By Nisha Shetty
A week ago, the only Shania that the cricket world would have been aware of was Shania Twain, the country music star who made men’s shirts, short skirts and girl power a style statement in the late 90s.
Now, there’s another Shania in town, 17-year-old Shania-Lee Swart. By her own admission, she’s a “really bad” singer. But she knows a thing or two about girl power.
In a Twenty20 game for Mpumalanga against Easterns during Cricket South Africa’s Girls Under-19 Week, she biffed an unbeaten 86-ball 160. In a team total of 169 for 8. Her teammates contributed zero runs; the nine other runs were extras. She then turned her arm over, returning 2 for 21 — the best bowling figures in the innings — to guide Mpumalanga to a 42-run win.
The match happened on Monday (December 12), and a fairly comprehensive press release from Cricket South Africa, titled ‘Swart single-handedly blasts Mpumalanga to victory’, was sent to inboxes around the world but went largely unnoticed. Perhaps everyone had a bad case of the Monday Blues. Possibly the term ‘single-handedly’, like ‘one-man army’, has been used too liberally and too often in sports stories that it failed to excite us anymore. Or maybe it was the lack of a scorecard.
Whatever the reason, the sheer ridiculousness of what Shania had done didn’t dawn on everyone until Friday. Everyone, by extension, included Shania as well because it was only then that she saw her name plastered across the Internet, random strangers sharing the scorecard on Facebook and Twitter with some variation of ‘Dude, can you friggin believe this?’
She’s just a teenager. Let that sink in. Because it didn’t truly sink in for this correspondent until her mother Mina asks if it’s alright that she answer the questions on Shania’s behalf during her interview with Wisden India. She explains that Shania is shy and gets self-conscious about speaking to the media. To get over that hurdle, they keep the loudspeaker on during the phone call so when a question is asked, Shania tells her mother what to say (which can be heard in a soft, muffled voice) and Mina, in turn, relays the answer. Initial confusion over who to address the questions to aside, the conversation soon settles into a nice rhythm.
The Post-it note version of her life so far: She bats at the top of the order. She bowls pace at school but sticks to right-arm offspin at the provincial level. She also captains the side. When she isn’t playing cricket, she plays hockey for South Africa at the age-group level. Or does athletics, specifically shot put, javelin, discus. And she has several gold and silver medals from her school to show for her effort.
You don’t become as good as she is at athletics without considerable upper body strength and consequently, you don’t become as good as she is at hitting boundaries without considerable upper body strength. That’s why, on that fateful Monday, she managed to get 90% of her runs in boundaries, with 18 fours and 12 sixes, reasons her father Baltus, who attends all of her games.
The pitch at Baloyi Field in Pretoria had a fair amount of grass and the Easterns bowlers, particularly Tumi Sekukune, were able to achieve some good swing. Sekukune broke through the defences of Nicolien van Rensburg and Jammie de Vos to leave Mpumalanga in trouble at 19 for 3, but Shania didn’t think much of it and carried on playing her natural game.
Francis Pieters, the Mpumalanga manager and Shania’s high school cricket coach at HTS Witbank, reveals to us that she was stressing quite a bit from the sidelines but was counting on Shania to pull the team through. “Shania usually does what is needed,” suggests Pieters. “When she sees her teammates struggling, she takes the lead. She has played for me for the past three years at HTS, so I know what she is capable of when she puts her mind to it.”
“She respected the good balls and she waited for the bad balls,” explains Mina. “She knew if she saw out their main bowlers, the part-timers would be bowling soon and she would be able to take advantage then. For the first five balls, she would try to hit boundaries. And in the last ball, she would try to hit a single to get back on strike for the next over.”
This wasn’t always possible, which explains how the Easterns prised out two more wickets to back the side into a corner at 85 for 5. But it was only when Sekukune returned for a second spell and picked up a hat-trick, reducing Mpumalanga to 108 for 8, did Shania realise she had to take complete charge. When Nicholate Phiri, the No. 10 batter, walked in, Shania told her she wouldn’t let her be on strike if she could help it but should Phiri face the last ball of the over, her instructions were clear: “Please just see it out and don’t get out.”
Phiri stuck to her end of the bargain, safely negotiating the three balls she faced, and as luck would have it, the ninth-wicket partnership was the most successful, unbroken and yielding 61 runs. Adele van Eck, the Easterns coach even dropped by in the mid-innings break, musing that Mpumalanga could have taken pity and asked Shania not to bat. It was said in jest, but according to Shania, “the look on the faces of the opposition suggested that they had lost the game.”
It was only after the match, when van Eck informed Shania that no one else from her team had scored a run, did it strike her that she had done something out of the ordinary.
Those who have been following Shania’s performances closely know it wasn’t dumb luck or something she had for breakfast that day (she had her usual bowl of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes) that led to this moment. Just a few days earlier, on December 9, she played a starring role in another U-19 victory — a one-day match this time — against South Western Districts. More overs and more support from her teammates saw her wallop 289 off 182 balls, with 44 fours and seven sixes, before she perished off the last ball of the innings, the team finishing on 352 for 3. She also bowled three overs and took 3 for 3 to bowl out South Western Districts for 61.
Shania, Mina recalls, has always been a precocious child. “She was playing cricket just for fun at age 13 when she was spotted by Cheri Hill, the then Mpumalanga manager and HTS Witbank girls cricket coach, and Quintie Naude, the then girls cricket coach at HGH Witbank.”
HTS and HGH are the two high schools at Witbank, the city where she lived in the Mpumalanga province. “They asked her if she wanted to play for the high school, not realising Shania was in primary school!” laughs Mina. “Later that year, she was asked to come to the Mpumalanga U-19 trials and was selected.”
When Shania was old enough to enrol in high, she joined HTS to study Electronic Engineering, another thing she is invariably good at. It was there that her leadership skills caught the eye of Pieters. “You could tell she reads the game so well so I made her captain, and she’s been the captain for three years now,” says Pieters.
During the school games, Sizwe Chiloane, the current Mpumalanga coach, stood in as umpire and was so impressed by Shania that he made her captain of Mpumalanga too. “He saw how she was with the team and how she motivated them. Her field placements were on point almost every time,” recollects Pieters.
Some cricketers thrive after taking on captaincy, and Shania is clearly in that category. Furthermore, she understands the buck stops with her. If she wanted to, she could have expressed disappointment in eight of her teammates scoring ducks. Instead, she rose to their defence, citing that it was her responsibility to guide the side. She’s a teenager, alright, but one that’s wise beyond her years.
She started playing for the South Africa U-19 girls team earlier this year. Her parents and Pieters believe a call-up to South Africa Women’s squad isn’t too far away, while the Women’s Big Bash League will be desperately wishing to snatch her up but for now, Shania is focussed on the present.
“Let her focus on her priorities and still be a kid,” counsels Pieters. “She must not think of herself as being the best, she can always improve. And knowing her, she wants to improve and she wants to better her scores.”
Seriously? She wants to better 160* in a T20 game? 289 in a one-day game?
Sounds like a certain Virat Kohli, who sees every day as an opportunity to better himself. Well, surprise, surprise — he just happens to be one of her three favourite cricketers, the other two being Sarah Taylor and Charlotte Edwards. Mina elaborates that Shania has even been keeping tabs on Kohli’s performances during the India v England Test series and thinks he is “just amazing”.
The best don’t rest, and if Shania continues to follow the Kohli blueprint to success, this won’t be the last we hear of her exploits. Here’s hoping Shania can get her ducks in a row. Figuratively speaking, of course.
Nisha Shetty is Senior Sub-Editor at Wisden India.
This piece was first published on Wisden India.