The South Africans fell just short in the semi-final, but the gallant lot led by Dane van Niekerk did their country proud.
Roger Federer, winning his eighth Wimbledon title and Marin Cilic, who was physically and mentally overwhelmed in his hunt for the first, both broke down in tears on Centre Court last weekend.
It wasn’t necessarily a match for the ages but in the mental scrapbook of sporting events, one section is all for those moments of vulnerability that make superheroes seem human.
Two days later, it was the turn of the women from South Africa to make an entry.
It was Mandela Day, the birth anniversary of their beloved Madiba. It was the birthday of WG Grace – as 20-somethings, they would have known “the great cricketer” only through lore and the tributes scattered all over his own Bristol County Grounds. It was also the birthday of their own Ayabonga Khaka, who turned 25.
And it was also the semi-final of the ICC Women’s World Cup 2017.
At the anthems, the tears flowed as freely at the elation of just being there. The team ranked sixth breaking into the top four. The doubting, they had left to the others. They had even managed to plant a few doubts of their own in the minds of opponents along the way. That they were good was not in question, that they had been so remarkable was a revelation.
Nearly 100 overs later, there was unfortunately considerably more tears. Shabnim Ismail, bowling at fierce pace, beating the batters, defending three in the final over, had uprooted Laura Marsh’s stumps with a blinder. At Anya Shrubsole’s first-ball four through the covers, though, she would fall to the floor in anguish.
Marizanne Kapp cut a forlorn figure by herself at midwicket, unable to move. Dane van Niekerk held her head in her hands. Moseline Daniels was angry, inconsolable. Others enveloped team-mates in hugs, sobbing.
Teams often say they ‘left everything out there’. At moments like this, you truly believe them.
After an age, even as the presentations were on, the team gathered in a circle in the middle as it always does, praying together.
“We’ve been on the road the last four years, we’re family. If one cries, all of us cry, we all hurt,” said Chloe Tryon, the vice-captain, putting on a brave smile for the media even though she really just wanted a cry. “It hurts, but you can’t always end up at the top. It’s been a good tournament, couldn’t be more proud.”
“If you were in our changing room right now, you would probably start crying as well,” said van Niekerk at the post-match press conference, reminding everybody again how proud she was of her team. “It’s tough. Because of what we set out to do and the belief we had, especially losing in a game so close, it hurts even more. We were kind of down and out, dead and buried there halfway through; the character the team showed, it hurts even more, the way we fought back.”
Another day, all the things that went wrong might have been analysed. The 20-30 runs short the team was. The inability to adjust quickly on what the players said was a slow wicket. The 25 extras: 17 wides and three no-balls, including from the captain, a leg-spinner. The missed chances behind the stumps. The runs given away from overthrows as the game got tense. The missing spin at the death. The 19 bowling changes.
“Any cricket match there will be mistakes. We were fairly short. But the way my team went out there and tried to defend that, I couldn’t ask for more,” said van Niekerk.
“Hindsight is perfect sight,” added Mignon du Preez, whose 76 lifted the side to 218 for 6. “To try and say where it might have been wrong or to point fingers at anyone is not going to change the results. Let’s look at the positives. We still made ourselves and our country proud and I’d rather focus on that.”
Most impressive this tournament has been South Africa’s marked improvement from even two years ago.
“First, the man sitting next to me,” said van Niekerk, giving her coach, Hilton Moreeng, a friendly bump on the shoulders, when asked to explain the change. “He’s given us the freedom to play our game. With the help of him and the skills he’s taught us and the values he’s instilled in the side, we had a lot more freedom. They way we got treated, all that was a lot different to the past. He embraced us as individuals and tried to get the best out of us.
“Also, you have to commend the girls. They’re always open to learn, they always want to get better, they always wan to get to the top. We spoke about the rankings and look where we are! I told the girls, I don’t think they realise what they did – I’m starting to get a bit emotional – I don’t they realise what they did, I don’t think they realise how good they are.”
It almost felt like the 2015 Cricket World Cup semi-final again. The vanquished South Africans disconsolate, the victors putting an arm around them in some consolation.
“I’ve played in enough semi-finals and finals and been on the losing end. I know how devastating it is. Especially in such a tight game like that, it hurts a little bit more,” said Shrubsole with a perceptible shudder. “You want to go and offer commiserations… with all these tournaments that happen around the world, you get to know opposition players a lot more. You almost feel a little bit more for them.”
“To get to the semi-final in a World Cup is a huge achievement. They are a good young side,” added Jenny Gunn, whose run-a-ball 27 not out was vital for England. “It’s horrible to lose, especially lose when you get that close. I just really feel for them and said they have done their country proud.”
Moreeng is a low-profile coach who allows his players to take the spotlight, insisting after the game that he couldn’t ask for more from them. “We have to make sure we keep growing. With every World Cup, ICC challenge, we just make sure the team starts competing against the top four. It was showing today, no one was able to call it.”
“We said we want to leave a legacy, and that’s exactly what we’ve done,” said du Preez. “We’ve shown the world that we are a force to be reckoned with. A lot of girls (back home), they finally had the opportunity to see us play. I hope that will inspire young girls to take up the sport in South Africa and that it will soon be a full career option for those back home.”
There’s another small lesson those watching should have learnt: Sport is nothing without passion. There’s no shame in tears, when you’ve earned the right to shed them.