Marizanne Kapp

“I know when it’s a tough match or big team, then I’m going to do well,” says Kapp. © Getty Images

The thrill of a pressure situation, some RnB music to get her pumped up, and a ritual match-eve phone call with mum who’s reminded her how well she must bowl. Shabnim Ismail is set. You wouldn’t guess it looking at her slight frame, but when she sends down the new ball for South Africa with an almighty bound, it comes down fiery, fast and hard.

It frustrated her Sydney Sixers teammates at the WBBL, but Marizanne Kapp is a stickler for routine. She reties her hair into a top knot, measuredly marks out her run up and takes position. Feet close. Head in line. Leaning in. A second of complete stillness. Calm, collected. Then, she bursts forth. When she shares the new ball for South Africa, it comes down in line and at the stumps.

Ismail and Kapp make up one of the most effective new-ball pairs in international women’s cricket today.

While Ismail, 28, has 92 wickets in 63 One-Day Internationals since her debut as an 18-year-old, Kapp, 27, is on 70 wickets in 71 matches, to go with her 1400 runs.

“We complement each other really well,” explains Kapp. “I’m a swing bowler, she’s full out pace. She gets the batters on the back foot, and I keep them on the front foot bowling at the stumps.

“We know each other’s strengths well. And we help each other, especially in the death overs.”

In the ICC Women’s World Cup Qualifier 2017, the duo has bowled a combined 84.4 overs for 14 wickets with two matches left, at averages of 16.80 (Kapp) and 16.66 (Ismail) respectively. On conditions that offer little for the fast bowlers, they’ve bent their backs to make the most of their small window of opportunity early on. They have made it difficult for batters to settle. If Ismail, the quicker of the two, keeps them honest with the short one now and again, Kapp’s wicket-to-wicket approach denies them any room to drive.

“We try to build pressure rather than trying to get wickets,” explains Kapp, whose economy rate of 2.40 is among the most miserly of the tournament. In these conditions, “as soon as it gets slower, there’s nothing for the pace bowlers. We just go out and bowl in a partnership, bowl the dots, and take some wickets.”

A three-month suspension for a code of conduct breach could have forced Ismail to say 'screw cricket', but she came back more motivated than ever. © Getty Images

A three-month suspension for a code of conduct breach could have forced Ismail to say ‘screw cricket’, but she came back more motivated than ever. © Getty Images

“Just having that two fiery people at the crease builds the momentum throughout the innings,” adds Ismail.

‘Fiery’ is a word Ismail frequently uses in our conversation. It’s different from ‘aggressive’ in the shade card of pace bowling. And its cocktail of hunger and passion and confidence is something you can carry off the green, as Ismail does.

“I have this little one that I’m coaching at the moment,” says Ismail, who intends to start an academy back in Johannesburg. “She’s really quick. I always ask her, ‘Who do you want to be when you’re big? Do you want to be like Dale Steyn? Do you want to be like Kagiso Rabada – he’s young and he’s bowling over 140-150?’ And she’s always telling me, ‘I want to be like you one day, because you have that fiery action. You remind me of Dale Steyn!’ And that’s what I’m pushing through the pipeline for youngsters to come through. Just be that fiery person. Not very much being that aggressive person, but having that action and loving the sport so much.”

It’s that passion that kept Ismail working behind the scenes through a three-month suspension for a code of conduct breach coming into this tournament. “Getting your mental space right and getting back into the game is not easy coming into the subcontinent … I could have sat out for the three months, said screw cricket, I don’t want to play cricket anymore. But I have a positive side. I said I’m the best at what I do, I’m the best at opening the bowling, I believe in it, my team still believes in it. My family and my friends, they really motivated me not to give up cricket. And this is why I have two player of the match awards in a row.”

Like her partner, Kapp too says she thrives under pressure. “I know when it’s a tough match or big team, then I’m going to do well.

“But I don’t think I’ve had that good a tournament. I wish I had more wickets,” she rues, and you see the likeness of the intense bowler frequently and angrily muttering to herself in the middle, in the ever smiling woman before you who can’t wait to go back home and play with her nieces.

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Dane van Niekerk

“With the start our bowlers are giving us, we’re quite lucky because we can build from their pressure and we can reap the rewards” – Dane van Niekerk. © ICC

Kapp and Ismail have been setting the tone for the South African attack, but the team’s strength is in how the rest of the bowlers join in. Where others in this tournament have struggled to identify a consistent pace attack – if even they have one – South Africa’s third, fourth, fifth and sixth bowlers can’t be taken lightly. In five wins for the side, three different bowlers have earned the match award on four occasions.

Ayabonga Khaka took the new ball in the absence of Ismail, Moseline Daniels brings in left-arm swing, 32-year-old Marcia Letsoalo offers her experience and Chloe Tryon, who isn’t bowling because of injury now, is another left-arm option. Then there’s the legspin of Dane van Niekerk, the captain, and Sune Luus, the leading ODI wicket-taker of 2016.

In the ICC Women’s World Cup Qualifier 2017, the duo has bowled a combined 84.4 overs for 14 wickets with two matches left, at averages of 16.80 (Kapp) and 16.66 (Ismail) respectively. If Ismail, the quicker of the two, keeps them honest with the short one now and again, Kapp’s wicket-to-wicket approach denies them any room to drive.

“We’re spoilt for choice,” says van Niekerk. “Shabi is this tiny girl that bangs the ball, she gets steep bounce. She puts her back into it and she bounces you. She moves the ball. Kappie, she trots in and hits the deck really hard with her natural outswing. And then you’ve got Aya who’s tall, you don’t expect the ball to carry as much as it does. She does a lot more with her hand. Mosie is a left-armer who generally swings it back to you. Marcia, I joke with her saying you do the donkey’s work. She’s putting in long spells and holding up really well.”

Then, where 21-year-old Luus gives it more turn and loop, her captain comes in flatter and quicker.

“The pressure that three or four pacers up front builds, teams tend to think they can get easy runs against Dane and Sune. They (the batters) take them on and that way we get the wickets,” points out Kapp.

Van Niekerk agrees. “It’s getting 90% of your balls right in the right areas and with the start our bowlers are giving us, we’re quite lucky because we can build from their pressure and we can reap the rewards.”

Qualification ensured, the team is likely to face sterner tests in the World Cup against higher ranked teams. And there’s still work to do on fielding, consistency and bowling at the death. But the fire’s been lit. They’re hitting the ground running.