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Feature

South Africa were not good enough and they know it - now, they will try to get better

"I don't think we are going to define ourselves by the way we played tonight," Sune Luus says

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
31-Mar-2022
This was not a South African outfit that played as though they were good enough to get to their first World Cup title  •  ICC via Getty Images

This was not a South African outfit that played as though they were good enough to get to their first World Cup title  •  ICC via Getty Images

There was no crying. At least not that we could see.
There was no dramatic scrambling on to the Christchurch field, no shrieks that pierced eardrums and hearts, and absolutely no sense of what-if.
After all, South Africa were comprehensively beaten by a better England side to end a World Cup campaign that always looked on the verge of toppling over. Their five victories in the league stage were all nail-biters, and though that suggested they knew how to win under pressure, South Africa went through the tournament one card away from the house falling down. They were over-reliant on Laura Wolvaardt and the reputation of their pace pack and lacked a consistent opening stand, a No. 3 batter, and a specialist spinner, and at some point, those deficiencies were going to show.
This was not a South African outfit that played as though they were good enough to get to their first World Cup final and even in the immediate aftermath of the defeat, with emotions running high, they knew it. "We didn't bring our best game when it was needed," captain Sune Luus said afterwards, straight-faced in defeat unlike her predecessor Dane van Niekerk, who had broken down when addressing the media after the 2017 defeat to the same team.
"Our provincial structure needs to be stronger. We need more players coming into the system and competing at a higher level with our emerging team. It all starts there. As we look around the world, everybody is creating [T20] leagues. I don't want us to fall behind"
Sune Luus
Then, South Africa were the wild card, made up of plucky and largely unknown players who considered themselves fortunate to be part of the final four. They were living a dream and losing to England in Bristol was the wake-up call they didn't want. Fast-forward five years and they were one of the best sides around, with a mature and settled group - albeit rocked by van Niekerk's injury-enforced absence - on a mission to show what the effects of good planning and sufficient game time could do.
To a degree, they achieved their aim. This was South Africa's best performance at an ODI World Cup and they had good returns from both the stalwarts [Marizanne Kapp's all-round heroics and Mignon du Preez's match-winning knock against India] and the younger players [Wolvaardt's runs and Luus' contributions].
Like New Zealand and India, they are on the verge of generation change with six of the squad over 30 but no confirmed retirees just yet. It's for that reason, and perhaps only that, that South Africa leave this tournament with unfinished business.
"It's a very sad change-room tonight - different to the other games we've played," Luus said. "There's a couple of players - it might be their last World Cup and for us as younger players it breaks our hearts that we couldn't give the final to them and help them get the trophy they have been working towards for…"
Before Luus could remember, Shabnim Ismail, who joined her for the post-match conference, interrupted. "Fifteen years," Ismail, who made her debut in 2007 and was part of the first stage of the professionalisation of the women's game in South Africa in 2014, said.
"Yes, 15 years," Luus said. "That breaks our heart that we couldn't support them in their last World Cup, although I think Shabnim is ready to play another one."
She is. "I feel I am peaking at the right time," Ismail said. "I know I am 33, but I feel like my cricket is moving in the right direction."
Despite this result, it is for South Africa too.
'Our provincial structure needs to be stronger'
They are now considered among the heavyweights in the women's game, they win series [five in succession before the World Cup] and they produce players for franchise leagues. Perhaps that's why there was none of the sense of large-scale devastation we saw five years ago. "We've had a brilliant couple of years as a team," Luus said. "We've grown immensely. All the players have stepped up at different times. It's still not over. It's very exciting to see what the future holds and when we go back and regroup and start afresh."
This is the next challenge for South Africa. Now that the women's game is sponsored and thriving at international level, there needs to be a trickle-down effect to ensure there's enough depth to maintain consistency at the highest level. "Our provincial structure needs to be stronger," Luus said. "We need more players coming into the system and competing at a higher level with our emerging team. It all starts there. As we look around the world, everybody is creating leagues. I don't want us to fall behind."
While South Africa has a provincial set-up for women's cricket, there is no T20 league and the domestic game flies under the radar. It is unsponsored, much like the men's domestic game, and could become under-resourced. Luus appealed to corporates not to let them happen. "It's going to take a huge effort for us to encourage sponsors to come and board and help the growth of women's cricket in South Africa."
The financial services company Momentum is the reason the women's national team could be contracted eight years ago, and they have backed them since then. That arrangement comes to an end after this tournament, which may mean that CSA has to go searching for a company to step in. Given the performances of the team, that may not be difficult. This South African team has captured the imagination of the nation, taken up space in mass media, and even caught the eye of World Cup-winning Springbok captain Siya Kolisi.
Now, they need to take it to the next level, which means an investment into development structures and a fine-tuning of operations at elite level. On the face of it, the services of a high-performance coach or sports psychologist should be added to the support staff. "I don't think it's a skill problem. I think it's more mental," Ismail said. "We've got the skill, we've got world-class players; it's just to fire on the day, it's 80% mental and 20% skill."
And with that statement, South Africa showed that they know where things went wrong - that, for example, the dropped catches that let Danni Wyatt go on to score a match-winning hundred were about their state of mind and not necessarily their ability - and that all is not lost because of one defeat. "I don't think we are going to define ourselves by the way we played tonight," Luus said. And she smiled as she left the room.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent