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