On her debut for South Africa in May this year, Raisibe Ntozakhe became Jhulan Goswami’s 181st victim, making the Indian pacer the highest wicket-taker in Women’s One-Day Internationals. There is, however, more to the jovial Ntozakhe, who has so far played five games, than that. The way she endured the challenges of growing up in the notorious township of Alexandra in Johannesburg to become the first international cricketer – male or female – from there is a story that Dane van Niekerk, South Africa’s captain, calls inspiring and an example of chasing dreams.
The fourth of five siblings, Ntozakhe, now 20, lost her father when she was four years old. Her mother, currently unemployed, and grandmother ensured that the kids “never went to bed hungry and were dressing up, eating, going to school and celebrating festivals.”
Family support protected Ntozakhe from the bad things happening in her surroundings. Sport also played a big part. She was a striker in football, but shifted to cricket at the age of six on seeing the boys playing cricket at school. She remembers exactly where she was standing when she saw them walking down the stairs at her school with the kit. When she represented Gauteng Province in age-group cricket at the age of ten, her teammates nicknamed her ‘Slice’ because “I was a bit tinier than I am right now.”
Van Niekerk is glad for the nickname because she struggles to pronounce the offspinner’s name and surname. “I have known her since she was a bit taller than what she is now,” van Niekerk adds for good measure. “I don’t think she has grown in the last ten years or something.”
Ntozakhe has grown in stature not only as a cricketer but also as a coach responsible for grooming young girls in her province for the last two years. Awaiting results of her sports administration and coaching course from Gauteng Cricket Board (GCB), she wants to do a Level 2 degree in coaching.
“Growing up in a township, you go through a lot of things. You see drug addicts, thieves, guys hitting girls, abusive relationships, and neighbours screaming at night. There is a lot going on,” Ntozakhe tells Wisden India. “That type of background is where you actually build yourself more in terms of how you want to build your future. You want to stay with how quasi-mentality works or you want to be a better person yourself. It built me into actually being aware of my surrounding, protecting myself at some point and picking who to trust and who not to trust.”
Despite her mother and grandmother being around her, Ntozakhe fell into bad company and was suspended by the GCB for three months when she was 17 for breaking the code of conduct. That was the biggest turning point of her life.
“In those three months, I got to regroup and decide what I need out of life,” she adds. “I was lucky that I got back to playing. The scenario which I am not allowed to reveal gave me a chance to reflect on life.”
Ntozakhe is grateful to her mother and grandmother for teaching her to be humble and respectful of people, and believing in her ability even though it was weird to be the only girl playing cricket with the boys while growing up. But the pain of not having her father around is still tangible.
“The whole death broke me. At some point, it really got to me, especially in primary school when you get Father’s Day. Even today, I don’t really stand by it,” she says, choking up a bit. “I hate it, to be honest. It just digs up a big hole in your heart. I lost him when I was very young. At times, you need a father to whom you can go to in circumstances. You think, ‘if he would have been here, things would have turned up this way’. But yeah, it’s God’s world. There is nothing I can do about it. As you grow up, acceptance is the key.”
Cricket gave her people she could trust. She points to Sipokazi Sokanyile, South Africa’s media manager, as one of the people who made her comfortable in the dressing room and brought her out of a shell. Yet, the rough experiences of the past have not allowed Ntozakhe to completely open up to her South African teammates.
“The team environment is very good,” she says. “You get people who are gelling at the moment. There is competition, but they are all one. It becomes easier to come out. But for someone like me, I don’t find it that easy to actually express myself. So, at the moment I am a bit of a loner. I am a bit on my own. But I do have people who I go to, can speak to and am very comfortable with.”
Van Niekerk says even though Ntozakhe is an introvert, her biggest strength is that she is open to learning, and always asks questions. “She bowls ten overs in every training session and wants to get better,” the skipper adds. “You can see she is hungry to be here and represent the badge. Hopefully, she can get a World Cup debut going in.”
This World Cup is much more for Ntozakhe than just fulfilling the simple ambition of being in the squad. She calls her being in England within months of her international debut a “miracle”. This is her first media interaction and she believes the world will hear more about her in the future.
“Despite my background, I am very young. The World Cup is a big learning curve for me. I am learning each and every day as I am watching the game,” Ntozakhe, who considers Muttiah Muralitharan as her idol, reflects. “Wearing the cap, that’s a huge honour. I wanted to play for South Africa and have a jersey number. It’s always been a dream and now I have it. I now have to work harder to stay here for the next ten years. You will see more of me, this is not the last time you are (talking to me).”
Not a bad goal for Alexandra’s first international cricketer.