Look through the social media timelines of some of the South African players. Certain hashtags appear frequently. #CompeteForChrist, #AlwaysRising, #blessed. And yes, #grateful. But gratitude is only genuine when expressed through deeds. Saturday’s encounter was about South Africa’s batswomen — in particular opener Lizelle Lee — expressing their thanks in deeds, as India rolled out the red carpet for them on a batting track.
The pitch at Leicester looked flat and a little dry, hinting that it just might take some turn later; perfect for batting first and then unleashing the spinners. But Mithali Raj chose to field first after calling correctly, citing India’s superior record against South Africa while chasing, and the trends at the ground (which on closer examination, aren’t that strong). Proteas skipper Dane van Niekerk said that she would have batted had she won the toss. So bat they did.
And Lee made sure to say thank you.
Lee’s scores against India this year are 1, 37, 1 and 0. On Saturday, she took 10 balls to find her first run. When she took strike in the sixth over, she was on 2 off 14 balls. India may have been lulled into thinking they had done a good job of keeping her quiet, and sooner or later she would hole out going for a big shot. The big shot came, but it went for four instead. The next ball, she sent one over extra cover for six. Then a waist-high slower ball was dismissed to mid-wicket. Suddenly, she was on 16 off 19 balls. By the end of the ninth over, she was scoring more than a run a ball, and never looked back.
Lee was magnanimous in her gratitude; she distributed it evenly amongst all the bowlers. The first recipient was Shikha Pandey, who was taken for 16 in her third over. Then she took 17 off a Jhulan Goswami over, once again hitting two fours and a six. She made sure she took a single of the last ball, so she could show Bisht — who had replaced Pandey — some love as well: this time two sixes and one four.
Raj rung in her changes, using all her spinners much earlier than she had in previous games. By the 12th over, she had used five bowlers. Lee acknowledged the arrival of Deepti Sharma and Poonam Yadav with dot balls and a singles for a while. Then she probably felt bad for Deepti; keeping her out of all the carnage was just downright mean. After she brought up her 50 off 44 balls, she treated the off-spinner to two sixes.
Needless to say, every bowler who she deconstructed was taken off. Lee single-handedly hit four of India’s five frontline bowlers out of the attack. The Indian spinners bowled too fast, which made it easy for Lee to use the pace. “We have played against them a lot of times now,” she said after the game. “That just made it easier for us, and helped me in my game today. The pitch also did not do much. That just helped.”
In the process, she brought up her 50th ODI six, making her only the second player to cross that mark. And these were no measly hits. All but one of them comfortably cleared the advertising boards, which are a good ten to fifteen feet behind the 60-metre boundary. It was no senseless slogging either. Three of Lee’s seven sixes came over cover, mid-off, and mid-on, through straight-batted shots which were as much about timing as power.
Her blitz finally ended in the 21st over on 92 from 65 balls with seven sixes. 82 of her runs came in boundaries. She was one six away from the record for most sixes in an innings, which New Zealand’s Sophie Devine broke later in the day with nine sixes.
And after the game, Lee shared how recently touching up on her power hitting helped her six glut. “It was a few days back; she (van Niekerk) said she wants to go to the pitch and try to hit the ball straight. I said I want to join,” she said. “In power hitting, it is about knowing that you still have to keep your shape when you are doing it. It is just not about the power, it is about the timing. We have worked on it, and it shows.”
The Proteas didn’t stop there. They bowled out India for 158 in 46 overs, ending their unbeaten run in the tournament. Smriti Mandhana fell drilling a pull to the one fielder in the deep on the on side. Punam Raut and Deepti didn’t do much to improve their strike rates. Then van Niekerk, who also scored a half century with the bat, broke both the chase and hearts of the 1200-odd Indian fans, when she dismissed Raj and Harmanpreet Kaur in the same over, both for ducks. All that was needed to cap India’s agony was a senseless run-out, which duly followed.
It was something Lee said that showed where India are missing out. “We just said we have to go for singles and not get dotted up too much and get the odd boundary.” India’s rotation of strike has been an issue for three games now, one they will need to address quickly to make use of their strong start to the tournament. South Africa have an extra point from a rained off game, so India have no option but to win one of their remaining two games against heavyweights Australia and New Zealand to progress to the semis.
If Lee is the cheeky type, she might send an anonymous ‘thank you’ note to Raj’s room tonight. As for India, they can be thankful they won their opening game against England, otherwise their World Cup might well have been over.