Shabnim Ismail the fire that reignites South Africa's T20 World Cup dream

The girl from Cravenby made history in the leafy surrounds of Newlands, accompanied by team-mates from the Eastern Cape

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
"Nailed it!"
Shabnim Ismail was not talking about the two wickets she took in three balls in the powerplay to peg back England's speedy start to their chase. Or the pep talk she gave Nadine de Klerk when England were 81 for 2 after nine overs and de Klerk was tasked with tying them down. She was not even talking about her wicket in the final over, which was that of the England captain Heather Knight and all but sealed South Africa's spot in the Women's T20 World Cup final.
She was talking about the speed gun that she sent upwards of 127kph in a searing over that assured her status as the quickest bowler on the women's circuit. Pace is still pace, yaar, even in a tournament where the two leading bowlers are spinners and the matches are being played on tired mid-summer pitches. Pace has always been pace in South Africa and it's the thing Ismail knew was going to define South Africa's campaign.
"I'm going to bowl f*** fast because I don't have a choice," Ismail was overheard saying a week before the tournament started, at the City of Cape Town's launch event (the one where Sune Luus was given the wooden spoon, remember?). In the absence of their talismanic regular captain Dane van Niekerk, controversy over recent retirements and a general sense of gloom around the country's cricket in the last few years, that was a statement that spoke of the responsibility Ismail, as the most experienced player in the current squad, knew she would carry into this competition. It is now also a statement she has turned into action, and action when it mattered most.
After South Africa batters put in their best performance since September 2021, England got off to their best start of the tournament and the target of 165 did not seem enough. Ismail was tasked with bowling the final over of the powerplay after her first cost ten runs and included a bouncer directed at Danni Wyatt's body that missed everyone including Sinalo Jafta, who let four byes through.
The first ball of her second over was full and inviting. Sophia Dunkley tried to flick it over midwicket but miscued off the splice and Tazmin Brits backpedalled to take a good catch. The second was on a good length and defended by new batter Alice Capsey. The third was the moneyball: a hostile bouncer angling in on middle and leg stump that Capsey had to play at. She got to the right of Brits at midwicket; Brits went at it full stretch with a one-handed dive and the ball stuck.
"When she went down I just looked at the ball and I saw it was still in her hand and I just kept on running," Ismail said.
South Africa celebrated wildly before Brits left the field to check for either a popped vein or a broken bone on her swollen forearm - she suffered from neither, as she later revealed - and then Ismail delivered three more balls, reaching speeds of 125 and 128 in the same over.
"No ways! You guys are joking," she said, when she found out what her speeds were. "I didn't know that. Thanks for telling me."
That Ismail did not feel how quickly she sent the ball down said something about her laser-like focus when she's at her best, which is about feel rather than confirming statistics. She calls it "switching off completely" from everything including the 7507-strong crowd and the match situation and reminding herself that the price she has to pay for having extra pace is discipline.
"I always speak about obviously bowling as quickly as I can. But also, in saying that, you need to be consistent."
When she was brought back to bowl the 16th and was hit for three fours by Nat Sciver-Brunt in an over that cost 14 runs, Ismail admitted she had been "put off my game plan". In that over, one ball was too straight, another was a full toss, and the third was a slower ball. She knew she needed to get back to the basics to get South Africa over the line. Basics like Ayabonga Khaka displayed.
As the third prong in South Africa's pace pack, Khaka is often overshadowed by Ismail and Marizanne Kapp, but both of them routinely mention her as being the glue that holds them together. Ismail calls them a "triad" that "bounce off of each other's knowledge" and take turns being in control. "It's always one of us in the bowling line-up who takes the initiative to lead."
It was Khaka's final over that set it up for Kapp and Ismail to deny England on this occasion. Khaka took pace off the ball and got it to grip in the surface and was rewarded with three wickets. Kapp also tried the cutter but Knight saw it and deposited it over long-on to leave Ismail with 12 to defend.
"I'm not even going to lie, I didn't even look at how much they needed," Ismail said. "I just told myself I just wanted to defend three or four and that was my mindset."
She ended up conceding six runs, knocking over Knight and putting South Africa in the final for the first time at a senior World Cup. A girl from Cravenby, a suburb in Cape Town, which is not rich in material resources, had made history in the leafy surrounds of Newlands, accompanied by team-mates from the Eastern Cape - one white, one black. You only need to understand South Africa's past to know the significance of that and of what this team, long-transformed and long-successful, have done.
They have reached the final frontier. South Africans have not dared to dream they would see this day. Never mind at a home World Cup. Collectively, the men's and women's teams have been to eight World Cup semi-finals across ODI and T20I cricket and lost all of them. The women were ninth time lucky at Newlands.
Now, they enter uncharted territory. They could see the final it as a "free hit", as Knight put it; a chance to go out and express themselves with absolutely no expectation or attachment to the outcome because whatever it is, they've won something already. Or they could put themselves under immense pressure to go another step further and become the most celebrated senior team in the country's history. We all know which option Ismail would take.

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