Among the many people sitting in the stands at the SuperSport Park in Centurion when South Africa were beating India by 135 runs to take a series-winning lead, was one very interested person. Much more than a spectator, but neither South African, nor Indian.
Karen Smithies is the manager of the Titans, the domestic franchise whose home ground is the SuperSport Park. A team so strong that seven of their players featured in the XI for the Test: Dean Elgar, Aiden Markram, AB de Villiers, Faf du Plessis, Quinton de Kock, Morne Morkel and Lungisani Ngidi. On the bench, was Chris Morris, making it eight players in the squad. Dale Steyn plays for the franchise too.
Being the go-to person for a franchise with such a galaxy of stars would have been a sort of career-high for most people. Smithies is not most people though. And she has something in cricket none of the illustrious names around her do: a World Cup winner’s medal.
Smithies is the former England Women’s captain, who played 15 Tests and 69 One-Day Internationals from 1986 till 2000. In 1993, she led England to victory in the tournament at home. In 2017, she was at Lord’s to witness Anya Shrubsole deliver the trophy for her team against Mithali Raj’s India, completing an evolutionary circle for women’s cricket.
But first things first. How is a former England Women’s captain the Titans’ manager in Centurion? When it’s put to her that we generally see the reverse – South Africans going to England – she laughs. “Well it’s 18 years ago now since I left the UK,” Smithies tells Wisden India. “I came here actually in 1998 to coach and play at the University of Pretoria. Fell in love with the place and moved out here in 2000. I landed up at SuperSport Park in 2003 coaching women, but I’ve been with the Titans now since 2006. I go once a year to see the family, but otherwise, I’m a resident here now.
“Cricket’s been part of my life since I was a small child, so it’s great to be part of it. And I work with so many great guys here at the Titans,” she continues. “To work with the likes of AB, Morne – guys who were coming through when I first started. It’s a special part of my journey here at the Titans. Dale Steyn started here, and I’ve had the privilege to work with some of the great players of South African cricket. Mark Boucher, for example, is the coach, and my boss. It’s a privilege to see how he goes about his business.
The memories of some of the great players she has seen and the ones making their way up is something she treasures. “AB was different. He was already earmarked. He went very quickly. Morne Morkel made his debut for the Titans just as I started, in 2006. He was very nervous about bowling a no-ball, and what does he do with his first ball in domestic cricket? He bowls a no-ball!
“For me now, seeing Aiden Markram and Lungi Ngidi, two outstanding gentlemen and two fantastic cricketers, get debuts was pretty special for us as well. It’s a special place SuperSport Park that has produced a lot of Protea cricketers.”
But for Smithies, this is just the second half of her cricketing life. The first was probably even more eventful. She’s played in an era when women still had to wear skirts and seen the change to trousers. She burnt a bat with Belinda Clark at Lord’s to mark the beginning of the Women’s Ashes. She was there when Rachel Heyhoe-Flint used to sell chocolates and raffle tickets to raise funds so that women could play the sport. She’s been to two tours of India, and taken part in one of the most thrilling women’s Tests ever, which England won by two runs.
“It went down to the final ball,” she remembers. “And there was an lbw decision. I took a gamble with the last over, it was quite a slow, turning wicket but I brought on the left-arm pace of Jo Chamberlain. She bowled a good over and off the last ball of the over [actually the third ball], we all went up for the lbw and it was given. So it was a fantastic game of cricket actually.”
Set 128 for victory, India were all out for 125 in 38.3 overs in what was the second Test of the series. This after Neetu David had taken 8 for 53 in England’s second innings, setting India a very gettable target. “We were in big trouble throughout the Test actually,” says Smithies. One of those where you were down and out and then you managed to scrape and turn it around a little bit. So it just to-ed and fro-ed all the way through.”
Smithies has fond memories of India, both in 1995 and 1997, though she had her share of adventures too. “As a cricketer, to play in India is something every cricketer should do,” she says. “We’d have good crowds, and it’s nice to have a knowledgeable crowd. I loved India, and to play in different conditions. And we did have a lot of different conditions.
“For food, I was given a little trick. An old soldier that I knew was based in India. And he said, ‘To look after yourself, just take a little tot of brandy every night, a little cap. And you will be fine!’ I lost a lot of weight there. I basically survived on potatoes that were in the curry, bananas, poppadum and naan bread. That was just about my diet while I was there. But thankfully I was good.
“In Pune, we played an ODI and it got a little volatile. Claire Taylor got a bang on the head from someone who’d thrown something from the crowd, and we had to stay in the changing rooms for about three hours after the game because the crowd would not disperse. That was a tricky stay for us, but I suppose it all added to the experience.”
It was a different era then. “I played in skirts from 1986 to 1997. And 1997 was the first year that we brought in the trousers,” smiles Smithies. “In India, it’s not very pleasant because you’re diving around on the field and the heat and the dust… hated it (wearing the skirt) actually! But that was the call of the day, so we had to go by it. It wasn’t very comfortable, and it wasn’t very good to look at either. Thankfully 1997 saw the change.”
The next year also saw the launch of the Women’s Ashes. The men’s trophy is said to have the ashes of a burnt bail. The women burnt something more substantial. “We burnt a bat. This was at Lord’s,” says Smithies, pointing to a photo of Belinda Clark and her burning the bat, flanked by Roger Knight, the MCC president then, and the England manager.
Women cricketers today are still not near the earning level of the men, but they are far removed from their predecessors at least. “The great Enid Bakewell, who I played all my cricket with in Nottinghamshire, and Rachel Heyhoe-Flint – they used to sell chocolate to raise funds for our club,” recounts Smithies. “Sell raffle tickets to get money for training facilities. I also did a sponsored walk if I remember, from Lord’s to the Oval and back. Again pioneered by Rachel Heyhoe-Flint just to raise awareness and money. That’s what we had to do, you know. It was part and parcel.
“I know that back in the day, 1986 onwards, a lot of the Indian players worked for Railways I believe, and were given time off to play cricket,” she adds. “But I don’t think they had a lot of support, the conditions, the facilities or the money to do what they wanted to. Although they had some very good quality players. Since then there has been a lot more women’s cricket, and the ICC have really put in a lot of effort into the game. They play more competitive cricket than we did on a regular basis, which also helps the momentum of it.”
One of the great showcases for how the women’s game has changed was the Women’s World Cup in 2017, whose final Smithies attended.
“The game has evolved beyond recognition. I wish I was playing now in this era, with the opportunities that they get,” she smiles. “We were amateurs, we didn’t get paid. Most of the early tours we went to, we paid for ourselves pretty much. But now look, the top international women cricketers now are full-time. It gives them time to train, just concentrate on the cricket, which is a huge difference. And of course T20 cricket has also made a difference to their hitting areas, their power. I would love to have played a T20 game.”
For Smithies, the advent of T20 and particularly the Women’s Big Bash League in Australia, have played key roles in pushing the game’s popularity steadily upwards, until it all came together at the 2017 World Cup, whose final has been hailed as perhaps the grandest showcase for women’s cricket.
“Absolutely,” agrees Smithies. “To have 26,000 people at Lord’s for the women’s final, I never thought I’d see that. And just the atmosphere around the ground and the game was a credit to women’s cricket. It was televised, most of it. So a lot of people could see it. A lot of the games were close as well.
“The other thing is the women’s Big Bash League in Australia. Those kinds of tournaments are doing the women’s game so much good. I know that Dane van Niekerk, Marizanne Kapp and Mignon du Preez are over there now. It’s like the IPL, you’re playing with and against the best players in the world. It can only do your game good.”
Smithies only went to the final though, thus missing out on both semifinals, which were classics in their own right. The first one would have been more poignant for Smithies, with England squeaking home by two wickets, with two balls to spare – against South Africa. Who would she have been supporting? The question is followed by the ready, and infectious, laughter Smithies has. “Umm… Obviously, England because that’s where my home is. And home is where the heart is. But I was also keen to see some of the South African girls that I know, they also put in a very, very good performance. And again England in the final, were up against it for quite some time and India really should have taken it. But you know these big-pressure days bring and with Shrubsole doing her in-duckers and a couple of wickets falling, momentum went back to England.”
The title triumph brought back the memories of her own moment of glory in 1993, when she lifted the World Cup as the England captain.
“In 1993, women’s cricket was run by the Women’s Cricket Association. And they really had to rely on donations to stage the event,” she says. “We won, against all odds, I believe. It was live on TV that afternoon, and John Major was there, he was Prime Minister at the time. So there was a lot of high profile to it and it really gave women’s cricket a leverage. And five years later, the Women’s Cricket Association merged with the ECB. And now the World Cup was run by the ICC.
“Look in 1993, we stayed in Wellington College. In dormitories. And in 2017 they probably stayed at The Hilton in London. We had to do our own washing, things like that. The game has evolved immeasurably over the years, and quite rightly too because there’s some good players out there.”
The win though did produce a moment that remains etched in minds for many, though its one Smithies would rather forget about. Flushed with victory, she told Derek Pringle, the allrounder, that since the men’s team didn’t seem to be winning anything, perhaps the women could teach them a thing or two?
“I think I got a bit cocky at that stage because we were doing very well, and the men under Michael Atherton were down and out,” she says, eyes twinkling. “It was a rushed comment, and one which I wished I never made. It was probably something like “You can learn how to play from us”. Most likely. Bit cocky, eh? But it was just one of those heat-of-the-moment things. I was 24 years old, I was on the crest of a wave after winning the World Cup and… I lost it, to be honest!”
There’s no losing it now for Smithies, whether in her office sorting through mail for the Titans’ cricketers, in the open-air press box of the SuperSport Park ready to lend a helping hand to journalists, bustling about with the thousand and one administrative tasks she has to attend to, or just sitting back quietly and enjoying the game to which she has given two careers and is still not done.