Cricket World Cup: Do the Proteas tick all the boxes?

The South African women’s cricket side, who begin their T20 World Cup campaign against Bangladesh in Dunedin on Saturday, go into the tournament in New Zealand having won five white-ball series on the bounce. The statistic is superficially impressive, but merits scrutiny.

Does it mean that the South Africans are dead certs to bring home the bacon? Certainly not. Does it mean that they’re a side high on confidence, with a pleasing blend of young and old, playing a tournament so far away from home that mind-bending expectation is a far-off concern? Yes, it probably does.

With that out of the way, it is only right to point out that — in the parlance of the day — the SA women appear to tick all the right boxes. They have hard-hitting batters like Lizelle Lee, sublime technicians like Laura Wolfaardt (who scored 117 against the West Indies in the third ODI of the series last month) and old hands like their captain, Suné Luus, and Mignon du Preez adding backbone to their middle-order.

As far as bowling is concerned, they have a vastly experienced 33-year-old fast-bowler like Shabnim Ismail in their midst, as well as the more sedate talents of medium-pacer, Ayabonga Khaka, who took three for 23 in her seven overs during Sunday’s two-run warm-up loss to India.

Overall they have skill, they have savvy. Importantly, they are well-balanced, having seen most of what international women’s cricket can throw at them.

What they do not have is the experience of progressing beyond the semi-finals of major tournaments. This is important because once this T20 World Cup gets to the semi-finals (something on the tournament format in a moment) it becomes rather like a gunfight or a high-stakes poker game. Blinking first is not advised.

More often than not the team — and sometimes just sundry individuals within that team — who hold their nerve best are the ones who prevail. Paul Collingwood, the interim coach with the England men’s side currently in the Caribbean, always used to say when he was a player that in white-ball cricket “you always have more time than you think” as the overs are running down.

This is true, but is easier to accept abstractly than it is to act upon. Sooner or later, the SA women will need to confront what the former Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, colourfully called “squeaky bum time”.

The tournament design has a pleasing symmetry to it, all eight teams playing each other in venues across New Zealand, with the top four progressing to the semi-finals, first playing fourth and second playing third. 

“We like the idea of visiting all the venues and playing all over the country — we think there’s a simplicity to it,” says Kruger van Wyk, who is part of the women’s team management as a consultant. “We’re comfortable with the idea that moving around will test our skills.”

If the name Van Wyk rings distant bells, that’s probably because he was once the Titans’ keeper before hot-footing to New Zealand. Once qualified, he played 12 Tests for the Black Caps in becoming an honorary Kiwi. He’s been back in South Africa for nigh on 10 years and his technical expertise with the women (not to mention his insider’s knowledge) is invaluable.

He knows the wind blows in Wellington and that, with autumn approaching, dew could be a factor in some of the matches. The ball will need to be protected and kept dry and sometimes, because of its heaviness, it won’t reach the boundary. Everything will need to be chased down as March approaches April and temperatures drop, particularly on the South Island. Every run will need to be, well, run.

Van Wyk diplomatically poured water on the notion that the South Africans were advantaged by their schedule, which sees a theoretically easy opener against Bangladesh followed by more demanding fixtures against tournament favourites like England and Australia. “You always need to beat the really good sides at some stage in a tournament like this, so we’re not really too concerned about the format,” he says.

For those who are interested in these kinds of things, the women’s World Cup has an interesting history. Played in England in 1973, the first women’s tournament pre-dated the men’s inaugural event, which was played for the first time in 1975.

Played over 60 overs, the women’s competition was both ahead of its time and a slightly tepid affair, with England, Australia and New Zealand featured alongside an International X1 (one in their midst, a Trinidadian called Donna Carmino, only ever played in one game of international cricket, scoring a duck), Young England and Trinidad and Tobago.

This month’s competition will be very different: well-organised, well-patronised and keenly followed. The women’s game has come a long way.

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