Amid chaos and randomness, South Africa hold their nerve (for a change)

From being put on the backfoot by Nepal, they dragged themselves back courtesy Shamsi and Baartman

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Time stopped in Kingstown. The ball Aasif Sheikh top-edged off Kagiso Rabada swirled in the humid island air. Then, like those old slo-mos where you see everything in staccato, Rabada moved to get under it, extended his arms and the ball came tumbling down. And down. And down. And down through his hands and onto the floor. And the clock restarted.
Aasif cracked the next ball over cover for his first boundary, with the confidence of a player who was in no danger of being dismissed a minute before. Nepal, chasing a modest 116 for their first win over a Full Member, were up and running.
That moment is important, not to isolate Rabada's error - dropped catches happen to all kinds of players in all sorts of moments - but to highlight how mini-moments change matches. Let's say Rabada had held on and Nepal were 6 for 1 in the second over, with one of their four most experienced batters dismissed, and suddenly we'd have been looking at a very different situation.
We may even be talking about how, despite how good their spinners had been, they were pinned back too early in the chase to mount a challenge. Instead, Aasif went on to hit two more boundaries in the powerplay, Nepal did not lose any wickets in that period and they were 34 for 0 after seven overs: slow but steady in their reply.


Time stopped. For Tabraiz Shamsi, it may have felt like it stopped in December, when he last played for South Africa.
Granted, the T20 team only played three matches together before the World Cup - against West Indies - but Shamsi was not used in any of them and was also benched for the first three matches of the T20 World Cup 2024. Once the No.1 ranked bowler in the format and still South Africa's leading wicket-taker in T20Is, Shamsi has found himself sidelined in an XI that prefers the strength of their pace and the guile of Keshav Maharaj. But on a slow Saint Vincent pitch, with South Africa already through to the Super Eight, they thought it would be "a great opportunity for him to get some game time," as Aiden Markram said at the post-match press conference. What a masterstroke it proved to be.
Shamsi's second ball got South Africa's first wicket when Kushal Bhurtel saw it tossed up and decided to reverse-sweep but missed completely. His fourth ball was a beauty that spun back into Rohit Paudel's offstump and removed the Nepal captain for a duck. Just like that, South Africa were on top. Albeit not for very long.
Aasif was still there and he shifted momentum in the 13th over, when he took 13 runs off Rabada's second over, as Markam rotated through his seamers before he gave himself a spell. He conceded that South Africa got their combination wrong and would have played both spinners if they had read conditions better. "Our fast bowling unit has been bowling really well in this competition. You want to back that and give them the freedom to perform but in hindsight, we would have played both spinners."
Shamsi probably did the job of two anyway. He was brought back in the 18th over, with Nepal needing just a run-a-ball, and fired one in down leg, where Dipendra Singh Airee gloved an attempted sweep and then got his last delivery to spin between Aasif's bat and pad to take the off bail. A second double-wicket over put South Africa in the position to complete a clean sweep of the group stage. But they had to wait, and work, for it.


Time stopped. After four deliveries in the upper 140s, Anrich Nortje opted for a slower ball at 114kph and Sompal Kami had a little bit - but only a little bit - of time to set-up for a shot that could change the game.
Then, like those old fast-forwards when everything moves so quickly that the audio makes a strange, squeaking sound, he swivel-pulled one of the game's fastest and scariest quicks, over mid-wicket, into the parking lot. Nepal needed 10 more runs off the last seven balls, and eight off the final six.
It was over to Ottneil Baartman, who bowled the penultimate over against Bangladesh earlier this week and left Keshav Maharaj 10 to defend. Two dot balls into the over, Baartman looked every bit the bowler for the job. But Gulshan Jha sent the next ball screeching through point for four and Nepal were four runs away from what could have been their first win over a Full Member, perhaps their biggest victory yet.
In situations like these, players with more experience of handling pressure win out in small moments, and for decades those players were not South African. Baartman, who had never even travelled or played outside his home country before this event, could have fallen into the category of 'unsure,' but he's had two seasons in the SA20 as part of the winning team and has collected memories of success.
So he held his nerve and bowled according to the plan laid out by Markram. "I didn't want to go too full because then it would be an easy hit. So it was about hitting that hard length and using the short ball to our advantage," Markram said. Baartman's last two balls were short and Gulshan could not make contact, but in hope, he ran off the final one in pursuit of a Super Over.
In the chaotic seconds that followed, Quinton de Kock collected the ball and threw it towards the non-striker, it deflected off Gulshan towards Heinrich Klaasen, who was coming in from mid-wicket and he reacted quickly to run Gulshan out. "It was a funny ending," Markram said. "But sometimes you become really grateful to get random victories like this."
"Random" is probably the best word to describe how it all played out. Why Gulshan slowed down instead of sped up, we will never know. Maybe it had something to do with his perception of time being suspended in the most surreal of sporting moments.
"We were very close but we were a little far," Paudel said, smiling through his obvious disappointment. Turns out it was distance, not time, that separated Nepal from a historic win.

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