England v South Africa, 1st semi-final, Women's World Cup 2017, Bristol July 18, 2017

Crying, but no shame, as South Africa strive but fail to break the hoodoo

The tears flowed - on and off the match, before and after the match - as an emotional day was decided in a devastatingly close finale

South Africa came so close to their dream of a World Cup final © PA Photos

There were tears.

At the beginning, they were tears of joy. Chloe Tryon and Marizanne Kapp, playing in their second and third World Cups respectively but first knockout match, could not hold back their emotions when the national anthem was played. They were overjoyed, they were expectant, as was a nation.

Today is Nelson Mandela day. The great man would have been 99. Incidentally, it is also WG Grace's birthday. He would have been 169. Perhaps more to the point, it is Ayabonga Khaka's birthday. She is 25. And she gave South Africa as good a chance as they could have wanted in an attempt to defend 218.

Khaka's 10 overs, delivered in one spell, cost just 28 runs and she picked up two wickets, including the biggest one. Tammy Beaumont, the tournament's leading run-scorer, had her middle stump taken out by Khaka as she tried to heave a full delivery down the ground. Before that, Khaka had Lauren Winfield caught off a top-edge at point. Before that, South Africa did not really seem to have a chance.

England put on 41 in the first eight overs and the South African bowling and fielding appeared to be overwhelmed. The wicketkeeper, Trisha Chetty, dropped a catch, and then cost Kapp five wides when she could not get to a ball that slid down leg, Shabnim Ismail overstepped, on the free-hit overstepped again, and on the next free-hit overstepped a third time but the umpire didn't spot the last offense. The first eight overs confirmed 218 was not going to be enough.

Anya Shrubsole tries to console Dane van Niekerk © Getty Images

South Africa had suspected that at the break when they thought they were 30 runs short.

From the sidelines, it looked more like 50 runs short. And those 50 runs were not unachievable for their line-up, even though they lost Lizelle Lee early. South Africa have batsmen who can score more substantially than they have managed at this event but who have had the same handbrake holding them back. As soon as they lose a few wickets, they panic. And when they panic, they don't communicate. And when they don't communicate, they run themselves out.

In this tournament, South Africa have had eight run-outs, more than any other team. Run-outs have made up 18.6% of their 43 dismissals, more than the overall run-out average of 11.48%.

Today, Kapp was run-out three balls after the departure of Laura Wolvaardt, whose 66 had been her fourth fifty of the World Cup, and so the middle-overs were needed to rebuild, not push on. Still Mignon du Preez saved her best for the big occasion and her unbeaten 76 was her highest score of the tournament. But she didn't have a lot of support at the end, so South Africa had to settle for a below-par total.

There were tears in the middle as well. The South African team huddled before taking the field, prayed as they always do and van Niekerk delivered what looked like a rousing speech before leaving the circle wiping her eyes. But she quickly had to dry them and find a way to pull England back from their strong start, and she could not have done that without Khaka.

Though not as celebrated as Ismail or Kapp, Khaka has been crucial to the South African cause because of her ability to hold an end. She has been the most economical of the South African seamers in this tournament, conceding just 3.85 an over - only van Niekerk, with an economy rate of 3.46, has been tighter. In the semi-final, they bowled eight overs in tandem between the 16th and 24th overs and gave they gave away only 30 runs at 3.75 an over. They brought South Africa back into the game, but they needed wickets to keep them in it.

van Niekerk leaves the field teary-eyed © ICC

It was not until the Suné Luus double-strike in the 35th over that South Africa really looked as though they believed they could win. Their gestures became more animated, they started to scold each other for misfields, and praise each other for saving runs. They were clapping and talking and giving van Niekerk ideas of what to do next. Maybe too many.

With the required run-rate at six an over, van Niekerk employed what looked like an uncertain strategy of switching the seamers' ends around and not using herself because she was convinced the quicks knew what to do at the death. But Kapp's ninth over cost eight runs and Ismail's ninth over cost 10, and they just did not have that many to play with. Of course, there were other issues, Trisha Chetty's keeping being the main one, but mostly South Africa needed more to scrap with, and they didn't have it.

Of course, there were tears at the end. When Anya Shrubsole threaded the third-last ball of the match through the gap at point to the boundary, the South African side slumped to the ground just as their men's team had done at Auckland in 2015. And they cried. Kapp hid her face in her hands from that moment until she left the field, well after the media engagements were over. Ismail cried, and maybe swore, and was immediately consoled by the England batsmen. Khaka and Daniels cried on their own. Tryon and Lee cried together.

Hilton Moreeng, the coach whom van Niekerk credited with being the main reason for the team's massive improvement between the 2014 World T20 and now, cried on the sidelines and then ran onto the field to envelop van Niekerk in a hug so they could cry as one. Even Danie van den Burgh, the representative from the Momentum, the company whose sponsorship allowed the women's game in South Africa to professionalise and thrive, and who flew in specifically for the semi-final and only booked his return ticket for Monday because he believed the girls would be in the final, cried. He confirmed, through his tears, that he was more proud than sad and said there was "no way" the company would not continue to back the girls.

After van den Burgh joined the squad on the field, they all cried and the team prayed and cried some more. In the change-room afterwards, they cried. Van Niekerk was still crying a little at the press conference, her tears a salty mixture of pride and disappointment. "Losing in a game so close just makes it hurt even more," she said.

Every time they think about just how close they came - one catch, fewer extras, a couple more runs - they may all cry a little again. You can hardly blame them. Take the context out of it and this will go down as just another semi-final failure. Put the reality into it and a senior South African team, of either gender, has still yet to reach the final of a World Cup.

This team thought they could change that. This team came so close to changing it. So damn close. In a few days' or weeks' or months' time, knowing that should make them smile.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ian on July 21, 2017, 6:51 GMT

    This article really doesn't help the gender stereotype, does it? Nevertheless ...a brilliantly enthralling game of cricket.

  • nick.c7127450 on July 19, 2017, 21:19 GMT

    @Sam, absolutely - actually that ultimate Spirit of Cricket picture from Ashes 2005 was even more poignant: Flintoff put his arm around a gutted Lee after Australia had lost by 2 runs (I believe it adorns walls at both ex-players' homes) - and yes, the picture of Anya and Dane deserves to share space with it. I get almost the same kind of goosebumps when a team affords a great opponent playing his last innings a guard of honour, though that's less spontaneous.

  • Ivan on July 19, 2017, 13:38 GMT

    @Ian: I think we should leave these overly simple generalizations out whilst enjoying the Women's WC where incidentally the Indian team has had its best ever run. In India with over a billion people (about 12 x the population of UK) there is a strain on resources - hence large sections of society do not have the wherewithal to pursue sports be it the men or the women. This in part explains why India while a cricketing power does poorly in most other sports. Women though pursue their dreams through education - the number of engineers and doctors who are women is probably the highest as a proportion of the workforce. In the west though women have often been discouraged from studying Science. I remember talking to a University Professor about her career and she told me that when she was in school in the US in the 1970's when she wanted to study Math in 11th grade she had to obtain special permission from the principal because 'girls don't study math'. Let's just enjoy the cricket.

  • Steve on July 19, 2017, 13:07 GMT

    That's what pressure does to you. It creates panic and you can't think straight anymore, which in turn create fear of defeat in your head. To help my daughter, who played USTA junior tennis tournaments, deal with these emotional stresses, I would say, "I will give 20 bucks if you lose, but only 10 if you win". She would say, "I don't want your 20 or 10, I would rather win and take no money". She used to say she no longer entertained thought of losing before stepping on the court.

  • ian on July 19, 2017, 12:42 GMT

    @Cricket: I thought I had made the connection - pity you didn't see it. I am well aware of the oppression suffered by women and girls throughout the world, specifically in the geographical areas I mentioned, besides those I didn't. Playing sport, being allowed to play sport indeed, is one step towards equal treatment - it would be tremendous to see girls playing cricket in loads of places, and indicative of a more liberated society... Afghanistan has made amazing progress in men's cricket; it would be even more wonderful if there was an Afghanistan women's team in a WC in, say, eight years, wouldn't it? You have every right to disagree with my take or my opinions on anything. You have no right to ask me to stop expressing my considered opinion; it smacks of something unpleasantly censorious - that doesn't do really, does it? I have taught in West Africa and in the Middle East, and was brought up in Nigeria. I have commented on this excellent game elsewhere, btw.

  • maplea6580885 on July 19, 2017, 12:24 GMT

    @Cricket You must have read only half of Ian's comment. He mentioned the subcontinent And can you remind me which Latin American and European (apart from the UK) countries play cricket? - Pugs

  • Sen on July 19, 2017, 12:21 GMT

    Just so proud of the girls and how far they've come. They're now at a point where they can trash teams on the same level and be competable against teams at higher level than them, as evidenced in this tournament!

  • Cricket on July 19, 2017, 10:38 GMT

    Oh @Ian stop, stop with the troppe of poor, backward Africa - what's that got to do with this game of cricket that took place yesterday. There many places in Europe, Asia and Latin America where women lack the same basic needs as in Africa. In any case, I don't see what, that's got to do with this game of game of cricket that took place yesterday. Well played South Africa and England - may you continue to get better, both teams.

  • Duncan on July 19, 2017, 9:04 GMT

    Agree with other comments on this SA team having done really well in this WC. In this match although Luus bowled some terrible balls, she also got 2 wickets but was taken out of the attack? I think she is repeatedly under-utilised.

  • Sriram on July 19, 2017, 9:00 GMT

    Wonderful effort SA. What a revelation this team. I watched them thrash India and although was disappinting result for me was great to watch SA play. Hope they turn into a force. Good luck