Winless against Australia thus far, van Niekerk’s team looks to ride on momentum against eternal nemesis.
“They’re really good with banter. I identified really early in my life, I’m not good at that! I just try and laugh it off ’cause I just think I’ll say something stupid and make them laugh even more!”
Dane van Niekerk, the South Africa captain, admitted she got some “stick” from Australia’s Alyssa Healy and Ellyse Perry, her Sydney Sixers team-mates, at lunch ahead of her team’s final ICC Women’s World Cup 2017 group stage clash against Australia in Taunton on Saturday.
South Africa has, after all, never won a One-Day International against Australia. But back in November 2016, it did get very close. The final equation of that series Down Under read 4-0 in Australia’s favour, without reflecting the one thrilling tie between the teams, one last-ball win for the host and one hundred for Lizelle Lee.
“Two or three games out of that series were really close,” said van Niekerk. “That showed us that we did close the gap. And in a tournament like this, anything can happen.
“We identified that usually we get through their top order quite quickly, but we kind of fall asleep in the middle overs, where Pez (Perry) and them come in, and really hurt us in the middle. So we really have to get our plans right to make the middle overs count a bit more.”
Van Niekerk expected a slower wicket for the final group game. “So we need to change our lines and lengths a little bit. It doesn’t have the nice green tinge we like … hopefully it takes a bit of spin.”
For all the lunch-room banter and it historical success, Australia knows not to take lightly a team that has played some of the most exciting all-round cricket this tournament. Besides, there’s a chance the teams, both of whom have qualified for the semis, could play each other in the knockouts; a win on Saturday could be crucial for confidence.
“We know them very well, because we played them not that long ago in Australia. They really pushed us in that series,” said Alex Blackwell, the vice-captain. “They still haven’t beaten us. Touch wood! Tomorrow will be a really big test. They always bring their best game, I believe, against Australia.”
One of Australia’s big strengths – apart from a top order that’s firing, a bowling attack that has rediscovered its rhythm after early stumbles and a fielding unit that lets little past – is its fitness. Kate Mahony, its physio, has spoken at about the lengths it goes to keep the players fit and its stress on the players not hanging around training after they are done, instead urging them to take breaks from cricket.
“Our fitness is being tested now, as every other team’s is, deep into the tournament,” admitted Blackwell. “I know our team is best prepared as we could be and physically we came into this tournament as fit as we’ve ever been and now we understand why that was important.
“It is a long tournament, we’ve had some really good matches, there’ve been some really big tests, pushing the game to the last ball against England, for example. So both mentally and physically, it’s a tough time in the tournament, but I know our team is well prepared for that.”
South Africa, which has wrapped up a few games in quick time, admitted it was a temptation to shuffle the line-up with a semi-final place sealed. However, with positions still up for grabs and momentum to be retained, it made the decisions trickier.
Meg Lanning, the Australia captain, who’s dealing with a chronic shoulder injury, didn’t train with the side on Friday. While Australia gave no indication of her availability, Blackwell added, “The way she’s hitting the ball, she probably doesn’t really need to train any more during this tournament!”