South Africa seeks history against England in unexpected World Cup semi

 abc.net.au  7/18/2017 2:21:15 AM   Geoff Lemon in Bristol

Posted July 18, 2017 12:21:15

For the longest time, women's cricket was all about England and Australia. The two sides shaped up for the first Test in 1934, and of 138 Test matches since, 119 have involved at least one or the other.

When short-form tournaments began, the two traded winner and runner-up status. New Zealand eventually broke through for a cheeky World Cup in 2000, the West Indies made a couple of global finals from 2013, while India's slow emergence is a dozen years old and counting.

WWC winners

  • 1973: England
  • 1978: Australia
  • 1982: Australia
  • 1988: Australia
  • 1993: England
  • 1997: Australia
  • 2000: New Zealand
  • 2005: Australia
  • 2009: England
  • 2013: Australia

Unsurprisingly, the two countries with the biggest player pools and deepest pockets have bossed the rest. Both categories are of course relative, with women's cricket historically understaffed and underfunded everywhere. But at least "less bad" could have described the situation in the Big Two.

Fundamentally, the 2017 World Cup has followed the same pattern. Australia and England put on the most competitive and professional display in the pool stage, and any sane pundit is tipping them for the big dance on Sunday.

But the landscape is evolving, the ecosystem growing more complex. It's not quite a matter of teams crawling out of the sea for a life in the trees, but the slower developers are at least starting to grow legs.

One such evolving life form is South Africa. A semi-final in 2000 was followed by a slip back in subsequent tournaments. Even a year or two ago, the team was not really a serious threat. That has started to change, via a more dedicated national program, as well as participation in Twenty20 leagues in Australia and England.

The Big Bash has been notable for how many South African stars have shone there. Marizanne Kapp has been ruthless as a frugal opening seamer in two seasons for the Sixers. Shabnim Ismail shook up the comp with pace in a brief visit as a Renegades replacement.

New captain Dane van Niekerk has batted in the middle order for both those teams, while her predecessor Mignon du Preez did the same for the Stars. During her second season especially, van Niekerk also honed the leg-spin that has seen her take more wickets than anyone at this World Cup.

Somewhere along the way, this group of players has gathered the experience and confidence to take on the teams above them.

"We've tried to stay as true as possible to our game," van Niekerk said the day before their semi-final.

"The results show. I'm really proud of the girls, the way they've gone about representing the badge. There's a lot of belief. Our first hurdle is [tomorrow]. Very tough game, but there's a lot of excitement.

"There are a few of us that were part of the [2014] T20 World Cup semi-final against England, but they're not really afraid of anything."

In fact there are nine regular players this World Cup who were part of that disaster in 2014, but you could smell it at the time — it was a game suffused with panic. There were five run-outs that day, as a top-order collapse became a lower-order landslide.

World Cup about more than one tournament for South Africa

The past three years have given ample time to move on and van Niekerk had no doubt that this time would see her side give a much better account of itself.

"We all grew up together. We started at the same time," she said.

"Four years ago we set out on this mission. I've seen how all the players have grown, the hard work they've put in. It's like going for an exam, if you know you've studied, you don't have to stress about the exam."

In honesty, South Africa is yet to pass a really hard assignment. Beating India mattered, but the team in blue is still prone to lapses of timidity. South Africa was smashed by England and Australia in the group stages and had its game against New Zealand rained off.

At the same time, that loss to England was one that may have engendered hope: after conceding a staggering 373, the South Africans picked themselves up, walked back out and smashed 9-305 themselves. The defiance alone made people sit up and take notice.

It is that part, making people pay attention, that matters most of all.

"It's huge. It's been blowing up in South Africa," van Niekerk said.

"My family and everyone has been telling us, we're everywhere on the posters, in the news. That's what us as a team set out to do.

"Yes, we want to win this World Cup, but our ultimate goal is to set up women's cricket for South Africans, for the girls and the generations to come."

Rejuvenated England side has plenty to prove

By the same token, this game matters for England, a side that has also had a touch of renewal about it. New coach Mark Robinson instigated the moving on of veteran captain Charlotte Edwards after last year's World T20, along with veteran Lydia Greenway.

While there remain hints of bad blood between the coach and former captain, Edwards has also seemed relieved to be watching from the commentary box rather than resuming her place in the crucible.

Formerly junior players like Natalie Sciver and Tammy Beaumont have been given space to step up and there's a new dynamism to the set-up. Players are attacking games and trying to put on a good show. That is the sort of the thing that is equally important for the sport's health in the UK.

Overall, England should have the edge in batting quality to seal this win. Sciver has two hundreds in the tournament, Sarah Taylor is back close to her best after a health lay-off, while Beaumont and captain Heather Knight have been in the runs.

But South Africa's openers hold the key to an upset, with the contrast of strongly built blaster Lizelle Lee and the graceful offside strokeplay of teenage stylist Laura Wolvaardt.

England opening bowlers Katherine Brunt and Anya Shrubsole are quality in terms of bustling pace and swing respectively, but if either of South Africa's front-foot pair can get going, they may find the bowling to their liking.

The South Africans have a touch more variety through the middle, with the completely contrasting leg-spin styles of Sune Luus and their captain — the duo took seven Australian wickets last Saturday.

The winner takes on Australia or India for the World Cup. If it is South Africa, it will be a triumph for an underdog, but also for the strength of the sport. If it is England, that will ensure a packed final at Lord's this week.

For once, in sport, there is really no way to lose.

Topics: cricket, sport, england, united-kingdom, south-africa

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