Like many youngsters’ stories of how they fell in love with cricket, Martelize van der Merwe started with backyard Test matches and dreams of going far with bat and ball. The Northerns senior women’s provincial coach has certainly made it a lifelong affair, and she is not nearly done yet.
And, while the accepted narrative often says that cricket is a man’s game, Van der Merwe added a little known anecdote about the history of the game.
“Very few people know that the first recorded match was played in 1745 between the women of two Surrey villages and the first World Cup was the women’s event in 1973. There were also seven teams – England, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and an International XI – who participated. South Africa women made its Test debut in 1960 against England, so it is evident that the game is not just a men’s game as so many think,” she pointed out.
Her own journey into the game was traditional enough, with siblings, imagination and endless summers of rivalry.
“I grew up next to a cricket field in Mpumalanga, watching my dad play. And just like many other South Africans, my brother and I would played in the back yard. We use to play test matches, setting the batting line-ups and keeping score, regretting it later that night being sun burnt, sore and stiff but would continue the next day,” she beamed of her early love affair with the game.
“My dad would also take me to the nets every Sunday, throwing balls for me to hit for hours on end. I unfortunately did not have the opportunity to play cricket at school level, and Mpumalanga at that time did not have any structures in place as Northerns,” she lamented of an issue that still curtails too many would-be cricketers in South Africa.
In her matric year, however, she had the chance to attend Northerns trails and got the opportunity to finally play. While she was enjoying being a player, her interest in coaching also started to develop, thanks to a seed planted by Wally Nel.
“He got me involved at the U-13 level and, over the years, I was given the opportunity to progress through the pipe line. In 2010, I got involved with the senior provincial women’s team.”
She is now a massive role player in the Northerns structure, with experience and an unwavering commitment to providing opportunities for young girls with promise. Van der Merwe says that it is thrilling to see so many opportunities starting to spring up around the world for players, and the women’s game is becoming more and more independent of the men’s product.
“It is an exciting time for women’s sport around the world. The 2017 Women’s World Cup was watched by more than 180 million fans, and the 2018 T20 World Cup was staged as a standalone tournament, without the women’s game having to piggyback on the men’s tournaments.”
There have been many steps in the right direction internationally, with the Kia Super League in England and the Women’s Big Bash League in Australia making an impact in players’ lives and the public imagination. They have managed to bridge the gap between amateur domestic cricket and the increasingly professional international game.
“Looking at the success of the WBBL and how some of our national players have improved and progressed in their cricket since being involved, it is quite clear that cricket in South Africa would benefit tremendously in investing in a similar league,” Van der Merwe challenged.
She did note that South Africa had launched the T20 Women’s League in the 2019/20 season, but added that establishing a more professional league, offering contracts to local and overseas players, will be a step in the right direction.
“It will also allow our national team to compete against the best in the world on a more consistent basis.
Van der Merwe is entrenched in the domestic system, and she says that the opportunities that are starting to mushroom for girls of all ages. Given where the game was a few years ago, when it was just a couple of age-group cricket weeks, the game is in a far better place.
There are, however, still so many young girls that are keen to play, but they don’t always get the opportunity at their schools. That shortcoming harks back to the challenges that she faced as a youngster. That the progress on that has been that slow is a major disappointment, and that must change.
Key to that, she says, are unions like Northerns, who invest a lot of support for their coaches in the women’s game.
“The support provided to me, and other female coaches, by the union has been amazing. It has always been evident that the union saw the importance of the upliftment of female coaches. A major inspiration for female coaches must be the appointment of Dinesha Devnarain as the National Academy and SA U-19 Girls coach,” she added cheerfully.
With stories of hope and progress such as that, she is determined to make sure that the game continues to be a place where young women’s dreams can come true.
“Some of my aspirations for women’s cricket within South Africa would be to see contracts awarded to most if not all provincial players. This will enable more players to stay within the system and continue playing for longer. At grassroots level, I would love to see more schools moving away from the old school mentality that girls don’t play cricket and establish more school teams,” she said hopefully.