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Match Analysis

South Africa surmount the stage fright to stay another day at their World Cup party

Ten-wicket victory belies anxiety of hosts as England now await in semi-finals

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
21-Feb-2023
There was a lot of frenetic running on display, South Africa vs Bangladesh, Women's T20 World Cup, Cape Town, February 21, 2023

There was a lot of frenetic running on display in a nervy run-chase  •  ICC/Getty Images

In a sport where strange things tend to happen - albeit not that many at this World Cup - the strangest would have been if South Africa had found a way to lose to Bangladesh for the first time in more than 10 years and second in as many meetings. But, remember, stranger things have happened.
It was less than four months ago that the men's team, on the cusp of a T20 World Cup semi-final, crashed out in improbable fashion at the hands of Netherlands. It was only a little more than a week ago that the women's team lost their World Cup opener to Sri Lanka, a team they dismissed for their lowest T20I score - 46 - in Birmingham six months ago. South Africa's tournament campaign got back on track when they caught New Zealand on a second successive off-day but the manner in which the hosts were outplayed by Australia showed signs of a side who get overawed by big occasions. Strangely, the match against Bangladesh will go down as one of the biggest.
On a breezy Tuesday night, 6,623 people packed into Newlands, the second-biggest crowd for a women's international in this country. Among them was Graeme Smith, now lauded as the person who single-handedly breathed life back into the country's game thanks to his role in putting together the SA20. Imagine the burden of continuing his summer of success. Also present were groups of people who clearly knew some of the players. A Laura Wolvaardt fan club had taken up residence in one stand, and a Nadine de Klerk one in the other. Imagine the feeling of having your nearest and dearest watching on one of your biggest nights. South African flags were spotted in all parts. Imagine the expectation which hung thick in the air. South Africa played like a team who were feeling it.
Right from the start, they handled pressure like a hot potato. Wolvaardt, their best fielder, dropped Shamima Sultana off the ninth ball of the match, on three. She was stationed at backward point, where she had pulled off some stellar stops, but the ball spilled out of her hands. Immediately after that happened, Shabnim Ismail, who was bowling, scowled; in the field shoulders dropped, and all around tension simmered. "It can be difficult when you miss one," Wolvaardt said. "You just have to stay positive."
At first, they didn't. Tazmin Brits put the simplest of catches down on the midwicket boundary, to let Shobhana Mostery off the hook on 25. Between that, Marizanne Kapp and de Klerk collided on the boundary to ultimately save a four that they could have kept to a single if one of them had collected cleanly. Happily, no-one was hurt but worryingly, they were clearly rattled.
Kapp's kick to deep midwicket in her final over cost two runs. Her wild throw to the non-striker's end in the next over conceded another one. In the same over another careless throw ricocheted off Farghana Hoque's bat and allowed the batters to take two. At one point Sinalo Jafta ran to square leg to field a Hoque missed flick, Brits had to back up behind the stumps and a single became two. Off the next ball, another wild throw allowed two more. Nonkululeko Mlaba let a ball go through her fingers at short fine leg and allowed a run. Between the 17th and 20th over, South Africa gave six runs that they shouldn't have. It was only six, but then they lost to Sri Lanka by three.
Despite a strangling bowling performance, an obviously disappointed team left the field in bit-parts. Ismail covered her face with her pullover as Kapp and Khaka appeared in deep conversation. "It was our worst fielding performance of the competition," Wolvaardt conceded, as the team body language remained riddled with a tension that carried over into the chase.
Brits sent Wolvaardt back at the end of the first over, when a single was probably on but she decided she didn't want it. Then at the end of the second over, Brits offered mid-off a simple chance and was fortunate that Bangladesh, too, were struck by a bout of butterflies. Not content with surviving twice, Wolvaardt chanced her third life, when she hit Marufa Akter to short cover and ran even though Brits unmoved. Wolvaardt was at Brits' end when the throw came in to Marufa, who anxiously flung to the keeper, by which time Wolvaardt had made her ground. There was no run off that ball, the middle of a series of nine dots, and the pressure built.
Wolvaardt broke it in the fifth over with a charge against Nahida Akter and a six over long-on. South Africa finished the powerplay on 26 without loss, with less than 90 to get, but Wolvaardt was worried. "When I looked at our score after the powerplay I thought it was not that good and this is a crunch match for us," she said.
There was a crack of light in the door to the semi-finals but it took a shift in mindset to open it completely. "We were making it look a lot harder than it was and losing our shapes a bit but we realised we can't leave it for the last over," Wolvaardt added.
After the 10-over drinks break, the next over went for eight runs and the one after that for nine, and the next two for 17 runs combined. Eventually they walked through with increasing confidence as Bangladesh began to fray, Wolvaardt and Brits reached their highest scores of the tournament and put on South Africa's fourth-highest opening stand in T20Is.
Brits even had time for a light-hearted moment when she celebrated her half-century by placing both hands on her helmet and standing on one leg, like a tree. Wolvaardt said she had "no idea" what the symbolic meaning of that gesture was. When Wolvaardt hit the winning runs, Mlaba and Masabata Klaas got a dance going which involved holding their hands behind their backs like a bunny rabbit's tail and in the stands, the 6,623 people partied with the gusto of a full house.
But this is only part of the job. The team that chased 114 now has to face the side who, an hour before them, beat their opposition by 114 runs and made it look simple. If the growing gap between cricket's haves and have-nots could be measured, 114 on Tuesday night tells the story. England are unbeaten from the group stage and eyeing up a final against one of Australia or India. South Africa still need to own their home World Cup but still believe the semi-finals is the place where it will happen.
"We're going to have to play a very good game of cricket," Wolvaardt said. "England are a very explosive batting side. They play a very attacking brand of cricket. We are going to have to have some good discussions about how we use that against them and we are going to have to put a lot of runs on the board against them, especially in the powerplay."
It's not lost on Wolvaardt that South Africa have lost their last three semi-finals, all to England. The last one, at the 2022 50-over World Cup, came after South Africa beat England in the group stage and Wolvaardt called it a "mental lapse" which must be avoided this time. "We have to stay mentally strong," she said.
South African teams have often said that. Imagine how strangely exciting it would be if they're able to do it.

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