket we've played for the past couple of years could help me change gears and bring in the T20 spark, because if I bat through the middle overs, I can be someone the rest of the team can play around. I could play the anchor role.
Speaking of limited-overs formats, the FICA Women's Professional Cricket Global Employment Report 2020 found out that 63% of players surveyed for the study view ODIs as the most important format of the game. With Tests in women's cricket remaining limited to the Ashes-playing nations, where do you stand on the debate?
I am in the middle. I still enjoy both formats. I suppose from the ICC's point of view, the T20 format is the more exciting one to draw a bit from viewership from. In men's and women's cricket, there comes a part in ODIs when nothing really happens, so you kind of lose interest. Just because T20 cricket is short, sharp, quick, and the leagues around the globe have adopted and innovated in the format, it's more fun. But for us, because we [non-Ashes-playing nations] don't get to play Test cricket, the 50-over format is very important. Significance-wise, the ODI format is Test cricket for us.
As for Test cricket, I've only played one Test match in my career so far, against India. I do want to play more of it more often. I don't think I'm ready for what the men play - three or five Tests and then go into ODIs and T20Is. I reckon maybe one a year or a few as part of a series or two would be cool.
Who among your current team-mates do you think could excel in Tests?
There are a few of the girls I'd like to watch play Tests. The first name that comes to mind is Laura Wolvaardt. She is an amazing cricketer. It would be such an amazing experience to watch her just bat and bat without any scoreboard pressure. I would love to get on the sidelines and watch her bat for at least a couple of days. That's the reason I want more such talented young players to get the opportunity to play Test cricket. It would be great if women got to play more Tests.