As a child, Hilton Moreeng was taught to play cricket by a woman. In December 2012, Moreeng, then 34, completed a neat circle of life when he took over as coach of the South Africa women’s team. He also became the country’s first black African national coach, a pioneer in more ways than one.
Moreeng’s career began when he was in primary school, under the care of a teacher called Ma Sara Swart. She started a mini-cricket programme in Kimberley, a city best known for diamond mines, and she had several raw gems among her crop. Loots Bosman, Victor Mpitsang and Moreeng were among the children she coached.
“She dedicated herself to cricket, her whole life was transformed by it,” Eugene Jacobs, Northern Cape Cricket’s CEO, who has been involved in cricket in the region for more than two decades, said. “If you went to her house, there was just cricket everywhere.”
Around the time Swart was coaching Moreeng and Co, several overseas professionals, mostly English, made use of South Africa’s provincial sides to keep their cricketing skills warm over their winter. Not only did these players help South Africa stay in touch with the global game, they also played their part in setting up cricket development programmes either side of unification.
David Bairstow, the father of current England international Jonny, was one such. He helped establish a cricket club in Galeshewe, a township in Kimberley close to where Swart and the kids she taught lived. The club was named in his honour: Yorkshire Cricket Club. The irony is too good to ignore. While the north of England has a reputation for being damp with drizzle, the Northern Cape of South Africa is very arid. The club field was no Headingley, but it gave Swart’s squad somewhere to graduate to when they outgrew mini-cricket.
The Yorkshire club was where Moreeng first began coaching. Although chiefly concerned with playing, from the age of 15, he was also taking care of younger kids of both genders.
“It was just to help, because it was the culture of the club that the senior players would assist. It created continuity for the club,” he said.
Bosman and Mpitsang were among the standout players at the club and began to climb the cricketing ladder, but Moreeng lagged behind. He was on the fringes of the Griqualand squad, and even though he was convinced to take up wicketkeeping as an additional discipline, he could not crack the nod ahead of Morne van Wyk. It quickly became clear that he might not have a future as a professional player.
“But he didn’t bemoan his fortune. He looked for other opportunities,” Jacobs said.
Moreeng moved to the big city – Bloemfontein – and worked at the University of the Free State, where he spent some time as a groundsman.
Jacobs watched his progress from afar and was keen to have Moreeng back in his home town. After several attempts, he convinced Moreeng to return to Kimberley for a meeting. Over a meal at Nando’s, he offered him the job of club coordinator in the Northern Cape, which Moreeng accepted.
The job was far-reaching, if only because of the vastness of the region. The Northern Cape is geographically the largest province in the country but also its most sparsely populated. The drive from Kimberley to Springbok, a town on the edge of the Namibian border, is around 800km. Jacobs still makes trips to and fro over weekends, if need be.
With clubs scattered all over the region, Moreeng had his work cut out for him in putting together a programme. “He is a very careful planner and meticulous about the way he goes about things,” Jacobs said.
After a few years, the bright lights of Bloemfontein called again and Moreeng left, this time to take up work at a disability school.
“For me, it just spoke of the character of the man, because he wanted to go somewhere where he thought he could really make a difference,” Jacobs said.
On completion of that job, Moreeng had coached at every conceivable lower level, from club to school, and the only logical step was upwards. He became the coach of the Free State provincial side.
In 2012, he saw the that the position for coach of the national women’s side was being advertised. By then, Cricket South Africa had secured a sponsorship with financial institution Momentum, who, along with securing naming rights to the men’s ODI team and the domestic 50-over competition, wanted to add the women’s team to their portfolio, even though CSA was not looking for corporate backing for the side. That initial investment allowed CSA to award six women’s contracts and appoint a full-time coach.
Moreeng was interviewed but then agonised over whether to take the job. Jacobs remembers several phone calls between them as Moreeng tried to weigh up whether he was making the right decision by moving into women’s coaching.
His concerns were well placed. Despite the newly acquired financial backing, at that stage the women’s game was mostly run in an amateur fashion. Most of the players, even the newly contracted ones, had to work at other jobs for a living, and cricket was an after-hours activity. Even team camps were difficult to organise because not all the players could make themselves available at the same time.
The environment was challenging but Moreeng stepped into it at just the right time. Within a year, CSA, with the money from Momentum and its own additional funding, was able to contract a full 14-member squad. Now cricket could become the primary focus for the top women players.
By April 2015, South Africa women had won one-day series in India, Sri Lanka and the UAE against Pakistan. The win in India was the most important to Moreeng. “That series gave us a proper indication of where the team was,” he said.
“When I first started in cricket, I never thought that would be the case for women, but mindsets are slowly changing”
Moreeng saw that he had a lot of raw talent in players like Shabnim Ismail, whom he described as “always being fired up”, Mignon du Preez, the captain, who he allowed to step down when she wanted to concentrate on her own game, Dane van Niekerk, Lizelle Lee, Sune Luus, Masabata Klaas and others. What he needed to give those players was the confidence to perform to their potential.
“The disciplines of the game are the same for men and women, so coaching has some of the same elements too. You have to give them the best opportunities to explore their talent. They need to be able to make decisions themselves and not always be looking at you as the coach for instruction.
“We re-enact a lot of game situations and see how they handle pressure. There’s a lot of repetition involved, because the more you do something, the more confident you become in doing it.”
With the players now able to spend more time working on their game, Moreeng saw his methods were working. “Since the women became full-time, they have become stronger and smarter cricketers. Globally women’s cricket is much more competitive than it was before, where you had the same teams dominating. There have been a lot of tight games and higher scores.”
Under Moreeng, South Africa got their first ODI wins over England and West Indies. South Africa still struggle against more developed teams, like Australia and New Zealand, but they are closing the gap fast, and Moreeng has been a key factor in their advancement.
When they hosted New Zealand for a seven-match one-day series last October, Moreeng felt they looked out of depth, after losing the first ODI by 12 runs.
“He realised the team needed something he could not provide, so he phoned and asked me to organise a psychologist,” Jacobs said. “He said it must be a woman, must be young and vibrant.
“She spoke to them for two and a half hours, and the next day they beat New Zealand.”
The women’s team does not have the same level of specialised coaching as the men’s team, a luxury Moreeng would welcome as it would allow him to “pay much closer attention to detail”. Instead, he has tried to teach himself more skills and has shadowed Russell Domingo, the men’s coach, for inspiration. It’s not a bad choice, considering how much the two have in common.
Like Domingo, Moreeng does not have first-class playing experience but has gained a deep knowledge of the game through years of coaching. They are both pioneers – Domingo is the first national coach of colour, Moreeng is the first black African national coach. Both have the pressure to meet major tournament expectations: CSA has set the women’s team a target of reaching the World Cup semi-finals.
But Moreeng has another aim. “He wants to make sure they beat England,” Jacobs said. “Because he believes that if they do that, they have a chance to win the World Cup.”
Like Domingo, Moreeng is chasing history.
It’s not unreasonable to think that Moreeng may even have an eye on Domingo’s job, though not quite yet. For now, he is coy about whether he will consider applying for the men’s head coach job – which is up for grabs at the end of South Africa’s tour of England, in August.
Jacobs thinks Moreeng may need to tick another box along the way. “It would be nice for him to get an opportunity to coach a franchise and then grow from there.”
In the meantime, the continued professionalisation of the women’s game has opened a door Moreeng did not think existed when he first started coaching. “It’s put some pressure on us to make sure the next generation of women’s cricketers are ready,” Moreeng said.
Though more women are playing cricket in South Africa than ever before – 35% of all mini-cricketers are girls, and all CSA’s provincial members have a women’s cricket programme, compared to three years ago, when six of the 14 did not have anything in place – it is still difficult to get a steady supply of female players.
“There are social pressures. A lot of girls get to 16 or so and then we lose them,” Moreeng said.
A few are drawn to other sports, like hockey, athletics and netball. Most go on to more conventional careers, but Moreeng hopes they will soon start to see cricket as a viable option.
“When I first started in cricket, I never thought that would be the case for women, but mindsets are slowly changing.”
There’s no greater proof than the man himself.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent
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