LONDON: Cricket rewards hindsight in a myriad ways. A lofted inside-out drive over cover is a brilliant way to wrest the initiative when it goes to the boundary, or the reckless swipe of an ego-driven desperado when it’s caught.
In memory, this World Cup semi-final between England and South Africa will go down as a classic. Two wickets in hand, two balls to spare, England trying to complete a chase rife with tension, South Africa trying to create a boilover.
At the same time, this brilliant finish wasn’t all about brilliance. The thrills were as rooted in error as accuracy. It was about the triumph of skill, and the failure to apply it. For all this, it was as compelling an episode as one could hope to see, both in the mechanics of the game and the story behind it.
After three quarters of this match, this analysis piece was due to be an extended reworking of one of the numerous things Mark Twain definitely never said: “Reports of South Africa’s improvement have been greatly exaggerated.”
Or couched in the contemporary language of Milkshake Duck: “The whole internet loves South Africa, a lovely underdog that is now good at cricket! *5 seconds later* We regret to inform you the team is not good at cricket.”
Having batted first, South Africa made its way to a solid but uninspiring 218 for the loss of six wickets. A top order replete with recent runs took England calmly to 139 at two wickets down, needing 80 more from 108 balls. Few conclusions have ever looked more foregone.
Then it changed. England mistakes opened the door a crack, but South African ferocity forced it wide and sent in a party of squatters. With news coming in that the Home of Cricket had just sold out for the World Cup final, the England team would have looked to Lord’s and assumed a right of tenancy. But suddenly the visitors were announcing plans to claim the title deed for four years.
So much of the new South Africa is reflected in Laura Wolvaardt. Wolf Heart. The still-beating lupine meat-engine driving the whole thing forward. The leader of the pack. Akela, in the jungle sense rather than the kitsch scout-troop analogy.
Debuting at 16 years old, an ODI century at 17, a World Cup aged 18, Wolvaardt has taken on every challenge. Opening the innings, she is already one of the most graceful wielders of the bat in the world. She drives through cover exquisitely, through point as much so.
Wolvaardt is South Africa because she has so much ability, and still some distance yet to go. Against Australia a few days ago, and again in this semi-final, she unleashed perfect shots through the off side, and many straight to the field.
In a cat-and-mouse game, England gave away some boundaries, but stopped more. The prodigy seemed consumed in playing the perfect shot to every ball, then confused when that perfection wasn’t rewarded with scores.
Against Australia, 44 of her first 50 runs came through the off side, but dried up when the spinners came on. Holing out to midwicket was the eventual result.
This time around, the strangest thing took place. As a player with a lot to find out, you could actually see her learning as the innings took place.
Initially, when spin was called, she was stranded. With no leg-side game to speak of, even short balls from spinners that should have been pulled were met by a player clearing the front leg and trying to slap straight.
After that didn’t work a few times, her approach changed. With the field up to frustrate her strokes, she started lofting the ball, clearing the straight stoppers, or chipping the bowler. Until well into her innings, she had played everything on the ground. Towards the end, she suddenly took to the air.
By the time Wolvaardt was out for 66, trying to cut an off-break from her stumps that skidded on too low, you had the clear sense that she would be vastly better next time she bats. Her team’s trajectory has been much the same.
England, though, had an advantage. As good as Wolvaardt’s shots had been, the bowlers had kept her scoring speed in check. The same constriction was brought to bear on each subsequent player. Rather than working the ball through gaps, they spent too long clouting shots to the field.
England’s players thought they had the measure of the same surface, until the tremors began. Heather Knight called for a reasonable run, but a direct hit saw off Sarah Taylor. Knight then got a full toss of stinky-cheese rankness, and smeared it to a leaping Wolvaadrt at square leg.
Sune Luus may have been the purveyor of that fromage, but the same over she decided to fill out the after-dinner platter with a peach. Coming off two centuries in the tournament, Natalie Sciver got a perfect leg-break that drifted across her, pitched outside leg stump, then cut back around her pads. Thunk.
Some tight overs, and it was 46 runs needed from 46 balls when Katherine Brunt was bowled by Moseline Daniels. Fran Wilson retained her calm and innovation, reverse-sweeping a boundary, scooping another, carving another square.
Jenny Gunn came in, and as she had against Australia, set about lower-order boshing with equanimity. Then Wilson scooped to the wicketkeeper, leaving 6 needed from two overs. Daniels bowled the first, and went for 3.
We had three runs needed, six balls to go. Shabnim Ismail, diminutive in height yet large in personality. A hard drive, in the slot, wiped and not properly backed up. Ismail dropped the catch. Consternation. Then a single, then the stumps lighting up like Moomba as she bowled Alex Hartley. Celebration.
Two to win, three balls left. The pressure everywhere. So much so that Anya Shrubsole could have left Ismail’s next ball and profited by a wide. Instead Shrubsole walked at it, crashed it through point, and won the game.
There was something very powerful in how South Africa’s players slumped to the turf at that moment. How the tears that had flowed during the anthems came back with salty interest.