At age 22, most people would expect Lauren Agenbag to be playing cricket instead of umpiring it, given the huge development in South African women’s cricket.
But the woman whose WhatsApp profile status reads: “Men make history. Women make herstory” – an in-joke from three years ago, when making her tentative steps to becoming an umpire – had other ideas from an early age.
“I guess I should still be playing,” she laughs. “But I decided at 18 that I didn’t want to play any more. I can’t give you a reason, but I didn’t quite enjoy playing anymore, so I had to step out of playing.
“I still wanted to be involved in the game. I tried coaching and didn’t enjoy it, so I decided to try umpiring. I attended a women’s umpiring association monthly meeting and they said if I wanted to do it, I should do it as soon as possible.”
Four years later, the final-year Sport and Exercise Technology student made history by becoming the first woman to umpire an international T20 game when the Proteas women’s team played their Sri Lankan counterparts last month.
While the International Cricket Council doesn’t have definitive records, the achievement possibly makes Agenbag the youngest umpire in history – although she sounded more stoked about doing it at picturesque Newlands.
“I was a bit nervous at the beginning, but the protocols team around me helped me a lot and I could get through the game quite well.
“It’s a different experience when you’ve got all the cameras on you. But once I got into the game, I could focus on the job at hand and forget about all the outside influences. It was awesome being able to have my debut at Newlands, one of the most beautiful grounds in the world.”
It wasn’t long before the rookie umpire was faced with making a big call in front of the cameras: “There was an LBW decision where Dane van Niekerk went down on the sweep and it hit her back leg, and the Sri Lankans went up for an appeal. That one was quite tight, but I gave it not out because the contact was outside the line of off stump.”
The significance of that is Agenbag, who began playing cricket aged eight after tagging along with her scorer mother, had actually played with many of the Proteas players, Van Niekerk included, when playing provincial cricket for Northerns in her native Pretoria.
But officiating players who were her seniors is not something she allows to cloud her decision making. “We tend to keep our boundaries. You can’t be too friendly with the players. You try to make sure there are boundaries and the players don’t overstep them by becoming too friendly. But I can’t think of a situation like that happening.”
Still, there have been attempts at using Agenbag’s age to test her authority: “It does happen a bit, but for a year and a half I’ve been working hard at trying to manage being put under pressure. Basically, you try to portray a positive body language and confidence to the players.”
Agenbag had better get used to pressure, given that she wants to make a proper living out of umpiring, which should be a career lasting the best part of three decades when you look at how old she is. “I’m hoping to take it as far as it can take me – I want to make a career for myself. It takes hard work, especially if you have ambitions of becoming a professional umpire. It’s small things like law knowledge, playing conditions knowledge, your set-up, body language ... it takes hard work to fine tune.”
Given that she seems determined, if not destined, to make “herstory”, Agenbag would love to push on to become the first woman to officiate a men’s game. Considering how she’s fared at bars, where cricket has been aired on TVs around the country, her ability to stun men with her knowledge should make it an attainable target.
“I’ve had a couple of times where we’re watching cricket and people will say something and I’ll say: ‘No, that was the right decision’, and explain what the law says. We would then discuss that and afterwards a couple of guys have asked how I know that. I’ve had to tell them: ‘I’m a cricket umpire. I sort of have to know the laws...’”