The South Africa allrounder was one of the best in the game. She was all set for a World Cup where her team was expected to go far, but destiny had other plans
Take the stairs. These three small words have become a 21st-century mantra to motivate largely sedentary modern human beings into moving a little more, getting a little fitter and feeling a little better about themselves. Dané van Niekerk didn't know it at the time but her international career ended because it is advice she didn't take.
"It was an evening in January  and I went down to feed the dogs," she said, looking back at it a year later. The gate between the bottom section of the house outside Gqeberha that van Niekerk lives in with her wife and fellow international Marizanne Kapp and the deck was usually closed to keep their African mastiff in check. There are stairs to go down to the bottom, and a low wall.
"I'll admit that I was pretty stupid, because I climbed over the wall when I could have walked down the stairs," she said. "It was a bit wet. I crouched down, my feet gave way and I fell about a metre and a half downwards. I landed on my feet, but unfortunately there was a concrete block, because we had been doing some construction, and I hit that.
"I just sat down on the grass. It was wet and it was drizzling and I broke down crying. I knew something was wrong."
Van Niekerk's brother-in-law realised she had been gone for longer than expected and went to find her. When he did, she could not stand up, so he picked her up and took her inside, where Kapp went into "full physio mode", van Niekerk remembered. "Rest, ice, compress, elevate - the whole thing."
The next morning, her ankle was "blown up like this" she said, indicating the size of a large melon. At the doctor's, her worst fears were confirmed. There was a clean break in her ankle bone, which would take a minimum of 12 weeks to heal. The women's 50-over World Cup - the one South Africa had identified as theirs to win after reaching the semi-final five years before - was eight weeks away. Van Niekerk was immediately ruled out.
A month before her accident, she spoke to the Cricket Monthly about captaincy. She was a standout leader in the game, across women's and men's cricket, who had risen from a schoolgirl who played everything from softball to netball to debuting for South Africa as a 16-year-old, to becoming one of only two women accepted into the Eastern Province men's academy in 2013, alongside Kapp. She became South Africa captain at 23 in 2016. Van Niekerk spoke about the "big shock" when Mignon du Preez told her she was stepping down as captain and van Niekerk achieved her "lifelong dream" of leading her country. "Mignon was doing such a great job and taking the team to places that we've never been before, so it was a bittersweet moment, but I hoped I would do a really good job."
van Niekerk walks out to bat in a T20 World Cup game in 2016. Shortly after, she was appointed captain, at the ripe old age of 23
van Niekerk walks out to bat in a T20 World Cup game in 2016. Shortly after, she was appointed captain, at the ripe old age of 23 © Getty/ICC
She turned out to be a natural and responded well under the extra responsibility. "I understood my game. The added pressure maybe helped me a little bit more. I thrived under that."
Her stats at the time bore that last point out. In her first five months in charge, her ODI batting average leapt from 27.93 to 48.72 as South Africa prepared for the 2017 World Cup. That was the tournament that would come to define van Niekerk as a leader. She was the face of a relatively unknown group of players who had become professionals only three years prior and were rarely televised before that. She put in a match-winning all-round performance against a highly fancied Indian side and rallied her team well in the semi-final against England, where South Africa were competitive but ultimately unsuccessful.
South African teams had been in that position several times before, so the tears were familiar. The undertone of achievement and hope was not.
"It was a massive World Cup for us," van Niekerk said. "We got support that I've never experienced before. When we came home, it was the first time that we would walk in the shops and people would come up to us and say they saw us playing.
"One of the proudest moments for me as a captain was the compliments we received about the way the team conducted themselves on and off the field - not just from South Africans but people who worked around the venues, and even after the World Cup. That really told me we have got a special group of players. That was the start for this team, when people really started noticing us."
In tears after the loss to England in the 2017 World Cup semi-final. Five years later it was same outcome, different day, but van Niekerk was on the outside, looking on, as her team lost
© Getty Images
In tears after the loss to England in the 2017 World Cup semi-final. Five years later it was same outcome, different day, but van Niekerk was on the outside, looking on, as her team lost © Getty Images
Her stocks rose higher in the years that followed. She had been part of the WBBL since its inception, went on to win titles with Sydney Sixers in two successive seasons, and was among the leading wicket-takers in the 2017-18 campaign. When the ECB launched a new franchise competition, the Hundred, van Niekerk was picked to captain Oval Invincibles and led them to the inaugural title, also being voted Player of the Series. She would not accept the cup until all her team-mates had joined her on the podium. "I know it's tradition but I didn't work for that alone, and I feel like it should be a collective thing," she said. "We won as a team, so we need to enjoy it as a team."
The hard currency van Niekerk and Kapp earned in Australia and England allowed them to buy land in the Kragga Kama Game Park and build a home that would "feel like a holiday when we are not on tour", van Niekerk said. She would end up spending more time in it than she imagined, to the point where she began to joke that she considered herself a housewife after the accident that changed the course of her career.
Despite the severity of the injury, she did not undergo surgery on her ankle because her fracture was stable, with minimal displacement. That meant although the bone had snapped, it had not moved out of place. "Because I am a younger sportsperson, they were quite conservative on the recovery," she said.
An operation would have kept the bone in place while it healed but the approach chosen for van Niekerk left more to chance. At her first check-up, after four weeks, they found the bone had shifted.
That meant it would take longer to heal and van Niekerk had to spend more time off her feet. She went from needing to spend around six weeks in a Moon Boot, an orthopaedic device prescribed for the stabilisation of severe sprains, fractures and other such injuries, to keeping it on for close for four months.
In that time, she watched South Africa reach the 50-over World Cup semi-final for a second time. Unlike five years before, they were blown away. Van Niekerk called their performance "disappointing" and even cried after the result. "I really wanted the team to do well. It's hard sometimes, wanting people to do well when sitting on the sidelines, but I knew the magnitude of it and where the team was at," she said.
van Niekerk at the 2022 Hundred, in which she played just a handful of games. She later revealed that following her ankle fracture early that year, she let herself go, eating unhealthily and drinking too much
Alex Davidson / © ECB via Getty Images
van Niekerk at the 2022 Hundred, in which she played just a handful of games. She later revealed that following her ankle fracture early that year, she let herself go, eating unhealthily and drinking too much Alex Davidson / © ECB via Getty Images
Meanwhile, her period of inactivity was becoming long enough to start impacting her overall health and lifestyle. She admitted to eating unhealthily, drinking too much alcohol, binging on Netflix, and starting to lose patience. "There was a stage where I was literally bedridden. I wasn't allowed to get up. It was very frustrating because I'm not somebody that can lay still. I got to a point where I said I just couldn't do it. My body was sore. I was carrying myself on crutches all the time. We have a lot of stairs in our house and the weight I was putting on my arms just to move around became too much."
She did not recover in time for South Africa's tour of Ireland and England or for the Commonwealth Games but was ready to come back at the Hundred, in defence of the title. She played the first game but was dropped for the next two, played two more and was dropped again, partly because of the limitation on overseas players, which Kapp criticised, but mostly because she was not at the level expected of her at that stage.
Van Niekerk said she understood. "I was picked as the leader and I wanted to be there on the field with my team-mates, but I was gone for a long time and physically, let's be honest, I was definitely not where I needed to be. I always felt that my skill would carry me," she said. "I had to do some introspection as well and also be honest with myself. There were no hard feelings."
She also missed out at the WBBL, based on, she believed, what happened at the Hundred. "I would have liked to play a little bit more and show the world that I was still capable. Physically, I probably wouldn't have picked myself if I saw myself at the Hundred. I had to do a lot of work behind the scenes to make sure I got my baby fat off."
After the Hundred, van Niekerk and Kapp went on holiday to Turkey. When they returned, Kapp prepared to go to the WBBL and van Niekerk decided to stay at home and turn her attention to getting fit to play for South Africa. At the outset, she lost eight kilograms in three months, despite a diagnosis of Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, which can lead to weight gain and be crippling for many women. She also started to shave seconds off her running time because in her absence Cricket South Africa had set an obligatory benchmark for the two-kilometre time trial for players: nine minutes 30 seconds. Van Niekerk had never gone that fast in her career but as she improved on all her markers, she saw it as achievable.
In December 2022 she was confident she would make it. "I am working really hard with Zane [Webster], our trainer and I'm really trying to smash those targets," she said at the time. "What I can do is keep working as hard as I can and as long as I can to be the fittest for the team. The skill and all those things will take care of itself."
Van Niekerk with wife and team-mate Marizanne Kapp at the 2021 Hundred, where they both turned out for Oval Invincibles, who won the title in the first year of the competition. Kapp was Player of the Match in the final and van Niekerk Player of the Series
Ben Hoskins / © ECB/Getty Images
Van Niekerk with wife and team-mate Marizanne Kapp at the 2021 Hundred, where they both turned out for Oval Invincibles, who won the title in the first year of the competition. Kapp was Player of the Match in the final and van Niekerk Player of the Series Ben Hoskins / © ECB/Getty Images
She had a massive incentive to get there: the home T20 World Cup. Van Niekerk envisioned leading a South Africa side that she had seen go from amateur to professional to potential world champions in front of full houses. She envisioned being at St George's Park, her home ground, which she had never played a match at, and she pictured herself doing it alongside her friends, the same core group of players who had matured together. But first, she had to get back into the team.
Van Niekerk captained Starlights in CSA's four-team Women's Super League at the end of the year and used the tournament to address any doubts about her ability as a player and leader. She scored an unbeaten half-century in their opening match against the national women's Under-19 side and oversaw an unbeaten campaign. She seemed to be back on track.
"Confidence-wise, my bowling had taken a bit of a knock but I could see that the more I play, the more nerves and the jitters will phase out," she said. "I said to Marizanne that I would have loved to see where I would have been skill-wise if I played the amount of games she had played this year , but for me, it's just about getting back into the swing of things. And tactically as a captain, it was just about getting back into that awareness around everything, so I hoped three weeks after that, when we got to East London [for the tri-series against West Indies and India], I'd be back playing for my country again."
The tri-series, in January, was South Africa's final preparation for the T20 World Cup but van Niekerk did not make the squad. She failed the running test but coach Hilton Moreeng told the media she'd have another opportunity to take it before the squad for the tournament was announced and he was confident she would pass.
At the time several sources confirmed that though van Niekerk had travelled with the national squad, she was not training with them. CSA had arranged for her to go to the High Performance Centre in Pretoria, where their specialists are based, and complete her final preparations there, but van Niekerk revealed she rejected that offer. Earlier this month, she told the BBC's No Balls podcast that while she "never fought against" being left out of the squad, she did ask to play, or at least to train with them, and ended up doing her fitness work alone when she was turned down.
Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd
"I had some conversations with the powers that be and I tried to give the common sense [view]," she said. "I hadn't played any competitive cricket and I needed the series. I told them, if I am in the plans, and the confidence is there for me to get to 9:30, then I need to play.
"But I also didn't expect to get a free pass because that's not who I have been," she said. "The worst thing for me was to sit in a meeting begging to be a net bowler for my team. I was told there were no facilities for me.
"I get it, I am not part of the tour, but I was still a South African cricketer. I understood there was a series, but I could bowl to my team-mates, I could be with my team and not be alienated. When the team is fielding, one of the coaches could throw balls to me. I ended up training at Selborne College [in East London]."
She also revealed on that BBC podcast that she was officially removed as captain around that time. "I got called into a meeting and my captaincy was stripped from me, two weeks before my final fitness test," she said. "They told me they realised there might be a chance I am not going to make the team, so they might as well take that [decision] now. That hurt because I was literally training alone. I am waking up in the morning, training, running, doing everything I can.
"They were telling me they didn't have confidence I would get the 9:30."
On January 27, van Niekerk ran 9:48 on a treadmill, 18 seconds too many to make the World Cup squad. She posted on social media that she was "absolutely broken" to be left out. CSA stuck to its guns about applying the fitness standards strictly. The board confirmed Sune Luus had taken over the team permanently, secured Kapp's commitment, even though they had to give her compassionate leave for the tri-series final, and tried to put the selection drama behind it as the World Cup loomed. Van Niekerk, meanwhile, got a job on the commentary team for the tournament, something she said she would consider as a serious career after her playing days.
Van Niekerk, seen here with Alyssa Healy in the 2017 WBBL semi-final, has played in the tournament since its inception and won two titles with Sydney Sixers
© Getty Images
Van Niekerk, seen here with Alyssa Healy in the 2017 WBBL semi-final, has played in the tournament since its inception and won two titles with Sydney Sixers © Getty Images
Except that she hadn't retired. And almost as if to serve as a reminder, she snapped up a deal at the WPL auction, which was held early during the World Cup.
Every minute behind the microphone, calling South Africa's success, was a reminder of where she'd rather be. "I walked around the stadium and people were chanting my name, which was incredible for me, but it was also sad because I wasn't on the field. I was proud of what the team achieved, but I was sad that I wasn't there to achieve it with them," she said.
By then van Niekerk had decided to end her international career and shut the door on the possibility of another World Cup. Watching this one had taken too much out of her, though the team went where no senior South African side had gone before: when they reached the final, van Niekerk had to accept that they had done it without her.
"I knew that something special brewed within that group and obviously I was happy for them, but I was conflicted because I didn't want CSA to brush whatever happened [with not picking me] under the rug," she said.
In the end, she decided she couldn't be there to see it play out and left to train with her WPL team, Royal Challengers Bangalore. "It was a difficult one for both of us" van Niekerk said of leaving Kapp behind. "I wanted to watch her excel but I needed to get away from the noise. The noise was too much for me."
She did watch, from her hotel in Bangalore, as South Africa beat England for the first time in a T20I, in the semi-final.
Van Niekerk bats in a 2017 World Cup warm-up game. "One of the proudest moments for me as a captain was the compliments we received about the way the team conducted themselves on and off the field [in the tournament]," she said
© Getty Images
Van Niekerk bats in a 2017 World Cup warm-up game. "One of the proudest moments for me as a captain was the compliments we received about the way the team conducted themselves on and off the field [in the tournament]," she said © Getty Images
When we spoke a few months before, van Niekerk had, like everyone else, identified Australia as the team to beat, but unlike many, she believed it could be done. "They're just a team that hasn't been put under pressure enough. It's about trying to get them on the back foot as early as possible," she said. "They're the best in the world for a reason. They've been leading the sport for a very long time. But us as a team cannot think that they can't be beaten. It's about trying to compete and take the game to them. And I think we do have the players for that."
South Africa didn't win, but afterwards Megan Schutt admitted Australia were challenged more than they had been in previous finals and understood that other teams were starting to catch up to them. South Africa is one of them and van Niekerk has always thought so. "We've got players who have been dominating in these leagues, so it's just a matter of time," she'd said. "And it might be a small amount of time before they get beaten and things change."
Van Niekerk went through the WPL without playing a game but still described it as one of the best experiences of her life, She eventually made a competitive comeback at the Fairbreak tournament in Hong Kong, where she was dismissed for a second-ball duck by Kapp. "It wasn't friendly," she said. "She was one of the hardest people I could ace getting into competitive cricket, but I respect her for the cricketer she is. And I love her more for the person she is. She's a good cricketer. If she gets me out, it is what it is."
She heads to England next, to play regional cricket for Sunrisers and in the third edition of the Hundred. She said the decision to take up the offer was easy, now that her international career is behind her.
Meanwhile, women's cricket is sprinting up the stairs and van Niekerk has some advice for it. "My wish is for women's cricket to be managed by people who love women's cricket - not just people who love cricket, but women's cricket. We need people who understand women's cricket: where it has come from and where it's going," she said. "I'm not saying it should be ex-players only but it's for people that take up these jobs not to look after themselves but to look after the game. I want the game to progress and be better. We need people that can hold people accountable and have them do the right things with the right intentions.
"I wish that if I am blessed to have a daughter that she does not doubt playing the game of cricket."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent for South Africa and women's cricket
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