ICC Women's World Cup 2017: Despite semi-final defeat, South Africa's valiance will inspire generations to come

The mood in the press conference was sombre. There was no announcement about it starting; it just began. Many journalists, including this correspondent, were caught off-guard when it did.
But those of us who rushed over from our desks, recorders in hand, switched into stealth mode as soon as we saw Dane van Niekerk’s face. We tried to make as little noise as possible as we found a spot near the far wall, far away from her subdued figure. It would have been impolite to make any unnecessary sounds or movement. It felt like we were intruding on her moment of grief.

The questions were asked in low voices. There were long, uncomfortable silences between them. Next to van Niekerk sat the South African coach, Hilton Moreeng, forlorn but stoic in his silence. When all the questions were over, there was a pause, as everybody looked around to see if anyone had anymore. When there weren’t, there was another pause. Even the media manager, usually so in control, seemed unsure for a moment. It was almost as if the South Africans were suspicious of the brief respite. In that moment, pain was their default setting.

It felt less like a press conference and more like a condolence meeting. It felt less like a media event, and more a funeral.

 ICC Womens World Cup 2017: Despite semi-final defeat, South Africas valiance will inspire generations to come

South Africa’s Lizelle Lee attempts to run out England’s Tammy Beaumont. Reuters

If you asked fans which team they would support in the World Cup apart from their home team, most would say South Africa. The underdogs, the improvers, the firebrands. The frank and fresh captain. The spinner who bowls balls that bounce twice and still takes wickets. Bowlers who can give you both a perfume ball and an earful. A team that prays together, before and after walking on to the pitch.

South Africa knocked over the West Indies for 48. Talented South Africa.

They swatted aside an in-form India. Super South Africa.

They made 305 after having 373 scored against them. Brave South Africa.

Even when they were losing , they were winning friends. In their well deserved semi-final, they had their moments with the bat. Laura Wolvaardt’s half century, punctuated by punches through cover, and interrupted by flat-batted shots over the bowler. Then there was Mignon du Preez’s innings, all bustle, with 50 singles in her unbeaten 76. But they also had their non-moments. Two run outs. A wild slog that sent back their most destructive batswoman. A period in which Wolvaardt scored slowly against spin.

More non-moments than moments took them to 218. It was around 30 runs short of what they needed, but it was almost enough.

England's Sarah Taylor stumps South Africa's Trisha Chetty. Reuters

England's Sarah Taylor stumps South Africa's Trisha Chetty. Reuters

England’s Sarah Taylor provided a masterclass with the gloves when she stumped the South African ‘keeper Trisha Chetty off a leg side wide. It was everything a piece of wicket-keeping should be. Fast, clean, and effective. Chetty obviously wasn’t paying attention. When she had the gloves on, she dropped two catches, conceded five byes, and should have stopped a wide ball that escaped her and went for five. Alongside Shabnim Ismail’s two consecutive no-balls, the extras column read 25 at the end.

That number seemed larger than ever when England needed just three to win off the final over. England finally made it through with two wickets in hand and one ball remaining. When Anya Shrubsole hit the winning runs, she first went up in celebration. Then she bent down in consolation.

More than 2,000 supporters were urging her to rejoice. Instead, she offered a hand to the South African players, many of whom had slumped to the ground, disconsolate. Shrubsole knew what it was like to be in that place.

England’s Anya Shrubsole (left) celebrates victory with Jenny Gunn, before (right) consoling South Africa's Dane Van Niekerk. Reuters

England’s Anya Shrubsole (left) celebrates victory with Jenny Gunn, before (right) consoling South Africa's Dane Van Niekerk. Reuters

The semi-final had a mixed-zone media interaction after the game, a first for women’s cricket. A mixed-zone is where the press and the subject can mingle freely and discuss the game. Except that for this interaction, there was a barrier erected between the players and the press, which made it feel a little bit like the talking version of a petting zoo.

The impression was strengthened when the South African players came in. Mignon du Preez, Chloe Tryon and Laura Wolvaardt were looking downcast, hands either across their chests or behind their backs. Du Preez’s eyes were red. That was the last place they wanted to be, and they admitted it. This team was hurting, bruised. Its members wanted to curl up in a ball and heal, not stretch out and be examined by the media. It was difficult to watch the players, who had shown such verve throughout the tournament, be so overbearingly dejected.

In such a serious setting, one journalist’s mobile rang loudly, playing the song Minnie the Moocher from the film Cotton Club at the highest volume it could possibly manage. For a second it seemed that the tune would tip the emotions that the players were holding in check, and draw annoyance, perhaps even anger. Instead, all three of them broke into laughter at the interruption, and the press joined in.

The spark was still there.

South Africa’s Laura Wolvaardt (right) celebrates catching England’s Heather Knight. Reuters

South Africa’s Laura Wolvaardt (right) celebrates catching England’s Heather Knight. Reuters

Wolvaardt took a smart catch as square leg to dismiss England captain Heather Knight. The ball was a full toss, hit hard to her, but she held on well, and celebrated with her teammates. Once she saw the replay on the big screen, she blushed such a bright red it would have stopped traffic. This team doesn’t get to be on TV very often. You can see it in Wolvaardt’s 18-year-old expressions. A few of their T20I games were televised as curtain raisers to the men’s games last year, but besides that, women’s cricket has hardly been on TV in South Africa.

Things changed this time, with the ICC deciding to live stream all the matches. Supersport, South Africa’s paid TV channel, bought the rights to all South Africa games. It meant that supporters could actually see the valiance that the team showed in the loss, something that would not have come across through a simple scorecard or report. In the hours after the game, the South Africa women were getting tremendous number of messages of support from compatriots who were inspired by their pluck.

While the impact of this coverage will become clearer only in the next 10 years, there is one immediate effect. Wolvaardt, who has applied to study medicine and was considering giving up on cricket, said the feeling of being so near yet so far to a piece of cricketing history might keep her in the game a bit longer.

England and South Africa players line up before the match. Reuters

England and South Africa players line up before the match. Reuters

As the national anthems were played at the start of the day, a few South African players like Marizanne Kapp and Tryon could be seen wiping tears from their eyes. It meant so much to them just to be playing the semi-final, so it was not surprising to see that that same players were inconsolable after the game, sitting on the turf, head buried in their caps. But they had nothing to be ashamed of.

The eighteenth day of July is Nelson Mandela Day in South Africa. To commemorate it, South Africans are encouraged to offer 67 minutes of service, one minute for every year of Mandela’s public service. The South African team will be hurting too badly to realise it, but they provided six hours and 20 minutes of national service at the Bristol County Ground. It is an absolute certainty that years from now, stories will emerge of young girls who watched their fortitude in this semi-final, and were inspired to take up cricket.

It may have felt like a funeral. But it was actually a birth.

The author is a former India cricketer and now a freelance journalist. She hosts the series ‘Cricket How To’ on YouTube, and tweets @SnehalPradhan

Updated Date: Jul 19, 2017 10:38:16 IST