There was a time when the phrases ‘throw like a girl’ or ‘run like a girl’ were considered insults. These days, they’re not; especially not if you are a member of the South African women’s cricket team.

They are the only African side to have qualified for the Women’s World Cup, which is being played in England now. Their presence is a result of steady progression which has peaked over the last three years thanks to increased corporate backing and a more structured cricket program and could show the rest of the continent how rich the rewards of investing in women’s sport can be.

Four years ago, the South African women’s game was managed in much the same way as an amateur competition, where the main reward for involvement was enjoyment. Things started to change in early 2013. Financial institution Momentum had just bought the naming rights to the men’s one-day international squad and the domestic one-day cup and expressed an interest in extending their sponsorship to the women, a property that was not up for sale at the time.

“When we became involved in cricket sponsorship, it was with the intention of getting our brand out here but we also wanted to leave a legacy which showcased our values; things like diversity and gender equality,” says Danie van den Burgh, head of Momentum to FORBES WOMAN AFRICA.

“We saw an opportunity in women’s cricket and asked Cricket SA but they told us it was not something they were considering getting a sponsor for because they hadn’t had anyone interested. We wanted to get involved so we made them an offer and from there it just snowballed.”

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Momentum’s money made an immediate impact. Cricket SA could employ a full-time women’s coach, Hilton Moreeng, and awarded six players professional contracts. A year later that number was increased to 14, which meant that a full squad was being paid for their efforts. The effects on the field were immense.

In October 2014, the South African women’s team made their first trip to Sri Lanka – and crucial because that country would also host the World Cup qualifiers three years later – and won. Then, they traveled to India and the United Arab Emirates, notoriously difficult places for teams to tour, and won series against both India and Pakistan. Although the South African women could not repeat those feats at home in the full series against the powerhouses of England and West Indies, they made gains by beating both sides in a single match for the first time. Victories over Bangladesh, Ireland and Zimbabwe followed to confirm South Africa’s presence as one of the better sides in the women’s game and prepare them for what Moreeng hopes will be a successful World Cup.

“We are very excited and proud, especially when we look at where we came from and the amount of work we put in. From Momentum coming on board, to players becoming professional, the number of series we played, and the opportunities to play cricket against top teams in the world and test our skills,” he says.

“This team have been playing together for the last three years so the growth and the maturity of the squad is very good. Performances around the world have been very good. They are a team that travels well and can win away from home.”

England is a challenging destination for touring teams because of conditions. The ball swings early on but South Africa’s women have the resources to deal with that. The top-ranked bowler in the world, Marizanne Kapp, is in their squad, along with four other players who participated in a T20 tournament in the United Kingdom last year.

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Captain Dane van Niekerk, batsman Lizelle Lee and fast bowler Shabnim Ismail, all played for English teams in the Kia Super League – a monetized event similar to the Indian Premier League – last year. Accompanying them to the World Cup are youngsters like Laura Wolvaardt, an 18-year-old who already has a century to her name, and Raisibe Ntozakhe, an offspinner who made her debut in the series directly producing the World Cup and began playing cricket as a six-year-old with boys.

The balance of experience and youth and their common drive is what Van Niekerk hopes will set them apart. “We’ve got a purpose as a team and that’s to win a World Cup. It’s been a long and grueling process to get to this but we all bought into it,” she says.

Moreover, the team have plenty of people they want to impress, not least because they will receive an unprecedented level of coverage. All South Africa’s matches at the Women’s World Cup will be televised on pay channel SuperSport, a massive upsurge considering that the first time they ever appeared on a live broadcast was in 2014.

“It’s awesome to be able to share this with the country. It’s really special for our families because we can’t always get them to other countries so for them to be able to watch one of the biggest tournaments of our careers is really touching,” says Van Niekerk.

South Africa’s increased efforts in promoting the women’s game are a reflection of a changing global trend. At the macro-level, the International Cricket Council (ICC) has realized women’s sport deserves more attention and is providing it. Prize money for the Women’s World Cup has increased ten-fold from $200,000 in 2013 to $2 million this year.

“This is the first step towards greater parity and recognition. The change will not happen overnight but the women’s game is crucial to the global growth of cricket,” says ICC CEO Dave Richardson.

For Cricket SA’s general manager Corrie van Zyl, a massive monetary incentive like that could help convince more women to take up the game and to realize there’s great pride to be taken in throwing and running like a girl.

“It shows them that cricket can become a career,” he says. Touche! – Written by Firdose Moonda