Worth the weight? Van Niekerk decision hands cricket modern day dilemma

PARIS (AFP): Once upon a time, cricket was seen as a universal game. Not just in its appeal to a global audience but for the fact that individuals of any shape, size, colour, creed or class could play alongside each other.

With the news that Dane van Niekerk, one of the best players in the women’s game, has been left out of South Africa’s Twenty20 World Cup squad on fitness grounds alone, this age-old perception may just have landed in the trashcan.

Less athletic players, it seems, are now being penalised, no matter how good they are at actually playing cricket. And yet some of the greatest players would have struggled to pass fitness tests, certainly in their older years.

WG Grace, who used to “block shooters to the boundary” in the 19th century, may have started his career as a lithe athlete but had little time for the sharp single as his waistline expanded in his thirties and forties.

Warwick Armstrong, one of Australia’s greatest captains in the early part of the 20th century, was known as the “Big Ship” because of his 130kg frame and billowing shirt.

Van Niekerk, 29, is a leg-spinning all-rounder and the only South African woman to have scored more than 1,500 runs and taken more than 50 wickets in women’s T20 internationals.

From 2016 to 2021 she captained the side in all three formats.

However, she last played for the national team in September 2021 and has been recovering from a broken ankle.

Her exclusion from the World Cup squad was because she did not achieve the required time for a two-kilometre run.

Having lost 10kg since playing in England last summer and in spite of running a personal best, she missed the nine minute 30 seconds limit by 18 seconds which, according to team officials, was not good enough.

“Dane was given an extensive opportunity to meet the minimum criteria, or the fitness benchmark for eligibility into the World Cup,” said women’s selection convener Clinton du Preez.

“It’s purely based on the not meeting of the fitness criteria that she’s missed out.”

Fitness v performance

Van Niekerk said she was “broken” by the decision to exclude her from the World Cup which starts on her home patch on February 10, but the decision may backfire on the South Africans who now go into the tournament without two, maybe even three, of their best players.

Last year, another key player Lizelle Lee was left out of the tour to England and Ireland for failing to meet her weight requirement. She subsequently retired from international cricket in order to play in the franchises.

And, although she was named in the World Cup squad, there must be some doubt as to whether Marizanne Kapp will walk away in protest. She is married to Van Niekerk and pulled out of Thursday’s T20 against India for “personal” reasons.

South Africa is not the only country to have fitness tests but they do appear one of the more rigid.

Sisanda Magala, who played in the recent men’s ODI series against England, was excluded from the squad last year after similarly failing to meet the target, in his case by 12 seconds.

The Van Niekerk decision highlights, however, a trend in cricket which is seeing a squeeze on athletes who are built more for comfort than speed.

The rise of short-form cricket is certainly a factor as the fielding skills are now far advanced of what they were even 10 years ago.

The natural power advantage that bigger players such as Colin Milburn or the “short and stocky” New Zealand wicketkeeper Jock Edwards may have had in the past is less vital now that bats have become sledgehammer and boundaries have been shortened.

What future then for the likes of West Indies off-spinner Rahkeem Cornwall, listed on his Wiki page as weighing in at 140 kilos, or the Pakistani batsman Azam Khan who is still mocked, as seen on Twitter this week as he walked out to bat in the Bangladesh Premier League, even after losing 30kilos?

“It’s not about being overweight, it’s about performance,” said Azam, making the case for the defence in an article in January’s Cricket Monthly.

“If a guy is scoring 400 runs and he is super-fit and another guy is scoring 800 runs and he is not super-fit, I will keep the guy who scored 800 runs in my team. That’s my point of view.”