Johannesburg – Ayabonga Khaka stood on a dusty road in the village of Ann Shaw in Middledrift in the Eastern Cape with a tennis ball in her hand.
She was the only girl on the field amongst several boys who were gearing up for a game of cricket. She was just seven years old.
The youngster was beaming with excitement as she had never played the sport before.
What would follow would change Ayabonga’s life forever.
She fell in love with the sport, and it would turn into an obsession for the teenager from Middledrift.
“I began regularly playing cricket with the boys in my village,” Ayabonga told the Saturday Star. “I played every sport that was there; cricket, soccer, and everything that the kids were playing at the time. Then, when I went to primary school, I joined the mini-cricket team, and I was the only girl.”
Today, Ayabonga proudly dons the Proteas shirt.
She has played at multiple World Cups and is now preparing to play her very first cricket World Cup on home soil.
The 30-year-old is part of the Proteas team that will aim to make history by becoming the first SA cricket team to win a World Cup at the Women's T20 Cricket World Cup.
Ayabonga says she is thrilled to have the opportunity to play in such a prestigious tournament on home soil.
The World Cup will take place in South Africa in February at three iconic stadiums in the country – Boland Park in Paarl, St George’s Park in Port Elizabeth, and Newlands in Cape Town.
“It’s going to be special for me to play at home, especially playing in front of my loved ones and playing in an area so close to my roots,” she says.
“I am looking forward to the challenge. I have never played an international match at St George’s Park in Gqeberha, so I am looking forward to that too. It’s going to be interesting playing at St George’s Park too. It is a difficult ground to play on with the wind.”
She fancies her team’s chances to make history, having come so close to making a final at last year's World Cup.
The Proteas were eventually eliminated from the World Cup, losing out to Australia.
“We took a lot of inspiration from that. All I wanted to do was to do well for the team. To be in such a tournament and to play against the best in the world, that is where you imagine yourself to be as a player. We also showed the world what we can do. We learned a lot from that experience. It always keeps us going knowing that we can perform at that level.”
Ayabonga has taken a career-high of 27 wickets in a calendar year in ODIs and was named Cricket South Africa’s Player of the Year and Players’ Player of the Year.
“It’s been a great year, with ups and downs too. The series against England was tough, but you learn from those situations. The awards just motivate me, especially when your teammates see what you can do. I am just happy to be able to contribute towards the team’s success.”
While delighted with her performances this year, the bowler says there is still plenty of room for improvement heading into the World Cup.
“There is a lot that I want to improve as a person. I am looking forward to seeing what I can bring in the next season. As long as the team is moving in the right direction and I am contributing to the team, I know what my role is.”
Speaking about her journey to becoming a professional cricketer, Ayabonga says it's been a dream donning the Proteas shirt.
She still clearly remembers the day she made her international debut in 2012.
“It was on an away tour to Bangladesh. There were about 15 000 people in the stadium, which was a lot for someone coming from a very small town in the Eastern Cape.
“I was nervous but had nothing to lose. It gave me the opportunity to express myself, especially playing with people who I looked up to. Although it was overwhelming, I enjoyed every minute of it.”