Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent
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Catching up to the Commonwealth Games semi-finalists is the task that lies ahead for both South Africa and Sri Lanka, who finished in third and fourth place in Group B respectively. The two teams exit the Games without advancing to the medal-matches and have six months to improve their approach before the next major tournament, the T20 World Cup.
South Africa are the hosts of that event and given the trajectory they were on until a few months ago, would have been considered among the favourites. However, a loss of personnel and form (they were on an eight-match losing streak across white-ball formats before beating Sri Lanka in their final Commonwealth Games group match) has exposed the distance between them and the teams who have been professional for longer.
"When you look at Australia, England and New Zealand, they are pulling far ahead," Sune Luus, South Africa's captain said. "We saw what the gaps are between us and them. There's a lot of things we can improve on."
From a skills' perspective, South Africa were much better in the field in their final match than they had been throughout the tour. They took all the catches that were available to them and effected two run-outs. Their bowling was also more disciplined, they hit their lengths for longer periods of time and found tighter lines than in the England series and while their batting could still use a little more assertiveness, the opening pair are shaping up well.
However, it's not just in the technical areas of the game that South Africa lag behind the teams Luus mentioned, but also the availability of personnel.
"If you have a strong domestic structure, you can have players coming in to do the job for you," Luus said, referring to how much easier it has been for England to be without captain Heather Knight because of the runs Alice Capsey has scored. Unlike England (or Australia or New Zealand), South Africa's domestic structure is semi-professional, and they do not have a dedicated franchise league.
Like England, South Africa have also had to do without their regular skipper, Dane van Niekerk, albeit for much longer. Van Niekerk has not played for eight months after breaking her ankle and has battled a lower back injury over the last few years, and they have struggled to find a replacement of her quality.
Asked about the difficulties of leading the side in her absence, Luus was fiery following South Africa's loss to England, and said she was "getting a lot of comments here and there about missing Dane but at the end of the day I am here to do a job," and indicated after the Sri Lanka win that the team have had to become used to van Niekerk's absence. "We didn't have Dane for the last three years so we've been going on without her," Luus said.
She has been similarly scant on commentary surrounding the controversy of Lizelle Lee's retirement, after failing to pass CSA's fitness requirements. "No comment," Luus said, when asked about Lee's tweet claiming coach Hilton Moreen knew that CSA planned to withdraw Lee's NOC for the Hundred because she had breached the fitness clause in her contract. "I am not on social media so I am trying to stay away from everything and focus on cricket. She retired and we spoke about that and that's it."
South Africa's reluctance to engage with the big issues surrounding their team also makes them different to England, Australia or New Zealand and suggests there's some work to be done on the mental side of their game. Marizanne Kapp, who missed the Commonwealth Games after her brother-in-law was involved in a serious accident, spoke about the team doctor being a sounding board for her during a tough time, but South Africa may need to look beyond that and to a mental conditioning coach as they seek to up-level. As Luus said: "It's easy when you captain a winning team. The challenge comes in when we are not doing so well."
But she had some optimism for South Africa's chances of catching up. "If you look at us against England and New Zealand, it was small margins (of defeat). We didn't get bowled out for 47. We are nearly there."
It was Sri Lanka's fate to be dismissed for 46 by South Africa in what was their worst batting performance in an overall poor tournament. They were the lowest run-scorers on aggregate and one batter, in particular, is feeling the heat. |The whole batting department depends on me but I didn't perform and we didn't score runs," Chamari Athapaththu said. "As a player, I am not in form. The last couple of tours I was in form but on this tour I am not in form. It's tough."
Athapaththu scored 25 runs in three innings, and is Sri Lanka's best-known player but it's taking its toll. "All the time, I struggle a lot because of this issue. A lot of top class players play their game without pressure but I am always playing my game with pressure," she said.
Like Luus, she called on her country's administrators to take care of the pipeline and to populate their calendar. Sri Lanka did not play any cricket between March 2020 and January 2022 and found adapting to conditions at the Commonwealth Games particularly tough.
"We have to restructure our domestic system and we have to pick good young players and they need opportunities," Athapaththu said. "Over the last two years, we didn't play much cricket. We struggled during the pandemic and after that we played in the Commonwealth qualifiers and were the champions and we played against India and Pakistan in bilateral series. After that, we came here but we have not played good cricket in English conditions. That has put us in a tough situation. We struggled against pace and swing. We need some time to improve. Within a year or two, we can build a good team."