Perhaps it’s her soft-spoken nature. Or the admission of nerves before stepping out to bat and her humility about her style – but South Africa Women’s Lizelle Lee, despite first impressions of her attacking approach and monstrous hitting, is striking in that she doesn’t fit into the Virender Sehwag template of a devil-may-care swashbuckling opener.
Lee, 25, is one of the rare openers in women’s cricket who makes a mockery of the pulled-in boundary ropes and the ‘consolidation before attack’ philosophy still common in the game.
In the words of her captain Dane van Niekerk, she’s “insanely destructive”. But Lee, who is also a part-time bowler and part-time wicketkeeper, is keen to mould herself into a more multi-dimensional player.
In her last 15 One-Day Internationals, when Lee has gotten off the mark, she’s managed a strike rate above 100 on every occasion. She has 30 sixes – topping the charts in 2016 and so far in 2017 – and 121 fours against her name since the start of 2016. Since her debut in September 2013, no other player has gone over the ropes as frequently as she has: 38 to Chloe Tryon’s 26 and Sophie Devine’s 16.
South Africa bank on her to see off the hard ball and get them off to blazing starts. Like in the ICC Women’s World Cup Qualifier in Sri Lanka in February, when her straight sixes were things of beauty and statements of intent.
If she can hang in there, South Africa know the destruction will be considerable. Like in Bangladesh before the qualifiers, and in Australia, where she stood tall with an 89-ball 102, her maiden century, even as her team-mates crumbled.
“Sometimes it pays off, other days it doesn’t,” admits a smiling Lee to Wisden India. Her aim now is to get more consistency – she averages a little under 30 – and she’s almost apologetic about not converting starts. “I’m always directly going into fifth gear and I should try and move back to first gear and second gear.
“Sometimes you just have to stay calm and try to get the ones.”
Lee’s idol – and this doesn’t come as a surprise – is Lance Klusener. Back when she was “a little bit taller than the wickets”, and her ‘XI’ took on her brother’s ‘XI’ in their backyard, Lee’s make-believe team had to have Klusener.
“He used to hit the ball very hard. I’m trying to do what he did and try to build my innings,” she explains.
“Sometimes it pays off, other days it doesn’t. I’m always directly going into fifth gear and I should try and move back to first gear and second gear. Sometimes you just have to stay calm and try to get the ones.” – Lizelle Lee
Some inspiration, though, might come from more contemporary quarters. Lee’s opening partner is Laura Wolvaardt, the 18-year-old whose maturity belies her age. Wolvaardt brought up her second ODI century against Ireland in the quadrangular series, and where Lee brings the bluster and flair, Wolvaardt is all patience and technique. Together, their aim is to get to that first drinks break and the team fifty.
“She’s one in a million,” says Lee of her opening partner. “It’s nice batting with her. She always stays calm, just wants to do the best. It just calms me as well, it helps me.”
Van Niekerk, for one, has faith in Lee. “She knows what she has to do,” she told Wisden India after the qualifier. “We never wanted to change her game. She showed in Australia once she gets going you can’t stop her. She has got the ability to score a hundred in the first 20 overs. That puts the opponent on the back foot. She is a great asset to have, she knows that and she is working on her game.”
It will be interesting to see if there are any adjustments from Lee, and South Africa, for the World Cup in England, where the new ball will remain harder for longer.
Lee, who was named Women’s Players’ Player of the Year in the Cricket South Africa awards last month after a great domestic season, struggled in the Women’s Quadrangular before she was rested. Both Wolvaardt and the young Andrie Steyn brought up centuries opening the batting, while Sune Luus too has previously proved her chops at the top, allowing South Africa the luxury of choice. And with Trisha Chetty and Tryon too in good nick, the team goes into the World Cup with a batting unit high on firepower and promise.