The expectation on Tusday night could not have been greater, especially against a Bangladesh team who had not won a single game.
Cape Town – Siv Ngesi. The Springboks women’s rugby team. Wayne Parnell and his blogger/model wife Aisha Baker and their hipster kid Khalid.
Even Graeme Smith – the man responsible for re-energising South African cricket – and his entire SA20 team along with a further 6,623 people, the second-biggest crowd for a women’s international cricket match in SA, were there at Newlands on Tuesday.
They all came to will the Proteas women’s team through to uncharted territory: a World Cup semi-final on home soil.
It’s not even something Smith could achieve during his time as a player and at the helm of the Proteas’ men’s ship at three major ICC events.
But there, right in front of them, lay the destiny of these chosen women. The expectation could not have been greater, especially against a Bangladesh team who had not won a single game.
The Proteas were the favourites to advance. A tag that has never sat well with any SA sports team – not even Siya Kolisi’s Boks who have drunk from the Webb Ellis Cup after winning the 2019 World Cup.
The preference has always been backs-to-the-wall performances filled with passion and character. It’s the SA way.
But on Tuesday the Proteas had to make the play. And from the outset the occasion seemed to be overwhelming.
— Proteas Women (@ProteasWomenCSA) February 22, 2023
Laura Wolvaardt, the team’s best fielder, put down a straightforward chance at point in Shabnim Ismail’s first over.
Ismail’s shriek of disappointment was of someone who had been through it all before. And so was the collective feeling of disappointment on the grass banks and stands of Newlands.
It was only a week ago that they watched a similar tale when this same team allowed the weight of expectation to engulf them against an ordinary Sri Lankan side.
Surely, they were not going to allow lightning to strike twice.
The tension hung in the air for the remainder of the innings, especially after Tazmin Brits shelled another simple chance and the outfielders let run-outs go begging.
“It was probably our worst fielding performance of the competition,” Wolvaardt said.
But having restricted Bangladesh to a paltry 113/6, only due to Marizanne Kapp and Ayabonga Khaka utilising all their years of experience, the baton was now handed over at the interval.
Surely, it was a target that was well within reach of even this misfiring Proteas batting unit?
The reply was kick-started by Wolvaardt and Brits – two contrasting individuals you are unlikely to find partnered together.
Wolvaardt, the aesthetically pleasing stroke maker and former head girl and aspiring doctor.
Brits, the almost Olympian and retired Potchefstroom waitress, with feet stuck in cement and hard hands that bludgeons rather than caresses the ball through the field.
But for all Bangladesh’s shortcomings they do boast an impressive seam attack led by young Marufa Akter.
And it was Marufa who had SA’s hearts racing when she wrapped Wolvaardt on the pads with her first two deliveries, the second one prompting the umpire to raise her finger in approval of the LBW appeal.
Newlands held its breath. Their very own daughter could not be heading back to the pavilion already.
In consultation with Brits, Wolvaardt reviewed the decision with the big-screen replays indicating the ball was missing leg stump. It was greeted with the sounds of celebrations that are usually only reserved when the lights go back on after a period of four-hour load shedding.
But that was not the only heart-in-throat moment. A lack of communication between the pair led to an almost embarrassing run out, while Brits’ depth perception remained questionable throughout as she misjudged two charges down the wicket only for the keeper to miss the stumpings.
All of this was happening while dot balls were mounting. The tension inside Newlands was palpable.
An intervention was required. Perhaps there was something special in the drinks at the 10-over interval, but suddenly Wolvaardt’s engine was revving. And she was going to drag Brits along for the ride.
Less than eight overs later it was all over with Wolvaardt and Brits bringing up their half-centuries with the former closing out the game with one of her trademark cover drives.
The result was a victory by 10 wickets, but seldom has a scorecard been so misleading with regards to all the drama that had been witnessed.
Ultimately, though, the Proteas are in a T20 World Cup semi. Ngesi & Co will be back to watch them go again on Friday.
I know I will be too.