Cape Town – As we take the short drive in the pelting rain from her house in Khayelitsha to her ‘office’ at Masiphumelele Primary, 25-year-old Babalwa Zothe starts opening up about how she fell in love with cricket.
“I was still in grade 4 and I was 10 or 11,” she recalls.
“At my school there was no girls cricket. I told the cricket master that I wanted to play and he told me to go join the boys. I played with them, and then I thought I would recruit other girls.”
Before long, Zothe had recruited an entire team of girls and the small Umtata school in the Eastern Cape had its first all girls cricket team.
The sport has been a part of Zothe’s life ever since.
She has always played at a high level and was a part of Kei’s first-class structures before making the move to the Nyanga, just outside Cape Town.
A top order batter, she played for the Western Province senior team last season, but had to retire early due to a back injury.
It is a truth that clearly still hurts, but even while playing Zothe’s real passion lay in coaching and growing the game.
Today, there are hundreds of young girls playing cricket in Khayelitsha, and Zothe is at the heart of it all.
From Monday to Saturday, she coaches at various schools around the community and during season there are also matches on Sundays.
“We need more girls playing cricket,” she says with conviction.
As it is, Zothe mentors around 100 girls from mini-cricket through to U-19 as part of her work with Cricket South Africa’s (CSA) Khayelitsha hub, while she has another 70 girls across all age groups as part of her volunteer work for the Gary Kirsten Foundation.
She receives a small allowance from CSA for the work she does with the hub, but money is nowhere near the top of her list of priorities.
“I’ve got passion and I love cricket, so I don’t mind if I get paid or not, as long as cricket is going forward and girls are improving their skills,” she says.
Zothe grew up in Umtata with two brothers and five sisters who had no interest in the game.
“I’ve always had their support,” she says of her family, who were understandably shocked when she came home playing shadow cover drives and slog sweeps, pretending she was facing the fastest bowlers in the world.
“One of my brothers started playing, but he got lazy and stopped.”
For Zothe, this was much more than a childhood faze. It was an obsession.
“I used to love (Herschelle) Gibbs and (Jacques) Kallis,” she recalls fondly.
“They would hit the ball like nobody’s business.”
The harsh truth, however, is that women’s cricket in South Africa, while growing all the time, still faces an uphill battle and an uncertain future.
The problem, as with most things, is financial and as things stand there are few opportunities for the likes of Zothe to progress to a point where they are making good money from the sport.
The women’s national team lost Momentum as its title sponsor last year and creating a pool of professionally contracted players is the ultimate challenge.
There are now several women in the national setup contracted by CSA professionally, but none of those structures exist at a provincial level.
The country’s best women cricketers must find other ways of supplementing their income. Playing cricket, even for your country, is not sustainable in the long-term.
As Proteas batter Andrie Steyn says: “If it comes down to writing a test or going on a tour, you’re going to write the test.”
Steyn is 22 and in her honours year of studying sports science at Stellenbosch, and she is in a position where she can focus full-time on her cricket once she completes her degree in three months.
Even with her studies behind her, however, Steyn knows that she will have to secure stints overseas in Australia or England if she is to make any real money from cricket.
“A lot of the girls get lost after matric,” Steyn says.
“You’ve got to go study and make a living for yourself somewhere.”
Increasing the player base, however, is an obvious step in the right direction.
“The more people that play the sport, the more sponsors will come on board,” says Steyn.
“The quality will also be better with more people playing, so everything comes from starting from here.”
Zothe and Steyn spent Wednesday afternoon with around 50 girls at Masiphumelele Primary with the Gary Kirsten Foundation, facilitating a girls only clinic that was forced indoors because of the wet weather.
The future is uncertain, but Wednesday clearly showed that the appetite is there from a young age.
For the township community, this is another way for parents to ensure that their children are engaging with healthy activity far away from a life of possible crime or substance abuse.
“The community and especially parents have taken to girls cricket very seriously. You see parents coming to practices and to games to watch their girls play,” Zothe says.
She has a Level 1 coaching qualification under her belt already, and the plan is clear.
“I am chasing my Level 2 and my Level 3. I want to coach the women’s national team one day.”
That is the long-term goal, but it is not the most important thing for Zothe. She knows that her role in this community is far greater than coaching cricket.
“When you are coaching, you are not just a coach, you are also a parent,” she says.
“You need to be as close as possible with the kids. You need to be their friend when they need one and also be their parent when they need one.
“It needs heart.”