When the fireworks went off to signal the start of the ICC Women’s World Cup 2017 semi-final and the anthems were sung, Marizanne Kapp, overcome with emotion, was sobbing; Chloe Tryon, next to her, had her eyes closed, soaking in every moment with a look of elation.
The occasion however proved too much for the brave and gallant South African side, as its spirited run was cut short on Tuesday at the County Ground in Bristol.
The England bowlers kept the opposition to 218 for 6 and with help from some wayward bowling and fielding under pressure, Fran Wilson and Jenny Gunn led a rearguard effort to build on Sarah Taylor’s half-century and complete a thrilling chase with two balls and two wickets to spare.
The cool heads bode well for Sunday’s final at Lord’s, with a 26,500-strong sold-out crowd expected to be there to cheer on the home side.
The South African bowlers conceded a disappointing 25 extras, with Trisha Chetty, the wicket-keeper, having a day to forget behind the stumps and was even momentarily forced from the field for treatment on an injured hand.
England, though, made the chase more difficult than it needed to be. It was well on course until the 32nd over when a phase of 12 balls saw three wickets fall against the run of play for just six runs, propelling the South Africans right back into the contest.
Taylor and Heather Knight had added 78 for the third wicket, looking well set, when a direct hit by Dane van Niekerk from the covers to the striker’s end ended Taylor’s innings on 54.
Sune Luus then presented Knight with a full toss, who blasted from one knee, only for Laura Wolvaardt to pluck the ball out of the air at square leg.
The delivery which bowled Natalie Sciver was a much better one as it clattered the woodwork and suddenly, England had gone from 139 for 2 to 145 for 5.
With 53 needed off the last 10 and five wickets in hand, the pressure was on England. The loss of Katherine Brunt, bowled by Moseline Daniels, only added to the tension, as the crowd of 2206 found their voice to cheer on the run-a-ball chase.
Wilson’s heroic 30 from 38 balls coupled with Gunn’s three boundaries in a run-a-ball 27 not out helped them chip away.
Chetty finally pouched Wilson by taking a good high catch as the batter tried to go behind square again. Shabmin Ismail, defending three in the final over, then had Laura Marsh bowled but with only two to get off three balls, Anya Shrubsole scored the winning runs with a glorious boundary through the covers to trigger wild celebrations in the England camp and tears among the South Africans.
Ayabonga Khaka, bowling an unbroken spell to take the wickets of both openers while going for just 28 runs with two maidens, was the pick of the South African bowlers.
Apart from the extras, South Africa was 20-30 runs short, as admitted by Van Niekerk in her post-match interview. Lizelle Lee and Tryon hit 18 of South Africa’s 20 sixes coming into the semi-final and with the duo dismissed for single-digit scores, the batting could never get the impetus it so desperately needed.
Wolvaardt and Mignon du Preez added 77 for the third wicket, each bringing up half-centuries but with their side losing quick wickets just as there was a platform to accelerate, South Africa didn’t get the kind of scorecard pressure it hoped for when choosing to bat first.
Shrubsole, coming into the tournament short on overs and recovering from an injury, bowled her full quota for the first time, getting considerable movement early on and conceding only 33 runs for Lee’s wicket.
She had settled for a maiden in her second over after an lbw decision was overturned on review as DRS showed the ball to Lee was going down leg. The opener could add only four more to her score, bowled after trying to heave to the same bowler to the leg side.
Gunn got Tryon, who had brought up the second-fastest World Cup 50 the last time the teams met, handing a simple return catch when on one.
Earlier, Chetty was sent back by a brilliant piece of glovework by her opposite number. Sciver was wide down leg and Taylor, standing up and moving to her left, had the bails off in an instant.
Marsh, the off-spinner, Alex Hartley, the left-arm spinner, and Gunn, the medium pacer, constricted the batters in the middle overs as du Preez and Wolvaardt were content to take the singles. So tight and disciplined was her bowling that Marsh only conceded her first boundary in her seventh over.
Wolvaardt was striking the ball well in her preferred off-side, but only found the fielders and offered Hartley a couple of caught-and-bowled chances. She brought up her 50 off 82 deliveries with a boundary straight down the ground, but couldn’t carry on.
Heather Knight, the captain, brought herself on in the 32nd over and struck immediately, the young opener misreading a straighter delivery to be bowled for 66.
Kapp, dropped by the bowler on her first ball while taking on a full toss, was run out by a whisker two balls later despite her dive, Shrubsole’s throw from cover point cleanly collected by the wicketkeeper.
Van Niekerk hit the only six of the South African innings, charging down the track to Marsh and going over long-off, but a run out ended her stay at 27 and the fifth-wicket stand at 42.
Du Preez, who had 38 singles by the time she reached her 50, combined with Luus to lift the tempo in the final stages with an unbroken 48-run stand but in the end, it didn’t matter, England prevailing to take on the winner of Thursday’s Australia v India semi-final in Derby.