Raf Nicholson on Lizelle Lee, who is named as Wisden’s Leading Woman Cricketer in the World in 2021 in the latest edition of the Wisden Almanack.
Since Lizelle Lee made her debut for South Africa in 2013, her calling card has been slogging huge sixes, but last year her focus shifted.
“I didn’t like the tag saying I was only a big hitter,” she says. “So I invested a bit more in my ODI game.” The numbers suggest those efforts paid off: she averaged 90 in the format, and scored 632 runs, over 100 more than anyone else. In March, after a career-best 132 not out against India at Lucknow, she moved top of the ICC rankings.
But, for Lee, 2021 had another story. “It was probably one of my toughest years as a cricketer, mentally,” she says. “I’m one of those players who, when I wake up in the morning, I want to do everything – I want to go and train, I want to play. But at points last year, I didn’t even want to go to bed, because I didn’t want to wake up.”
Her breaking point came at the end of a tour of the West Indies in September. It had been an intense few months following the trip to India, where South Africa won the ODIs 4–1, and Lee was the leading run-scorer, averaging 144. Then came a two-week quarantine period in Croatia en route to England for The Hundred. During that fortnight, her parents both caught severe Covid: “My dad nearly died.” But there was no question of travelling home to be with them. Instead, from England, she went straight to the Caribbean, and into yet another bubble.
On the pitch, everything was great. Playing for Manchester Originals, she was the seventh-leading run-scorer in The Hundred; then, against West Indies, she hit 91 not out, 18, 78 not out and 61, helping South Africa to another ODI series win. But a crisis was brewing: the return home was delayed because of a lack of flights, meaning even less time with her wife, Tanja, before Lee was supposed to dash off to the Big Bash League in Australia. “I cried the whole day,” she says. She decided she needed a break, opted out of the Big Bash and spent several weeks at her parents’ with Tanja. Lee had learned cricket in the backyard from her dad but, for the final three months of 2021, she did not pick up a bat.
The break worked. “I can’t wait to play again,” she says. “I’m feeling very happy.” Yet Lee – who quit her teaching degree after she was offered a fulltime contract by Cricket South Africa in 2014 – is a reminder of the strain Covid has placed on professional cricketers. Even as we celebrate her, we shouldn’t forget the need to nurture players off the field, as well as on it.