Lizelle Lee retired over fears of being dropped, denied NOC for overseas leagues because of poor fitness

Lizelle Lee has admitted that she did not meet CSA’s fitness requirements, and that is what led to her abrupt retirement from international cricket. In an interview with the BBC’s Stumped podcast, Lee revealed that after she failed to complete aspects of the fitness test, she was on the verge of being withdrawn from South Africa’s current tour of England, and the no-objection certificate to play in overseas leagues would have been denied. She chose to retire from the national side instead, which meant she would no longer need NOCs to play for T20 franchises.

The issue came to a head when Lee was required to complete a fitness test before the squad left South Africa. She asked to do it in her parents’ hometown of Ermelo in the North-West Province of South Africa instead of at CSA’s headquarters in Johannesburg because of the cost of travel. Lee weighed herself and sent the results to the team’s fitness trainer, who told her she had to also have her skinfold measured. Lee visited a biokineticist in Ermelo for that test later in the day, but did not weigh herself again because “it fluctuates and it’s small margins”, she said on the podcast. “I’m not going to do it again because if it’s over [the limit] I won’t be eligible for the England tour.” She told the biokineticist she had recorded her weight herself.

She was subsequently selected for the tour and retested on arrival in England in early July, where, according to Lee, her “skinfolds were down but the weight wasn’t even close to where I thought it’d be”.

“We have to make sure, especially with women, the things that really count have to count more – like running and skills, all of those things that actually contribute towards winning instead of how people look”

Lizelle Lee

CSA asked Lee for an explanation and established that Lee’s weight had not been verified by the biokineticist. In an email to CSA staff on July 5, Lee said she knew that she should have tested her weight again but didn’t, “because I was afraid that it might differ from the morning which might result in me not being selected” and conceded she “that was wrong and that I should have done it there”.

The following day – July 6 – Lee was informed via email that she would be withdrawn from the squad. In communication between CSA and Lee, seen by ESPNcricinfo, CSA also said it would exercise its right to withhold an NOC for participation in leagues until she “met and maintained workload and fitness requirements”. CSA has since confirmed it was confident Lee could use the six to eight weeks away from the national squad in June and July ahead of The Hundred to meet the requirements if she returned home. They were also worried about her form and hoped she could work while at home on that too. Prior to the tour, Lee had played seven ODIs in 2022 and scored 81 runs at an average of 11.57, including five single-figure knocks.

Lee, however, was concerned that she would not get an NOC in time for The Hundred, which would have considerable financial implications, especially as she had just become a parent. “It was a lot of money,” she said. “We needed it. We’re a young family. So I just said I was going to retire.”

Through CSA, she initially issued a statement saying she was ready to focus on the next phase of her career but, days later, tweeted that national coach Hilton Moreeng was aware of CSA’s intention to deny her the NOC. That was in response to Moreeng telling a press conference he had no knowledge of the Lee situation.

Lee accused CSA of failing to offer her any resources to help her lose weight. “I never got any support from CSA with that,” she said. “They never asked me ‘what do you need, what can we do to help you lose weight’. That’s something that I have had to do on my own.” CSA has denied that assertion.

Lee recognised that CSA was “in their rights to do that [withhold the NOC] and that’s 100% fine”, but criticised their fitness requirements. She said that bracketing an athlete’s ability to run along with their skin folds and weight is not a true measure of cricketing ability and would prefer that the cardiovascular and body composition components be separated.

“I understand the running, if you don’t make the running, they don’t see you as fit enough to play which I think is probably fine,” she said. “The big thing that just got me is that I made fitness physically, I did the running that I had to do. Basically, I’m fit to play, and I had this conversation with them before Ireland because I got dropped in Ireland because of my weight as well, and I told them ‘you’re dropping me because of the way I look and how much I weigh’ and they said ‘no, we’re dropping you because you failed the fitness battery’.

“I said ‘yes, but if you break the fitness battery down, what did I not make? I made the fitness, the running, but not the weight. So you’re dropping me because of weight’. So as a woman that breaks me.”

Lee’s gender is the reason CSA did not make these details public, with several officials citing an understanding of the sensitivity of body-image issues facing women as a reason to keep the matter private.

In early 2020, CSA held a conditioning camp for Tabraiz Shamsi, Lungi Ngidi, JJ Smuts, Lungi Ngidi and Sisanda Magala targeted at, among other things, their weight. At the end of the camp, all four players took fitness tests and Magala was the only one who did not pass. He was subsequently left out of an ODI squad to play England and his challenges have been well documented. Magala, despite being the leading wicket-taker in the domestic one-day cup in the 2021-22 season, will continue to be unavailable for national selection until he meets the fitness requirements.

Lee asked for a complete relook at the process of fitness tests, especially for women. “We have to make sure, especially with women, the things that really count have to count more – like running and skills, all of those things that actually contribute towards winning instead of how people look.”

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent

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