You would be forgiven if you thought that South Africa have never played a semi-final in a World Cup, or that they have never beaten England. They have, but it happened a lifetime ago.
In 2000, women’s cricket was run by the International Women’s Cricket Council. Players spent out of their pockets to play, and current South Africa captain Dane van Niekerk was 10. Women’s cricket today is past those days. The ICC have organized the most watched World Cup ever. The final will be played at Lords. And van Niekerk is the tournament’s top wicket-taker. But it was in the World Cup of 2000 that South Africa knocked England out, and made their maiden semi-final appearance.
In a league encounter in New Zealand, South Africa bowled England out for 143, with Yulandi van der Merwe taking three wickets. England then reduced the Proteas to 40 for 4, when a 71 run partnership rekindled their challenge and eventually helped them to a five-wicket win. The Player of the Match— for her unbeaten 54 from No 6 — was then 17-year old Sunette Viljoen.
If you are a sports fan, the name should ring a bell. Last year, a 32-year old Viljoen won the silver medal in the javelin throw at the Rio Olympics.
When Viljoen played her vital knock against England, she was the youngest to have played for South Africa. Now her compatriots, the youngest team in the top four, will look to go one better against the same opposition. But things are very different now. In 2000, South Africa’s win was a major upset. Now the two sides are evenly matched, uncannily so.
Both teams have strong similarities: openers who like to score quickly, strong pace bowling attacks, and captains who are relatively new to the job. Both have hit exactly 20 sixes in this tournament, the most by any side. England’s Tammy Beaumont is the tournament’s leading run scorer, while van Neikerk tops the wickets chart. England are more experienced; five members of their squad were among those who won the World Cup in 2009. But South Africa intend to use their inexperience to their advantage.
“It’s a lot of girls’ first experience of a semi-final”, said van Niekerk on the eve of the game. “It’s a new experience for a lot of the girls, but that’s a good thing. The inexperience; not really afraid of anything.”
England, who topped the league phase, will enjoy strong support at Bristol. More than 2000 tickets have already been sold, despite the game being in the middle of the week, which is exactly what captain Heather Knight was hoping for.
“We’re loving it (the home support)”, she said. In England’s group game against Australia on 9 July, 4316 supporters egged them on to a narrow three-run win. It was the tournament’s biggest crowd. “The game against Australia was a highlight, the crowd lived every ball with us towards the end”, said Knight. “As a player it lifts you, makes you want to play well and reward the supporters who have come out.
The last time these two teams met at the same venue, England scored 373 for 5. Opener Tammy Beaumont and wicketkeeper Sarah Taylor both made overbearing hundreds, but if England were hoping for a dominant victory, South Africa had other ideas. They scored 305 in reply, the highest total by team batting second in ODIs.
“The previous game wasn’t fond memories for the bowlers” admitted van Niekerk. Since then they have put in strong performances, bowling out India for 158, and dismissing Australia’s vaunted batting within their allotted 50 overs. “I came into the World Cup believing I have the best opening attack in the world and at the moment I’m starting to believe I’ve got the best bowling attack in the world”, said van Neikerk.
England can credit their turnaround to the new coaching staff led by Marc Robinson. South Africa have their administration to thank. Since the 2013 World Cup, Cricket South Africa have worked closely with the team, scheduling extra tournaments outside of the ICC Women’s Championship. South Africa have played 58 games since the 2013 World Cup, 15 more than the next closest nation, New Zealand.
“They’ve played a lot of cricket, and you get experience from winning and losing”, said Robinson. “When talented individuals are given more support and play more cricket, that’s what happens.”
The most improved side against the ascendant home team; this clash is not likely to be decided by a one-sided game. England will ride the support they get from the crowd at Bristol. South Africa can seek inspiration from Viljoen’s pre-silver heroics, and claim a chance to go for gold.