Johannesburg - It was 1992 all over again: disconsolate players strewn all over the Bristol County Ground turf; England, bloody England, had done us in again in a close-run World Cup semi- final; and, if Twitter is to be believed, glorious defeat united South African cricket fans once again.
For years, most of us didn’t have a clue who the South African women’s cricketers were, except on the few occasions when they were wheeled out at the annual awards. But on Tuesday, their sheer bloody-mindedness elbowed the comeback Proteas off the national cricket consciousness.
After posting a scarcely defendable 218/6, the Proteas’ women’s side took the game deep, forcing England to earn the right to host the final with a nail-biting two-wicket victory with just two balls remaining in the game.
But, despite becoming yet another Proteas team to exit a World Cup in a knockout game, the faint whiff of having choked was nowhere near for a team whose love for a good old-fashioned scrap is such that it was clear nobody had told them that England were supposed to be their betters.
It’s an attitude that had prevailed throughout the tournament: they won four of their seven pool games, including against powerhouse India, lost twice and had one game washed out.
And, with the tournament jostling for viewing space alongside Wimbledon, Super Rugby and the Tour de France, it wasn’t long before we not only knew who the Proteas players were – suddenly we were on a first-name basis with them all.
Luus was Suné; Kapp was Marizanne; Chetty was Trisha; and it was Dané, not Dane van Niekerk. Then we embraced their traits and character. Ayabonga (Khaka) was naggingly accurate, Shabnim (Ismail) a combustible competitor and captain Van Niekerk was lippy and forthright.
Then we started wrapping our heads around the extravagant gifts we got from batsman Laura Wolvaardt.
The 18-year-old – already the youngest South African, man or woman, to score an international century – rattled off 324 runs in the tournament at an average of 64.8 to clear the decks for her prelim exams at school in a career that has already seen her score two 100s and seven centuries at 48.05.
There may have been a distinct lack of heat in the speed gun when they let one loose, and the strike rates may have been a touch underwhelming for the most part, but one couldn’t help but be drawn in by how white-hot the women’s side was in the heat of the battle.
But the question remains, how did a team we were quite happy to ignore while we pursued other interests – such as the Proteas’ coaching job, their choking and whether our teams were transformed – so far exceed expectations?
Coach Hilton Moreeng this week said the performances were three years in the making, after the powers that be at Cricket SA (CSA) decided they would play a lot more cricket than they had before to up-skill them.
A CSA insider said the women’s team had probably played more cricket in the past three years than they had in the five years before that, their results at the World Cup proving beyond a shadow of doubt that the best classroom in sport is on the field.
Moreeng said a lot of work had been done to fix their weak link – batting – that included intense sessions in power-hitting.
Van Niekerk gave Moreeng credit for having instilled the new culture and giving his charges freedom of expression, stopping just short of suggesting the environment before the coach arrived had been stifling.
Either way, CSA deserves credit for giving us yet another team we can support. Here’s hoping they improve on this and go all the way in four years’ time and not keep us waiting like the 1992 lot.
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