In their most recent series in 2008, world no. 1 England beat South Africa 5-0, but the present SA focus is on the ICC World Cup Qualifying tournament in Bangladesh, for which the stern test is expected to pay dividends. In this file photo, SA keeper Trisha Chetty is a spectator as Sarah Taylor clobbers another delivery to the boundary during their Natwest Women's Series match, in Canterbury, England. Photo: Christopher Lee

The South African women’s team will be facing their biggest challenge for some years when they play world number one England at Senwes Park in Potchefstroom. The three-match ODI and three-match T20 series will take place from 17 to 31 October 2011.

Coach Yashin Ebrahim-Hassen and captain Cri-Zelda Brits are undaunted. “We’re definitely up for the challenge,” enthused Brits.

“I believe the gap between the top four teams and the rest is getting smaller all the time, and so we are not intimidated at about playing the world champions. Cricket is such a funny game, you never know what is going to happen. If we have a good day, who knows?” she continued.

Brits said the team was very focussed on preparations for the ICC World Cup Qualifying tournament in Bangladesh in November, where the Proteas and nine other teams will be vying for four places in the 2013 ICC Women’s World Cup in India. England, Australia, India and New Zealand have already qualified, after finishing in the top four places in 2009.

“This series against England will give us a very good idea of where we stand,” said Brits. “We didn’t play against England at the last World Cup, but they are the champions, and we want to test ourselves against the very best before we go on to the qualifiers in Bangladesh.”

South Africa, currently ranked fifth in the world, are among the top teams competing in the qualifying tournament, and are widely expected to go through to the 2013 tournament.

The other teams playing in the qualifiers are Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the United States, the West Indies and Zimbabwe.

Brits said the series against England was important to the way in which women’s cricket was viewed in South Africa. “We know that teams like England have been in the same place we are now, but they’ve moved ahead,” she said.

“If we are going to compete against the top four, we have to prove our potential to everyone out there. We also have to prove that we are willing to work hard. We have to put up a good show against England.

“If we do, the other top teams would be willing to play us, and we would be exposed to more and better cricket. So there is a lot hanging on this series. I can promise you that we will be playing with a lot of passion.”

The last series between South Africa and England took place in the United Kingdom in 2008, where England achieved a 5-0 whitewash over the tourists, but Ebrahim-Hassen is confident his team will be much more competitive in the series in Potchefstroom.

“This is a young team, but they are very fit and they are mentally very well prepared,” he said. “I’m quietly confident that we are going to give a very good account of ourselves.

“We might lose the series 3-0. But what is important is the manner in which we lose,” said Ebrahim-Hassen.

Cricket South Africa (CSA), with support from the National Lotto, has put in place a high performance programme for the top players to help them compete at the highest level.

“We have a professional coach for the elite players, and we have also brought on board assistant coaches to help with skills training,” said CSA Senior Cricket Manager Max Jordaan.

He said other specialists, such as a video analyst to study matches and players, a bio-kineticist and a team manager had also been appointed. “We have also introduced a match fee for international matches. Many of the players have to take unpaid leave to be able to play, and the match fee helps a bit,” said Jordaan.

He said players had responded well to the introduction of the high performance programme, with some who had retired two years ago returning to the game.

The first ODI will start on Friday 21 October.