Bullish England stand between Proteas and history

Sometime shortly after South Africa scraped past India in their final round-robin match of the women’s World Cup in Dunedin on Sunday, they would have experienced an epiphany or, rather, several epiphanies rolled into one.

They would have become tantalisingly aware, for instance, that they’re two knock-out matches from winning a World Cup, a situation that requires them to beat England in Thursday’s semi-final and, in all probability, Australia after that (who play the West Indies in tomorrow’s first semi-final). 

Said rolling epiphany would also have revealed that what they have done in the tournament until now — five plucky wins out of seven with shared points from an abandonment — has less worth than the Zimbabwean dollar.

They’re now playing knock-out cricket without a safety net. The gravity of the moment can bend even the strongest minds.

Yes, South Africa beat England in the round-robin stage by three wickets; yes, they showed their mettle to score edge-of-the seat victories against India and New Zealand. But all this is irrelevant now. They must play England, who have turned their fortunes around after losing their first three matches, and who will be well-prepared and bullish after wrestling their campaign back from the brink.

Happily for South Africa, they are taking on England with their strongest possible combination. After missing the Australia and West Indies matches because of injury, Masabata Klaas was back for the India match, which gave the South African attack much-needed balance.

In taking two for 38 in eight overs she dismissed Indian skipper, Mithali Raj (68) and opener, Smriti Mandhana (71), conceding the fewest number of boundaries of any South African bowler. She didn’t bowl as many as, say Marizanne Kapp or Shabnim Ismael (and she did go for the innings’ only six) but with her back Suné Luus has control, something she conspicuously lacked when Tumi Sekhukhune took Klaas’ place against Australia.

As far as South Africa’s batting is concerned, the good news first. Against India, Laura Wolfaardt, with a 79-ball 80, and Lara Goodall (49) put on a second-wicket stand of 125, a partnership that laid the foundation for what followed. South Africa have struggled with the number three position all tournament, alternating between Tazmin Brits and Goodall, but Sunday’s game finally put that debate to rest.

Goodall can look ponderous on her feet but she’s a left-hander (always a plus) who is good through mid-on and mid-wicket. Both openers are right-handers, which means there will always be a left-right-hander combination for the second wicket irrespective of which one of them loses their wicket first. Goodall, for the moment at least, is the answer, and hopefully her knock against India revved up her confidence.

The bad news is that Wolfaardt and Lizelle Lee don’t seem to be clicking as an opening pair. After missing the opening game against Bangladesh, Lee has struggled all tournament, her agonies not helped by the fact that she and Wolfaardt aren’t running well together.

Batting with Wolfaardt, Lee was run out against both New Zealand and India and you rather fancy their inability to dance together is the expression of a deeper problem. Lee is a stand-and-deliver kind of gal, who racks up her runs in boundaries, while Wolfaardt is the quintessential hard-running modern athlete. It seems sometimes that they’re playing in parallel universes.

A batting line-up is always a shifting, dynamic beast, and the South Africans have been helped by Mignon du Preez’ late flowering of form. Not only does it give the middle-order more muscle, but Du Preez brings gravitas and experience to the spine of the side.

Luus is only as good as the core of senior players around her — step forward enforcers like Ismael and Marizanne Kapp — and Du Preez’s presence now that she’s hit her straps is inestimable.

Another player who has blossomed as the tournament has progressed is Luus’s vice-captain, Chloë Tryon. Originally from Scottburgh on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast, Tryon has grown and grown as the competition hits its business end this week.

She was superb in the field against India, taking two good catches and scrambling her way to a nine-ball 17 (three fours) at a time when boundaries were priceless. It’s great to see a player get conspicuously better at a World Cup.

The hours will seem very long for the South Africans this week, with time dragging like a slow, over-burdened beast. Levity will be important — and humour, and camaraderie — but we already know these South African women have this in abundance. Now they must do what many in the team have been waiting an entire career for. Hopefully the moment won’t overwhelm them. They might even enjoy themselves, as they’ve enjoyed themselves in the tournament so far.

The match, which is in Christchurch, where South Africa beat India (which means they haven’t had to travel) is a day-night affair. There will be dew on the outfield and a later start, good news for South Africans who might want to creep to work an hour later than they should do on Thursday morning.

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