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England off the canvas and knockout-ready - Heather Knight

After holding nerve in four must-win games, England primed for tough bout with South Africa says captain

Valkerie Baynes
Valkerie Baynes
Heather Knight believes that effectively playing "knockout cricket" throughout the latter half of the World Cup group stage will stand England in good stead when it comes to the real thing.
England, the defending champions, have won four matches on the trot after defeats in the first three left their semi-final qualification hopes hanging by a thread. They take on South Africa on Thursday in a replay of the 2017 semi-final in Bristol, which England won by two wickets with two balls remaining.
"We're in a very good place," Knight said. "We still probably haven't played our best cricket yet, which is more exciting, I think, and something we feel like we're building towards, hopefully at the perfect time.
"The really pleasing thing is we've reacted brilliantly to knockout games. We've been playing knockout cricket since the fourth game, so to be able to deal with that is great for going into the semi-final. Having that mentality to have the pressure on you and that if you lose you're out, we've had that for a while now, so I think that will be a really useful thing for us.
"The same things apply, just keeping it really simple, going into that semi-final not changing too many things and just doing what's gone very well for us recently."
In that previous semi-final clash with South Africa, England overcame an almighty wobble in which they lost 3 for 6 in the space of 12 balls after a comfortable start chasing 219. Some 14 players from that match could feature in the likely line-ups across both teams on Thursday. However, Knight believes her team's more recent experience of dealing with pressure will have more of a bearing against a South Africa side which has won five out of seven group games in this year's tournament, including a three-wicket win with four balls to spare against England.
"We've been used to dealing with the pressure of the last four games," Knight said. "So having a process as individuals and as a team is quite important, and knowing what the stakes are, it's just useful just to know that we've been successful and it's brought the best out of us. I think that will build a lot of confidence going into Thursday.
"We'll have to bring our best cricket and we'd love to obviously have the same result as 2017. It would be a little bit nicer if it wasn't as close because that's probably one of the most nerve-wracking finishes to a cricket game I think I've ever had, to make a home World Cup final."
Knight credits her team's "remarkable" turnaround, which also followed a disappointing Ashes campaign in Australia immediately before the World Cup, to remaining calm and working to fix the areas that were letting them down, namely poor fielding and the conceding of too many extras.
"It was just being honest with what had gone wrong and realising that a lot of it was in our control and mainly just trying to stay positive around the group," she said. "You don't want to go crazy and make a huge deal out of it. You're just desperate to obviously try and turn it around and I think you do that by remembering what what has made us a very good team, what we do really well, and try and execute that."
Fielding mistakes proved costly for England in their group game with South Africa. Laura Wolvaardt was dropped three times in the process of top-scoring with 77, and she remains the competition's leading run-maker with 433 so far, 75 ahead of second-placed Meg Lanning of Australia.
England will also be wary of Marizanne Kapp, who has shown her allround match-winning ability during this tournament, dangerous seamer Shabnim Ismail and opener Lizelle Lee, even though she has only reached double figures twice in six innings so far with a top score of 36.
"I think Lizelle Lee's had quite a quiet tournament, and not forgetting how explosive she can be, and making sure we're having plans in place for all their batters is pretty important," Knight said. "But it's no secret Laura's going to be a key wicket for us, trying to get her early. We obviously had a few opportunities to do that in our first game but couldn't take them so we have to be really on it from ball one and start quite quickly."
South Africa are no strangers to close encounters at this World Cup, their victories over Pakistan, England, New Zealand and India all coming down to the final over - the last ball in the case of India. Having lost just one match, to Australia before a washed-out game with West Indies, South Africa are unbeaten batting second in 16 matches, which could influence Knight's decision should she win the toss.
Veteran seamer Anya Shrubsole is available for selection, having been rested during England's final group-stage match, a 100-run win over Bangladesh. While Knight was yet to see the Christchurch pitch, she expected it to be the same one on which they defeated Pakistan by nine wickets. That surface was a green-top, albeit a week before the South Africa game, on which seamer Katherine Brunt and spinner Sophie Ecclestone took three wickets each.
The winner of the England-South Africa game will face in the final either Australia or West Indies, who play the previous day.

Valkerie Baynes is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo