South Africa's greatest moment

Disarray before the World Cup, a terrible start, years of underperforming and then their first final against an inevitable force.

The Sri Lankan cricket board forgot they had a women’s team for a couple of years. A lucky few players found franchise employment, and the rest stayed on the shelf. In a World Cup division that included a rapidly improving Bangladesh, New Zealand and Australia. Sri Lanka was the best team to start against. A big enough name for casuals to know them and poor enough that they should lose.

The home team did not.

South Africa had countless chances to put the Sri Lankans away. Instead, we had an upset to start the World Cup. The ICC shook their head at their second straight tournament, where the home team lost the opener. And South African women’s cricket was left in disarray.

Of course, that had been their default position. They entered the tournament with a stand-in captain because their leader could not pass a fitness test. There is no need to re-litigate Dane van Niekerk’s broken ankle, weight loss and slow time trial. But it is worth mentioning that as someone who has covered this team for nearly a decade, she is a pure cricket talent.

Slow as hell in the field but fast as anyone at reading the game. And probably the exact kind of player you would want in the middle order of a chase on the opening night of a World Cup at home.

She isn’t even the only player you might want. If you had one of these pesky middling totals, the best way to kill it is to bite the head off the chase with a powerplay savant. The best at that in the women’s game is South African Lizelle Lee. But she had retired the year before for also not passing South Africa’s fitness concerns.

Whatever your stance on South Africa’s new hardline approach to fitness, it would be impossible to look at that shock loss and not think these two would have helped.

After one game of the World Cup, South Africa looked beat.

When I started covering women’s cricket my main question was always “Where are the South Africans?”. England and Australia were the powerhouses, India had two gun players, and New Zealand were good enough to snag a title. West Indies were starting to build. But South Africa seemed to have little at all.

The South African men’s team had fanfare after readmission, but Cricket South Africa had forgotten to invite the women along at all.

Despite winning about 50% of their ODI games from 2000 to 2010, they were not part of the conversation at World Cups. Their single success was at the 2000 tournament where they made the semi-finals. They hosted the next tournament and came seventh.

Even the Sri Lankans, their pesky nemesis, had success in big games. The West Indies won the 2016 World Cup. South Africa remained a non-entity.

And it’s not just the olden days. In T20, they have been just as disappointing. Actually, considering the tournaments have come while they are a good team, you could argue they have been worse. A 40% win percentage is pretty terrible, and only two semi-finals. Even while their players have travelled around the world in franchises.

If it were not for the franchises, you would wonder where they would be right now. Most of the other teams’ success has been their domestic tournaments or big help from their local boards. The early rise of South African women seemed to come from so many of their players being picked up in the Big Bash. That gave them this incredible core of players.

We have already discussed Van Niekerk and Lee. Mignon du Preez retired not long ago as well. But of the current crop, you have Shabnim Ismail. The world’s fastest bowler. Undersized, but with enough confidence to make her a giant. And that pace is real, she bothers batters a lot.

And it isn’t even just her. In a game dominated by spin. South Africa is about the seam. Ayabonga Khaka was the one to change the semi-final. And it is worth mentioning that game. South Africa made all their runs at the top, but at several times in the chase it felt like England had the game in their pocket. Then Khaka had a triple strike, and in a couple of minutes, she took South Africa from behind, to level and then in front.

But if you are talking about the face of South African women’s cricket, it would be hard to go beyond Marizanne Kapp. She is one of the most talented and smartest seamers in the world. She can be ice-cold with the ball. Like she has seen everything before. And it was her in the semi-final coming in at number three and smashing it around. She can swing the ball up top and is hard to budge at the death. And can bat anywhere from three to seven. They don’t make many cricketers like this.

It would have been a shocking tribute to her if the team never made a final with her on the side.

To think of gabbing someone this talented for over a decade and just making your first final. And then of course seeing it sell out. Knowing that you had to go up against perhaps the greatest team in our sport’s history.

Australia entered this final with a 28-2-1 record in the last three years.

And they weren’t even that good in this match. Half of South Africa’s score was from misfields early on. They hit the wrong lengths too often, their batting never hit hyperdrive, and there were gifts of many extras that usually don’t happen.

But I would to point out the absurdity of playing them. Forget that the number one wicket-taker in T20 didn’t make their squad. Or that the number two isn’t in their best team.

In the tenth over as they had already squeezed the life out of Tazmin Brits and South Africa needed ten an over they brought on George Wareham for the tenth over like an afterthought. And she averages 14 runs per wicket.

And then for the 11th, it was Tahlia McGrath coming on for her first in the 11th with her 18 average. It was like playing against the dream team and watching the second-best power forward in the world come off the bench.

To beat a team like that you need something special, and Laura Woolvarardt is very special. She is a dream to watch like her batting is on rails. And when she starts hitting Sixers, it felt like South Africa could beat Australia.

But South Africa have never won against Australia, or scored more than 141 against them, nor have they been quicker than 7.1 runs per over in a DRS game. And even the Wolf in full flight couldn’t last forever.

There is no doubt there is a letdown when you lose a game like this. Even against cricket’s most inevitable force, you dare to dream. But Australia picked up their 13th World Cup. Which feels like a typo.

And what did South Africa do, well they picked themselves up from one of their lowest moments, without their inspirational leader or their big hitter, they smashed New Zealand,  beat England, and they at least made Australia make some errors.

It is just another win for the Australians. But for South Africa, it might be a loss, but it was something else, their greatest moment.