What difference can 18 seconds make?
This is the time you may have taken to read this question eight, maybe nine times; or decide you don’t want to read and click to another page (but please don’t!); the time taken by a train traveling at 25 km/h to pass through a 162-meter station and, if you believe the 1984 edition. Annals of Internal Medicine, the time it takes a doctor to interrupt a patient who is describing his own symptoms. In South African cricket, it’s the difference between having the country’s captain and one of the iconic players of their golden generation, Dane van Niekerk, in or out of the World Cup T20 squad.
Van Niekerk will not feature in the home World Cup as she bested her two-kilometer trial by 18 seconds, a personal best for her but not good enough for standard South African cricket. They require their female athletes to complete the distance in 9 minutes 30 seconds (a minute more than the men’s requirement) and 30 seconds faster than the previous standard of 10:00, which was only a guideline and not a strict criterion which could cost the the players their places in the teams.
In the winter of 2022, Cricket South Africa (CSA) believed that it needed fitter players to keep up with the growing demands of the game, particularly T20 cricket, and since then it has been mandatory for any player that has to aim to be eligible for national selection, to meet what is called a fitness benchmark, which covers running, strength and body composition.
Van Niekerk did not play for South Africa during this time. First she was sidelined with a lower back injury and then a broken ankle, which ruled her out of last year’s Over 50 World Cup. Since then, she has trained several times with the national team and taken the fitness test, improving her scores almost every time. She has lost 10 kilograms since Stote last August and reached her reference weight and skin folds. She passed her strength test and was then given until last Friday to complete the running requirement. She fell by 18 seconds.
“Absolutely devastated,” is how she described her state of mind on social media when the line-up was announced. This, ESPNcricinfo understands, has led to serious considerations about the international future for both her and her wife Marizan Kapp. Kapp has already pulled out of South Africa’s last competitive match before the T20 World Cup, the tri-series final against India on Thursday, and there are concerns that she may not be at her best mentally as the World Cup approaches.
That’s the last thing the women’s national team needs heading into a tournament where their own management has set them the goal of reaching the final without four senior players. At least three of them are absent because of the administration and two of these three because of the way the fitness standards are applied.
Liesel Lee retired from international cricket last year after being dropped from the team during their tour of the UK for failing to meet the weight requirements. Lee feared that the CSA would not grant her a no-objection certificate (NOC) to play in the Hundred and instead retired, giving her free agency to play in leagues. She has since moved to Australia. Van Niekerk could go the exact same way if she suspects she won’t get an NOC for the Women’s Premier League (WPL), for example, and the CSA is understood to be worried that both she and Cap could do so.
Lee also claims that CSA did nothing to aid her weight loss and there are rumors that van Niekerk is facing similar problems. Although she has been to several national team camps and was most recently with the T20I squad in East London where they are playing a tri-series against India and West Indies, it was on Cap’s account. Insiders say van Niekerk did not take part in any of the team’s training sessions and was left to work alone and only saw the management when she was called for the fitness test.
But Lee’s case is exactly why the CSA couldn’t change the rules for van Niekerk, even though she’s the strongest she’s ever been. This would lead to accusations of favoritism and inconsistent standards. Their new, strict way of using eligibility criteria leaves no wiggle room, which, as Herschel Gibbs said, “if you miss by 2 or 10 seconds, it’s failure no matter who you are.”
Should it be so? Dale Steyn’s Twitter counter – missing the two kilometer mark by “seconds must mean I’m shit” – was delivered sarcastically but not without weight. Of course not. Neither did van Niekerk.
She is South Africa’s second highest T20I run-scorer, second only to Lee, and since her T20I debut in June 2009, only Shabnim Ismail and Kapp have taken more T20I wickets than her. As an all-rounder in the current configuration, she is unparalleled and is the only South African woman to have scored more than 1,500 runs and taken more than 50 wickets in women’s T20Is.
She is also an exciting leader under whose stewardship South Africa have achieved some of their best results (such as reaching the semi-finals of the 2017 World Cup) and led Hundred and WBBL teams to titles. She is tactically astute, reads the game well and has that temperament for big matches. In other words, she’s a player you want for an occasion like the World Cup, especially at home, where she’s one of the most recognizable faces of the women’s game, and even more so because depth is an issue in the South African squad.
The other players not part of this tournament are Mignon du Preez, who retired last December to raise a family, and Trisha Chetty, who has a long-standing back problem. Du Preez would have been interested in a T20-only contract, but CSA women’s contracts cover both white-ball formats, so she had no choice but to leave entirely. She still intends to play T20 cricket and put her name in the WPL auction. But her situation is yet another example of where the CSA can show some flexibility, especially as more players opt for single-format contracts to find a place to play in more lucrative T20 leagues.
After all, that’s why they set the minimum standard: to have some form of oversight of how their players are performing against what they believe are improving global standards they’ve fallen behind on. At one point, All India, England and Australia used 8:30 as a two-kilometer time trial as a benchmark for their male players, and there’s a reason for that. Elite athletes are expected to have a certain level of aerobic capacity to ensure they have endurance and can recover quickly from maximal exertion. Meeting these criteria also indicates a level of discipline. But should it be so strictly enforced that a player – the captain and arguably the best player no less – passes all the other tests and misses just one and is out? And is this kind of testing the only or best measure of fitness?
Ask van Niekerk and she’ll likely say no, because she’s run her entire career before that over 9:48, which she managed last week, and the rules weren’t strict enough to drop her then. She is now better than ever, but CSA requires her to become even stronger than she is now. Ask them and they’ll point out how other players have done it. Ask other athletes and fitness experts and you’ll find a range of opinions on the most effective fitness test and how they should be administered. This is not a simple numbers game, but a complex and multi-layered problem with no easy answer, except for the fact that, for now, 18 seconds separate van Niekerk from her World Cup dream.