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Feature

The spirit of Ubuntu is upon Cape Town with South Africa Women on the cusp of greatness

The 2019 rugby side led by Kolisi was the first truly representative national side to achieve something great. This cricket team could be the second

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
25-Feb-2023
There's magic in the air in Cape Town and it's coming from the cricket stadium.
At 11am on Saturday morning, a queue of people wound down Campground Road to buy tickets for the T20 World Cup final. Never before has a senior South African cricket team reached a World Cup final, never mind on home soil. Less than three hours later, 'sold out' signs had been stuck on the windows outside the Newlands ticket office windows. Never before has a ground reached capacity for a women's sporting event in this country.
In fact, most of the interest in World Cups is reserved for the Springboks, the national rugby team, who have reached three finals and won them all. Their most recent successful captain, Siya Kolisi, is an ambassador for this Women's T20 World Cup and was in attendance on Friday, sprinkling his stardust at the semi-final. He'll be back as supporter No.1 on Sunday and doing his best to stay in the shadows of a South African team who have become superstars in their own right.
Take Tazmin Brits. She was due to represent South Africa at the 2012 Olympic Games as a javelin thrower but she thought her sporting career ended when she momentarily glanced at her cell phone while driving, misjudged a bend in the road and rolled her car. She wasn't wearing a safety belt, which resulted in her being flung out of the vehicle, probably a far better outcome than if she was trapped inside, as it collided into a tree which fell on top of the car. Brits was spared a broken neck but her pelvis was fractured in five places, her bladder burst, her colon was torn and she needed two weeks in ICU and two months in hospital before she could train again. She was 19 years old and never made it to the Games. Instead, she took up cricket.
Brits made her debut in May 2018 and though she'd scored three fifties in 17 innings before the 2020 T20 World Cup, she didn't make the squad. She was a late inclusion into their Commonwealth Games playing group and contemplated changing careers out of sport entirely.
"When people leave you at home more often you kind of think maybe I should save the nation and go to become a teacher or something different," she said after the semi-final. Lizelle Lee's retirement has opened up a more permanent spot for her and she's seized her chance at this tournament, with successive half-centuries in crucial games and four stunning catches in the semi-final - a record for an outfielder and a testament to the athleticism that never went away.
Brits has the Olympic Rings tattooed on her right bicep, a reminder of a dream deferred. After her Player-of-the-match performance in the semi-final against England, she joked that she would add the Protea badge to it, if the team won. Maybe even if they don't. A reminder, regardless of the result, of a dream come true. And she's not the only one who will already feel that way.
Shabnim Ismail, who worked a job as a credit-card machine technician because cricket wasn't a career choice for her when she started playing, 16 years ago, expressed the same sentiments of achievement. She emerged from what fellow international and neighbour Beuran Hendricks described to ESPNcricinfo as a "fairly rough," neighbourhood in a suburb called Cravenby, an area in the Cape that is known for its high crime rate. Young adults can easily "go down the wrong path," Hendricks said.
Her mother nurtured her interest in sport and supported her decision to keep playing cricket, which has seen Ismail become the fastest bowler in the women's game. She was in attendance when Ismail delivered the 128kph fireball that took England's batters by surprise and played a key role in changing the tempo of a run-chase that was getting away from South Africa. Ismail maintained a calm that South African players in pressure situations are not known for and she passed it on to Nadine de Klerk, whom she mentored through tough middle overs in the semi-final.
Ismail is a leader without a title, the oldest and most experienced in the South African side and a key counsel for Sune Luus, who took over the captaincy in temporary capacity in 2019.
Almost four years later, Luus was still a stand-in as South Africa continued to wait on Dane van Niekerk's availability, and started to get restless. She admitted that she had been unable to stamp her own signature on the side because she considered herself a placeholder, rather than the permanent captain. Before this tournament, she was confirmed as what she says is the "official captain," and is now confident enough to articulate that she believes she is the one who can take this side forward.
"The role of captaincy hasn't been easy over the last couple of years - being a stand-in captain for however long. It was always going to be difficult, filling the shoes of Dane," she said. "The way the game's going and with the team we have at the moment - it's a very young squad and it was very exciting to see talent and players coming in. It's leading a new generation. Players have come and gone and we're just looking forward."
Hilton Moreeng, South Africa's coach for the last decade, will know that too. From being taught to play cricket by a woman to being at the helm of the national women's team's progression from amateur to professional and all the way to a World Cup final, Moreeng has come full circle. Even if South Africa win the World Cup, it's difficult to see him continuing in this job with nothing left to achieved, but he should be in line for many others as he keeps setting the bar higher.
Moreeng is not only South Africa's most successful limited-overs coach but is also the first black African head coach of a national team. He has also overseen what appears to have been a mostly organic transformation of the national women's team, something that continues to cause angst among the men. Where the women's team differs is that they do not source the bulk of their players from the small, elite schools' pool, like the men do, but from development programs - proof that investment into grassroots sport works.
The best example of that is Ayabonga Khaka. She is from the rural village of Middledrift in the Eastern Cape, also home to fast bowler Mfuneko Ngam. Khaka is a product of his academy, established at the University of Fort Hare, where she was also studying Human Movement Sciences. From the same province, but a completely different part of it, is Marizanne Kapp, who went to school at Hoerskool DF Malherbe. She is their most accomplished alumnus.
In Kapp, Khaka, and Ismail lies a small part of the story of this South African women's team. They are diverse in race, class and culture. For a country that has always been divided along those lines, that is a massive inspiration and fosters a sense of hope that only the Springboks have otherwise conjured. The 2019 rugby side led by Kolisi and coached by Rassie Erasmus, was the first truly representative national side to achieve something great. This South African cricket team could be the second.
On one hand, it's an enormous burden to carry; on the other, it's the only way a South African team can embody the spirit on which its democracy was founded, the spirit of Ubuntu. Explained literally it means "I am because you are," but the words don't do justice to the feeling.
Ubuntu is the way two South Africans' eyes meet in an airport hall when one has heard the other saying they are boarding "now-now." It's the three-part handshake of grip, swing palm, grip and snap that is effortless to South Africans and impossible for most others. It's the collective groans and cheers every time a rolling blackout starts and stops and the many times they have "made a plan," no matter how difficult the situation. Ubuntu is what you experience at a Sunday afternoon braai and this Sunday, it will be what we will experience at what could be the biggest party the country has ever hosted.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent for South Africa and women's cricket