England were stronger
They came, they fought, but ultimately they did not conquer.
South Africa will return home without the ultimate prize after their nail-biting two-wicket defeat to England in their ICC Women’s World Cup semi-final.
That’s the cold reality. England were stronger, more experienced and ultimately calm in their execution.
It was a sensational climax to an entertaining game, with England tailender Anja Shrubsole striking the winning boundary with just two balls remaining of Shabnim Ismail’s final over of the innings.
South African sports teams are renowned for their courageous spirit and never-say-die attitude. Last night the Proteas women showed it spreads across codes and gender. It is ingrained in the DNA.
They should never have got so close after only posting 218/6, courtesy of knocks from Laura Wolfvaardt (66) and Mignon du Preez (76 not out).
It certainly seemed beyond expectation when England were coasting to victory at 139/2 with star batters Sarah Taylor and Heather Knight at the crease. Ayabonga Khaka had delivered the two early wickets in an impressive opening spell but needed support.
These are the times, though, when a team’s senior players need to step up and that’s when Van Niekerk called on a bit of “Madiba Magic” to produce a brilliant direct hit to run out Player of the Match Taylor for 52.
Van Niekerk gave her team the belief to do the impossible. The conviction grew even further when England lost Knight and Natalie Sciver for the addition of only six runs.
England, though, are not one of the powerhouses of the women’s game for no reason. They bat really deep, with players such as Fran Wilson (30 off 38 balls) and Jenny Gunn (27 not out off 27 balls) coming in lower down the order.
SA continued to toil away however even when the game was slipping out of their grasp. Moseline Daniels removed Katherine Brunt with a beautiful inswinger, before Marizanne Kapp and Ismail kept the dream alive with late strikes. Ismail’s wicket coming in the last over, with England requiring just two runs for victory, off the final four balls.
The mood switched from ecstasy to heartbreak in moments though when Shrubsole found the boundary with the first ball she faced.
The dream was crushed.
However, when the dust has settled, which may take some time for Ismail and Van Niekerk especially, they will realise how far South Africa have come so quickly.
They have defied most observers and will now know anything is indeed possible. They will know they made some elementary mistakes, like the poor running between the wickets, while the catching and general glovework from keeper Trisha Chetty left a lot to be desired, but they will be a stronger team for it.
Although fiercely proud of her team’s achievements, Van Niekerk will know her side pushed one of the very best team’s in women’s cricket to the very limits and next time – for indeed there will not be a 17-year wait for another chance – only a victory will satisfy the desire of this courageous and talented group of women.