by Ralph Staniforth

CHANGING FORTUNES

Many young South Africans dream of one day representing their country at an international level of their chosen sport and it was no different for Hilton Moreeng, head coach of the Momentum Proteas

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He represented the Griquas throughout the national age group levels and later, went on to play for the Free State, now known as the VKB Knights. But his coaching career started at a young age too, although that might not have been a career he thought of at the time.

“At the age of 15, I joined the Yorkshire Cricket Club in Kimberley and that is where the nourishment for coaching began.

“As the under 15 and 16 boys, we had to assist with the youngsters for a few hours every afternoon before our own practice—these were the KFC Mini Cricket kids, in those days it was still Bakers Mini Cricket.

“That’s where coaching started for me, but it was not something I thought I’d do because as with any youngster, you want to play for your country,” explains Moreeng.

He continued coaching throughout his young playing career but once he completed his studies, he had to make a decision. His love for the game kept him in cricket, and coaching in particular, until he was offered the opportunity to coach at the Free State Academy.

Moreeng did his coaching courses during this time and then his big opportunity came in 2012 when he went to assist the national women’s team on an interim basis.

“It was something I thought would broaden my horizons—the pecking order for coaches in the men’s game was quite long so I thought I’d go and see what experiences I could gain from the women’s game,” says Moreeng.

It didn’t take long for him to make his mark and the season after arriving at the national team, the job as head coach was advertised. He applied and was appointed as head coach for the 2013/14 season.

Since then, he has not looked back. The growth in the women’s game has been substantial in recent years. The world over, women’s cricket has started to catch the eye. For years, the top nations such as Australia, England, the West Indies and New Zealand have had their ladies on contracts while South Africa had an amateur set-up.

The lack of games in the earlier years against the top nations meant that South Africa had to wait until the World Cup every four years to measure themselves against the best. With little experience against the best to fall back on, the ladies often came unstuck, but it was in no way due to the lack of talent.

Things have changed somewhat during Moreeng’s tenure. Early on, he realised that in order to get sponsorships, they needed to win games. If he could achieve this then the sport becoming professional was just a matter of time.

Looking back, the 2014/15 season saw a significant change in women’s cricket—the launch of the ICC Women’s Challenge. This meant that the aforementioned top four couldn’t consistently play against each other only, it was now open to eight teams to compete. This gave all nations, including South Africa, more consistent exposure to compete against the best in the world.

Sponsorship

Money in the men’s game has grown to astronomical levels over the last decade and while the women’s game is far from those financial gains, the improvement has been immense.

In the beginning, South Africa could only contract six players, which, according to Moreeng, “was very beneficial”, but still, a balance was required. With only six players concentrating on cricket and the rest still having to juggle cricket with a working life, sacrifices were required.

To evaluate just how far women’s cricket has come in South Africa, it is worth going back almost five years to the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka in 2012. At that stage, the South African Women’s Cricket team did not have a sponsor and no formal contracts were in place. Not only were they fighting to reach their first-ever semi-final, but they were battling for the future of their sport.

Fast forward to 2017, the national women’s cricket team and set-up are one of the few sporting disciplines that recognise women in the sport as professional athletes. The number of contracted players increased from six in 2013 to 14 in 2017. Through collaborative efforts between Cricket South Africa (CSA) and the title sponsor, Momentum, the team has also been allocated a management team and a full-time coaching team, making it possible for the ladies to focus on cricket with appropriate professional support and formally represented contracts in place.

Moreeng is keen to credit CSA and Momentum for the ladies’ vast improvement, due to the funding they provided.

This makes life easier for Moreeng, who can now work with the team as a professional coach linked to a professional outfit.

Further changes are required and they will no doubt happen in time, but the growth of the women’s game seems to be in very good hands. Momentum has now been involved in South African cricket for many years and is constantly running different programmes throughout the country to promote the game.

But their involvement with the women’s game has coincided with the substantial growth seen in recent times and much of the success should be put down to their willingness to invest in a product many did not give a second thought to.

Moreeng is full of praise for the contributions of CSA, Momentum, the players and supporters for the team’s success, but he warns caution as this is only the start.

“We are going into the fourth year of contracts. Australia, England and some of the rest are probably 20 years ahead of us in terms of systems but in terms of talent, we are on par with anyone in the world.

“We have a few players who are constantly testing themselves against other top professionals by being involved in the English and Australian competitions, so the experience they gain from there is invaluable to us, especially the younger generation—and at this point, we have many youngsters coming through the system,” says Moreeng.

Formats

The International Cricket Council (ICC) is on a big drive to promote the women’s game too. This can be seen by the very good attendances during the 50 overs World Cup earlier this year, where supporter numbers were magnificent.

But in terms of the women’s game, I was keen to find out which format is the most loved. Test cricket remains the place for only the toughest in the men’s game but numbers have been slipping over the last 10-15 years. So, not surprisingly, this is not a format of too much focus on the part of the ICC.

Moreeng says that the ICC is trying to promote and grow the sport once again and the way to do that is to reach the younger generation through the shorter formats. Test matches do get played in the women’s game, just not many of them.

“I don’t think this current generation of players will see too many test matches but the younger generations will, I believe—if you look at the likes of Suné Luus, Raisibe Ntozakhe, Laura Wolvaardt and Andrie Steyn, I think they will enjoy test cricket because they will grow up with it.

“Test cricket is slowly taking off in India and I think that will eventually reach the entire game—these younger players will still be around then,” claims Moreeng.

The young generation

The World Cup dream for the ladies was dashed earlier this year with a semi-final exit against the hosts, England, in what turned out to be one of the games of the tournament. While obvious disappointment followed for the players in the aftermath, social media was abuzz with South Africans congratulating the team. Many had perhaps watched the women’s game for the first time and what they saw impressed them.

What was even more eye-catching was the talented youth coming through the system. Names such as Dane van Niekerk (Captain), Mignon du Preez and Marizanne Kapp were by all accounts, known names, but suddenly South Africa had teenagers performing at a very high level too.

Wolvaardt, only 18 at the time of the tournament, was magnificent with the bat, with other players such as Luus and Ayabonga Khaka also performing well.

This is largely put down to very good planning and the increase in exposure, according to Moreeng.

“The increased exposure has played a massive role in that young girls now want to play the game.

“There is a great emphasis at a provincial level on identifying talented girls at the age of 12 or 13 and then nurturing them through the programme at camps and taking them through their development—with girls, you have to get them interested at a young age because once they turn 18 or 19, it is difficult to capture their interest,” Moreeng says.

It is exceptionally important that CSA continues to grow the game and that the women’s game continuously receives good TV coverage, like during the World Cup. That tournament peaked people’s interest, it should now be about holding onto those people and then creating more of a market for the game.

Transformation

Transformation plays a massive part in all South African sports. It is something that has to happen in every code and the women’s cricket team is not exempt from this.

However, they are getting it right. Moreeng presses home this point by stating, “Transformation is non-negotiable, and our mandate is clear from our mother body, CSA.

“Having said that, everyone in that team is there because they are good enough, they are there to do a role and they must execute that role. Once they do that, their confidence grows.

“We are very fortunate that we have not really had to address this at a national level because players who are talented enough are identified early and then brought through the development process, so when they arrive at the national team, they are the best person to execute a specific role,” he explains.

What’s next?

The future looks bright for the national women’s side. With transformation being a natural process, youngsters coming through the system and a strong core of experienced and world-class players, the ladies are looking to challenge for trophies in the near future.

But first, India will tour here. There will be ODIs and T20s as they tour at the same time as the men’s tour is underway. The belief is that after seeing our women perform so admirably at the World Cup, South Africans will come out in their droves to get behind the ladies, just as they do for the men. Keep up to date on the fixtures by visiting the CSA website.

South Africa needs positive stories, and this is such a story. Sport can be a unifier as we have seen on numerous occasions, but we don’t have to rely on our men to win a World Cup trophy before that happens, we can stand by our women’s team and support them like they deserve to be supported.

We wish Hilton, the team and CSA all the best with their upcoming World Cup next year but first, against India in a month or so.

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