At the ICC Women’s World T20 2014 in Bangladesh, South Africa had come up against England in the semi-final after an inspired run through the group stage. A combination of stage fright and poor cricket had been its undoing back then but its success had offered early insight into how it was building up to the next 50-over event.
There has been some surprise that the team ranked sixth is in the semi-final, but the signs have been there. That 2014 semis run, the win at home over England, the tie against Australia, the fact that their players are among the first picks for new T20 leagues around the world, and the administrative support that has allowed it to play 58 matches since the last World Cup, compared to the 36 for England and 35 for Australia.
Now here it is at the ICC Women’s World Cup 2017 in England, taking on the hosts again in another semi-final. How it fares on Tuesday will be an important reflection of all the work of the past four years.
A confident Dane van Niekerk at the pre-match press conference described it as like an exam. “You know if you study, you don’t have to stress. I’ve seen [the team] ‘study’, and I cannot not have confidence in them.”
There’s belief, excitement and a sense of expectation in the team. “There’s only a few of us that were a part of the T20 World Cup semi-final against England. It’s a new experience for a lot of the girls, but that’s a good thing, the inexperience, (they’re) not really afraid of anything.”
Between 2013 and 2017, the team has grown into its own, found its own brand of fiery cricket that sees them bouncing back from adversity. There’s youth and experience, potential and proven match-winners.
“The rate of change in women’s sport, women’s cricket in particular is phenomenal,” said Mark Robinson, the England coach, whose first series in charge was away against South Africa early last year, and he identified his Tuesday’s opponents as a vastly improved side. “The amount of expertise, the amount of resources and support national bodies have given women’s cricket is brilliant. When you have a talented team like South Africa, with talented individuals, give more support, play more cricket, that’s what happens.
“They’ve played a lot of cricket, and you get experience from winning and losing,” he pointed out. “The opener made her debut against us, looked a good player then. She’s had a very good tournament. The bowlers are good, they have a bit more depth in the batting, so it will be a good test.”
The opener he’s talking about is Laura Wolvaardt. Van Niekerk’s description of the 18-year-old, who has the most gorgeous of drives, is revealing of this new and improved South Africa.
“She’s ridiculous. I don’t know how – she just popped up on the scene. We never saw her in domestic cricket, I never heard of her. She came into a camp and I said to Hilton (Moreeng, the coach), ‘What a find! Where was she!’
“When you see a youngster walking in, you’re like ‘Who is she, what’s she bringing?’ Until she started batting (at the camp). Then I was like ‘You stay. Please stay.’
“She’s not 18 when you speak to her. It’s weird. She’s not 18 when she bats. She’s more mature than most of us when she bats, and that’s scary. I’ve said to her, I expect big things from her in the future, I think she’s going to be a name in the record books. She works really hard, she wants to get better. Funny thing, she just wants to bat. She’s really excited to bat. She’d rather not field or bowl or anything, she just wants to bat. That’s still the kid in her, she’s fearless, and I hope that stays within her.”
The team’s goal – other than winning the World Cup, of course – is to inspire girls back home, Van Niekerk has insisted through this tournament.
“We want our country’s girls to play cricket and get known, get to your clubs and play cricket, so we can get these talents like [Wolvaardt, Raisibe Ntozakhe, Nadine de Klerk]. That’s only three, I’m sure there’s more out there. Hopefully they can watch this World Cup, follow it and some of them pop up.”
With the hard work of preparation done, the hard work of a knock-out match remains. Van Niekerk insisted the lessons from its 68-run loss to England at the group stage had been learnt.
“Thank goodness we’ve played here before, so we can rectify things we did wrong,” she said. “The bowlers worked on a lot more specifics at the nets. They set their fields, they bowled to the fields, the batters told them if it was a good ball or bad ball. It was a lot more interactive, we really had to brainstorm.
“I came into the World Cup believing I have the best opening attack in the world and at the moment I’m starting to believe I’ve got the best bowling attack in the world. I’m just excited to see what they do tomorrow.”
The team is trying to keep it simple and relaxed. “We love our music, you’ll hear the music blasting (at training), that’s our culture, that’s what we love to do, we relax.”
Then, there’s the added incentive of playing at Lord’s. “We spoke about it last night over dinner,” said Van Niekerk. “It’s the highlight of anyone’s career. First of all, making a final of a tournament like this and then going to Lord’s, the home of cricket. Some of the girls have never been there… it’s going to be an amazing experience if we get there. Tomorrow’s another hurdle so we’ll put all our energies into that first.”
The last time South Africa was in the semi-final of a 50-over World Cup was back in 2000. As Van Niekerk pointed out, she was only 10 back then. That run had included a memorable win over England, spearheaded by a woman who went on to win an Olympic medal for them.
The stage is set for another generation of heroes to emerge.