Cricket

Love, not money, driving White Ferns import

She could have been duelling with Lydia Ko. Instead Bernadine Bezuidenhout is playing alongside Suzie Bates and Katey Martin – and she couldn’t be happier. Steve Deane reports.

There aren’t too many times when an athlete declares a major career move is ‘not about the money’, when that disclaimer appears overly credible.

Yes, it’s always possible that an All Black departing for a stint at Toshiba deeply values the opportunity to immerse themselves in a vibrant new culture. Or wants to test their schoolboy French in Toulon. But, for the most part, it’s about the money.

That’s certainly not a charge that can be levelled at New Zealand’s latest South African cricketing refugee, White Ferns batter and back-up wicket-keeper, Bernadine Bezuidenhout.

Having debuted for her native South Africa at 21, the now Kiwi international does occupy a rare space. Bezuidenhout’s decision to switch nationalities - by serving a two-year stand-down period, that mid-stream became a mandatory three years with the stroke of an ICC pen - unquestionably isn’t about the money.

For starters, despite its burgeoning international profile, there isn’t much money in international women’s cricket. And, having already turned her back on a potentially vastly more lucrative professional golfing career, Bezuidenhout has a few runs on the board, so to speak.

“Life is too short to do something just for the sake of money,” she says on the eve of a T20 World Cup the White Ferns enter believing they are a genuine title shot.

“I really wanted to pursue my love of sport instead of going after money.”

As a 17-year-old, she was hand-picked by experienced golf pro and South Africa national coach Val Holland for a spot in the prestigious Academy at Fancourt, and then offered a full scholarship to play college golf in the United States. But she then stepped off a pathway that could well have led to the cash-rich LPGA Tour.

Bezuidenhout, who is also a talented hockey player, played enough golf to learn that solo sports weren’t for her.

“I decided I missed the team environment. [Golf] was a very lonely sport," she says. "I was lucky enough to have a sponsor to pay for my tournaments, but it became very lonely on tour. I just decided that the team environment was better for me.”

Three years after recommitting to cricket, she debuted for South Africa against England at the age of just 20. She would play four ODIs and seven T20Is for the country of her birth, before deciding to follow a now well-worn path out of a nation seriously afflicted by violent crime.

“I made the move up to New Zealand for a safer, better life,” she says. “Obviously cricket played an aspect in that – it definitely played a role. I’ve always admired the Kiwi girls. I grew up watching Haidee Tiffen and Suzie Bates at world cups.”

She also grew up hitting golf balls at her uncle’s driving range in Kimberley, a land-locked city in South Africa’s Free State known for its vast diamond mine – and not much else.

By the time she finished primary school she was hitting golf balls well enough to be offered a place at Holland’s golf academy in George, the main urban centre in the spectacular area of the Eastern Cape known as the Garden Route.

The region is a golfing mecca – a far cry from industrial, sun-baked Highveld town Kimberley.

“It is still where I was born so it will always have a wee place in my heart,” Bezuidenhout says of Kimberley. “But it is not my favourite city to be honest. I did prefer George and Cape Town.”

Most do.

Beautiful as it is, the Garden Route would prove to be but a staging point on a journey that would eventually take Bezuidenhout to New Zealand for a new life – and a new sporting career.

“I knew that if I put in the work I could possibly become a White Fern,” she says.

A change to the ICC rules pushed back her eligibility by a year, but she didn’t have to wait long after clearing that hurdle in March - a month later being called up for the tour of England and Ireland to serve as Katey Martin’s understudy with the gloves, and a hard-hitting option in the lower middle order.

“When I did get the call-up it was an amazing experience,” she says. “It was very proud moment in my life.”

With Martin closing in on 34, Bezuidenhout appears to be the White Ferns keeper-in-waiting. For now, though, she is content to fill a back-up role and do her best to impress with the bat. She’s certainly in no hurry to depose Martin.

“Marty is a great person and a good coach for me as well. I’ve learned a lot from her. She’s a great human being, always willing to give advice wherever she can," she says.

“I just want the team to do well and she is definitely the person for that role, currently. Look, I still want to play another 10 years of international cricket. I’m willing to wait. I love batting as well, so if I am seen as just a batter then I am happy to play – anything to put on the White Ferns gear at the end of the day. But, also, whatever is best for the team. I’m not too worried about anything away from that.”

Based on the warm-up matches in Australia and a first hit-out in the West Indies against Sri Lanka, Bezuidenhout will slot into the batting order at six or seven for the T20 World Cup, and be tasked with chasing fast runs. Her results to date have been mixed, however a sparkling 20 at the death against Australia - that included two sixes - showed what she is capable of.

Although the Ferns were swept 3-0 by Australia and managed just a lone ODI victory against England, they fancy their chances over the coming weeks in the Caribbean.

“We really enjoy the [T20] format,” Bezuidenhout says. “We play an explosive brand of cricket and if we click on the day, I think we can beat any team.

“Obviously our experienced players are among the best in the world – with Amy Satterthwaite, Sophie Devine and Suzie Bates – and we’ve got one of the quickest bowlers in the world, if not the quickest, in Lea Tahuhu.

“It’s definitely a talented unit. The sky is the limit for us really.”

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