New Delhi [India], February 4 (ANI): South Africa and India will launch their bids to qualify directly for the ICC Women's World Cup 2021 when they square-off against each other in a first round fixture of the ICC Women's Championship next week.
At the backend of the ODI series, with memories of the ICC Women's World Cup 2017 still fresh in the minds of both teams, they will also play five T20Is, which will not count towards the ICC Women's Championship. However, the matches will have an impact on the MRF Tyres ICC Women's Team Rankings on which India is presently ranked fourth and South Africa sixth.
Kimberley will be the venue of the ODIs on February 5 and 7, while the series will finish with the final match in Potchefstroom on February 10.
When the two sides met in the inaugural edition of the ICC Women's Championship in Bengaluru in November 2014, South Africa had won the series 2-1.
When the two sides met again in the ICC Women's World Cup Qualifier in Sri Lanka in February 2017 after failing to finish in the top four of the ICC Women's Championship, India beat South Africa by 49 runs in a Super Six match and then in the final by one wicket.
In the ICC Women's World Cup match in Leicester in July 2017, South Africa were comfortable winners by 115 runs.
While next week's matches promise to be exciting and well-contested affairs, rival captains still had last year's groundbreaking tournament in their minds.
"I cannot believe it's already been six months, feels like yesterday. It's honestly still very raw for me personally, I think it'll be for a while. I'm sure for most of our players it's the same," remarked South Africa's 24-year-old captain Dane van Niekerk.
"We absolutely gave 120 percent in that World Cup. The good thing about that loss I guess is that it made us hungry for more and the team has been training for just that. The ICC, together with the ECB, did an amazing job of advertising the World Cup and I believe that it got the world's attention. Back home, SuperSport televised all our games and that had a huge impact on women's cricket in our country. It can only grow from strength to strength and I cannot wait see what the next few years hold for women's cricket," she added.
India captain Mithali Raj, who is the world's number-one ranked batter, believed her side will now be under more scrutiny following a stunning performance in England where they lost the final to England in a cliff-hanger in front of a packed Lord's.
"Every match will be scrutinised by people, by the critics, by everybody, because now people have seen the actual standard of women's cricket and the Indian team. So, yes from now on whatever matches that we get to play, will be closely watched by all of them (and) followed by all the cricket fanatic people in our country as well as around the world," Raj said.
"And, it is also important that when the matches are televised or even if they are not, that players and the teams improve the standard of women's cricket and showcase the best brand of cricket, because that's how we are perhaps going to have more viewers," she added.
However, the two outstanding ambassadors of women's cricket were quick to switch their focus to the ICC Women's Championship, agreeing that next week's matches were the start of the process for qualifying directly for the ICC Women's World Cup 2021.
Van Niekerk, who is the ninth-ranked bowler in the world, remarked, "It is a fresh start for us as a very tight unit. We don't want to go through the qualifiers again and that means we need to hit the ground running from game one."
Raj concurred with her opposite number, when she said, "It is important to get points under our belt, so the three ODIs are going to be very important because it is a fresh start to the ICC Women's Championship. We definitely are looking forward to being in the top four, so that we get a direct entry; that's our aim. But to get there I think it is important that we get as many points as we can."
She also didn't mince her words when she said that she would like to see her bowlers improve their batting skills.
"I think the first thing is definitely that the bowlers need to bat. That is something I would consider very important. I would want all my bowlers to contribute (with the bat) in the lower-order," she said.
"Our fast bowling department also needs to tighten up a little bit. Yes, we have Jhulan Goswami as the most experienced bowler, but other than that, we need to groom a couple of youngsters by the 2021 World Cup. So, we have these two-three years where we can work on them during these matches. We can give chances to young fast bowlers and mould them by 2021," she concluded.
Next week's matches will also see the return of some of the most outstanding players from the World Cup, who also feature prominently in the MRF Tyres ICC Women's Rankings.
Apart from Raj, who was the second most successful batter in England, fifth-ranked Harmanpreet Kaur, 16-ranked Poonam Raut, 26th-ranked Deepti Sharma (all batters), number-two ranked Jhulan Goswami, 14th-ranked Ekta Bisht, 15th-ranked Shikha Pandey and 16th-ranked Rajeshwari Gayakwad (all bowlers) will be in Indian gear.
While in the green kits will be eighth-ranked Lizelle Lee, 14th-ranked Mignon du Preez, 19th-ranked Laura Wolvaardt, 23rd-ranked van Niekerk, 24th-ranked Trisha Chetty (all batters), number-one ranked Marizanne Kapp, eighth-ranked Ayabonga Khaka, 10th-ranked Shibnam Ismail and 24th-ranked Sune Luus (all bowlers). (ANI)