However it ends, South Africa have ignited a World Cup story for the ages
On Sunday, South Africa will step out at Newlands to play their first-ever senior World Cup final, men’s or women’s.
The presumed inevitability of women’s international tournaments was dramatically upset in the second semi-final in Cape Town. With Australia already through to the final having edged out India, that left only England in the triad of pre-supposed tournament finalists to attempt to interrupt their dominance. The certainty of what the latter stages of the tournament would look like shone through England’s 113-run victory over Pakistan. It was primarily a vehicle through which to avoid Australia, the greater achievement than simply finishing top of their group.
But South Africa switched that narrative. Having entered their home tournament in a swirl of controversy and after losing to Sri Lanka in their opening game, they overcame England by six runs in a classic semi-final. Tazmin Brits and Laura Wolvaardt dismantled the three-pronged spin attack England had heavily relied on in the group stage. Ayabonga Khaka ripped through the middle order in the 18th over before Shabnim Ismail closed the match out with a six-run, one-wicket final six.
There was little luck in their victory. They out-bowled, batted and fielded England, whose raggedness in the field betrayed an ever-growing sense of panic. Lines unlearned that were never in the script in the first place.
Two weeks ago, South Africa were in disarray. Their talismanic all-rounder-captain had been brutally cut after she failed to run 2km quickly enough. This a seemingly essential requirement for her to step in off two paces to bowl her leg-breaks. Their other talismanic all-rounder was on compassionate leave to support her wife through being left out on the eve of the tournament.
South Africa with both Dane van Niekerk and Marizanne Kapp had a chance of causing an upset, but without even one of them, that chance seemingly dipped to near zero. Compound that with the still-significant absence of Lizelle Lee, also pushed out of the South Africa squad over fitness, it all added up to an implosion in progress.
That storyline played out as predicted in the first match. Sri Lanka were good with the bat, Chamari Athapaththu putting in a performance for her side once more. But South Africa were ragged. From 72-5 in the 13th over, they fell short of chasing down 130 in front of a big home crowd at Newlands. All this after the opening ceremony had announced the start of their first home T20 World Cup. After the match, the expressions on the faces of those on the bench looked desperate.
But, as ever in knockout tournaments, losing early on can sometimes be a turning point rather than the continuation of a downward slope. Three days later, they bowled New Zealand out for 67. Following that, they came up against the Australian juggernaut and, while they expectedly lost, Brits showed the form that would later propel her team to the final, scoring 45 off 36 balls. Kapp was also back at her fiery best, taking two wickets.
A dominant ten-wicket victory over Bangladesh sealed their place in the semi-final. That would have been a remarkable two-week journey in itself.
Still, South Africa had lost every one of their T20s against England last summer. The Jon Lewis touch had England playing a new brand of no-fear cricket and they were unbeaten in the group stage. Little credibility was given to the prospect of South Africa’s semi-final challenge, at least by those looking in. Instead, whether England would be able to challenge Australia was the dominant conversation.
But for those looking closer, there were signs of what South Africa could achieve. Before the tournament, they had beaten India in the final of the tri-series warm-up competition. Playing England in a subsequent warm-up match, they seriously threatened to chase down the 246 they had been set, eventually finishing 229-9.
Looking further back, the semi-final in Cape Town was their fourth in five World Cups. In 2022 they lost out to England after an impressive group-stage run, lost to Australia by five runs on DLS in the 2020 T20 World Cup, and pushed eventual winners England to within two wickets of a loss in the 2017 Women’s World Cup.
While, superficially, South Africa appeared to be slipping further and further behind the ‘big three’, close attention raises a challenge to that narrative, at least in terms of their performance in ICC tournaments.
Winning is usually everything, but in the circumstances South Africa find themselves – facing possibly the best cricket team ever to exist – it isn’t. They have overcome more than just their opposition, surpassed the expectations of the majority and injected the storyline this World Cup desperately needed. Knockout cricket relies on the unexpected to entertain; the hierarchy of women’s cricket makes this even more essential. South Africa have delivered that, whether they go one better on Sunday or not.