The CRICKETher Weekly – Episode 154

This week, we’re back in the ol’ US of K:

  • Takeaways from the World Cup – Aus, India & Eng v the rest?
  • Changing perceptions of women’s sport in South Africa
  • The game we didn’t see – England v Australia
  • Build-up to WPL
  • The Mystery of Dottin

T20 WORLD CUP FINAL – Australia v South Africa: Gardnering Leave

A tightly disciplined powerplay bowling performance set Australia up to lift the World Cup at Newlands, as they went on to defend a par total and win by 19 runs.

Australia held South Africa to 22-1 in the powerplay, with Ash Gardner conceding just 2 runs from her one of those overs, on her way to final figures of 1-20. She epitomised the professionalism of Australia’s approach with the ball in this game, bowling to a clear plan to cramp Tazmin Brits and Laura Wolvaardt for room, which strangled South Africa’s batters early-doors and left them too much to do in the final overs.

Earlier, Australia had posted 156-6 – a par total, which lacked the swagger of their performance at the MCG in the 2020 final, when they had put 184 past helpless India. Beth Mooney was once again the lynchpin of the innings, but without the fireworks Alyssa Healy had provided at the other end in 2020, they couldn’t quite find the rhythm that marks out an exceptional batting performance. Healy and Meg Lanning faced 31 balls between them – lest we forget, over a quarter of the innings – and scored 28 runs at a strike rate of 90 – not exactly “Jon-Ball” territory.

The 29 off 21 which Gardner contributed looked like a cameo at the time, but turned out to be pretty crucial in the end – 10 runs fewer, and it could all have been a different story.

Laura Wolvaardt remains an enigma in T20 cricket. She showed in The Hundred that she can play a single-handed match-winning innings; and there were echoes of the time she smashed 90 off 49 balls for the Superchargers to beat the Originals last summer when she struck the 13th and 14th overs for 14 and 15 runs respectively. Just for a moment, there was hope that she might be able to defy the odds the way she did that day in Leeds.

But it wasn’t to be. 10 runs came of the 15th, but Ash Gardner bowled a tight 6 for 6 in the 16th, which ratcheted-up the pressure and forced the mistake from Wolvie in the following over – Megan Schutt getting the notch, as the South African missed a slog-sweep and was plumb LBW.

You could probably have called the game in that moment, and certainly when Chloe Tryon was bowled by Jess Jonassen in the following over, it was time to pay-out on Australia.

South Africa have done themselves proud in this tournament, as a nearly-13,000 crowd acknowledged at the end, applauding the team who scrapped to get to the final after everyone had written them off, and took Australia – probably the best team ever to have played the game – the distance here.

As for Australia… what can I say that’s not been said before? Since the disappointment of 2017, they’ve won everything there has been to win, weathering key retirements, as the likes of Alex Blackwell and Rachael Haynes stepped aside and players like Tahlia McGrath (look at the record over the past year, not the shocker today!) and Ash Gardner in particular stood up. They’ve built a juggernaut, which ran over England in 2018, India in 2020, England again in 2022, and now South Africa in 2023. Someone, someday will stop their momentum… but that day was not today.

T20 WORLD CUP SEMI-FINAL – England v South Africa: Britskrieg!

It was England who smashed South Africa all over the park last summer, winning the white-ball series in England 6-0.

It was England who pummelled over 200 at this very ground just a couple of days ago; after which South Africa nervously stuttered to a win against Bangladesh.

But it was South Africa today that played their hearts out for this generation to finally earn a place in a World Cup final, after falling at the semi-finals in 2 of the last 3 ICC global tournaments.

Batting first seemed a brave decision for a “bowling” team, and Laura Wolvaardt and Tazmin Brits were not quick out of the blocks; but they managed to get to the half-way mark undefeated while maintaining a steady strike rate of around 115. The dismissal of Wolvaardt, who was doing most of the work, could have been a turning-point – Brits was on 36 off 38 balls at that point, with 6 overs to go. But Brits – whose experience can be measured in years (32) but not so much in caps (46) – decided… rightly… that attack was the only way to go, hitting her next 17 balls for 32 crucial runs, at a Strike Rate of 188, to finish with 68 off 55. Marizanne Kapp then put the cherry on top at the death, hitting three 4s off a final over which went for 18 – exactly the same as Australia hit against India yesterday… and proving equally crucial.

Meanwhile England were disintegrating, with Katherine Sciver-Brunt losing her cool yet again, just as she did when put under pressure at the Commonwealth Games last summer, angrily (and, it appeared, unilaterally) ordering Alice Capsey from mid on after a misfield, and then continuing inexplicably to shout at Capsey after Charlie Dean dropped a catch (where Capsey had been) off the very next ball.

Heather Knight was forced to intervene, literally placing herself between Capsey and KSB to absorb the impact; and yet she still felt that KSB was in the right frame of mind to bowl the final over. It went for 18. England went on to lose by 6. That’s the “tldr” right there!

It is a pity for KSB’s career to end this way; but end it should now – and if she doesn’t see that, then the captain and coach need to see it for her.

Although it was an above-par performance with the bat from South Africa, England must have felt this chase was well within them, and they got off to a reasonable start, at least in the scorebook, reaching 53-0 off the first 5 overs. The reality however did contain signs of trouble to come – South Africa’s bowlers were desperately unlucky not to take two or three wickets in those first 5 overs, with balls passing the stumps by inches, and mishits flying feet from fielders.

The final over of the powerplay was where things began to turn in South Africa’s favour, thanks to that woman again – Tazmin Brits. Brits took a straightforward catch to dismiss Sophia Dunkley, but then added an absolute stunner of a one-handed dive to send Alice Capsey back to the dugout for a two-ball duck. The second catch earned Brits a round of applause in the press box – something that is virtually unheard of, as the written press generally try to maintain at least the appearance of detachment from proceedings on the pitch!

As for Capsey… how much she was unsettled by the verbal volley she had taken from KSB 20 minutes previously, we’ll never know – she’s not the one to admit it, even if she was. But it can’t have helped.

England rebuilt after that, and they stayed ahead of the rate until the 10th over, and in-touch until 16th – probably a match-winning position, unless they lost a load of wickets. But from 131-3 at the end of the 16th over, needing 34 off 24 with Nat Sciver-Brunt and Heather Knight established at the crease, they collapsed to 158-8 and a 6 run defeat.

Ayabonga Khaka – so often the under-appreciated third wheel in South Africa’s seam attack – ripped-up the script… and ripped-up England’s middle order, taking 3 wickets for 3 runs in the 18th over to turn the tide in South Africa’s favour. Kapp’s final over – the 19th – went for 12, leaving England needing 13 off the last.

Regular readers will recall one of my iron laws – that (statistically, at least) no one “ever” hits more than 10 off the final over to win a women’s T20 – and so it proved, with Shabnim Ismail grabbing two further wickets as England fell just 6 short.

There were tears from the England players after the game – they thought this was a game they would win – the media expected it; the fans expected it; and they expected it. They’ve played much more convincing cricket through the group stages than South Africa, but tournaments aren’t about being the best team – they are about holding your nerve at the critical moment. That’s what South Africa did today, and they thoroughly deserve their chance to face Australia in the final on Sunday.

PREVIEW: South Africa v England T20 World Cup Semi-Final – Calm Reigns In The England Camp

There have been a lot of words expended about what Jon Lewis has brought to the England camp which is different to his predecessors, but one word stood out to me from Danni Wyatt’s eve of semi-final press conference – “calmness”.

“We’re feeling really confident, and more importantly really chilled. We’re all ready for tomorrow,” she said. “Lewy [Jon Lewis] has brought this really calm aura into the team – everyone knows their plan.”

For me, it’s that word which has epitomised England’s approach this World Cup. It meant that they didn’t panic when they found themselves 29 for 3 against India. It meant that they were able to pick themselves up in the midst of a frenetic WPL auction on the day of their game against Ireland. And whenever Nat Sciver-Brunt gets to the crease, a zen-like focus seems to take over.

“She’s as cool as a cucumber, our Nat. Nothing fazes her,” Wyatt said of her teammate, who currently tops the run-scoring charts in this World Cup. “She’s very chilled, and everyone looks at that and it feeds around the team.”

Wyatt herself, fresh from making a half-century against Pakistan, seemed supremely relaxed, joking in the press conference about the team’s experience of getting stuck coming down Table Mountain thanks to load-shedding (periodic power-cuts that are an everyday fact of life in South Africa at the moment) – “I don’t think I’ll be going up that mountain again soon, unless I walk up! I’m not going up that cable-car ever again!” It’s rare to see someone so breezy and composed ahead of a knock-out game.

By contrast, South Africa have had a mad run-up to this semi-final – losing their first game against Sri Lanka after completely losing their heads in what should have been an easy run-chase; before finally inching their way to a nervy win against Bangladesh on Tuesday.

I’m no body language expert, but Sune Luus seemed the opposite of relaxed in her own pre-match press conference. To use a cricketing metaphor, she spent the entire 15 minutes playing defensive shots.

T20 cricket can be a crazy game. But maybe calmness is the way to win a World Cup?

T20 WORLD CUP – England v Pakistan: Table Mountain

The sheer cliffs of Cape Town’s Table Mountain make Newlands one of the most stunning grounds in world cricket, as they loom majestically over the city.

In front of a crowd starting to build ahead of the “main event” later, when South Africa take on Bangladesh with a semi-final place at stake for the hosts, England too loomed majestically over Pakistan, monstering the challengers to win their group in emphatic style.

You have to feel for Pakistan – they’ve palpably come on from the side that came over to England in 2016 for Heather Knight’s first series as captain; but England (and, to be fair, Australia and India) have made their own strides in that time, and the gap now looks wider than ever.

We arrived at the ground before the toss, to see Freya Davies warming up with the bowling coaches – a sure sign that she was going to play – but assumed (incorrectly) that she’d be coming in for Katherine Sciver-Brunt, after the latter’s much criticised performance in the last game. However, it was Lauren Bell who missed out, with KSB retaining her spot to have the opportunity to redeem herself and secure her place in the XI for the semi-final and (if they get that far) the final.

It was a one-off opportunity to impress for Freya Davies, but those “opportunities” are so often a poisoned chalice and so it proved, with Davies taking 0-28 while KSB walked away with 2-14, despite a string of deliveries which Meg Lanning or Beth Mooney would have deposited into the stands, if not the brewery which neighbours the ground. (A braver man than me might point out the incongruity that KSB’s 0-39 v India is “just one of those things” while Davies’s 0-28 will almost certainly means she is dropped… but I am not that man.)

Of course it was all irrelevant anyway – Pakistan didn’t have a hope in Hell’s chance of getting anywhere near England’s 213 – their second highest ever total in T20 internationals.

Despite not making runs today, it is Alice Capsey that is the key to England’s approach with the bat, which has been building towards one of these monster scores all tournament. The new normal is that you go hard from the very first ball… and if you get out, so be it – the next batter goes just as hard… and the next too. It is the approach that Capsey pioneered in the first season of The Hundred, and it will be her legacy as she develops into a great player set to change the way women play the game.

It wasn’t Capsey’s day today though – England lost wickets in the powerplay, including hers, but the point is that they didn’t let it derail them, striking at 10-an-over in the early middle phase. Again, in the late middle phase, they lost two wickets, but Amy Jones came in and smashed 47 off 31 balls, denying Nat Sciver-Brunt what looked like a nailed-on maiden T20 century with one of the most impressive innings of her career, including her signature stroke – that effortless lifted pull over midwicket into the crowd, which we’ve seen so often from her in regional cricket, but which she has struggled to replicate for England.

NSB’s form continues to be spectacular, and surely one day she will get the hundred that she might in other circumstances have made today. It says so much about her though that she was prepared to share the strike with Jones in the death phase. Some players thrive on selfishness, and that’s ok too; but NSB is the ultimate “team player” who doesn’t seem remotely bothered by personal milestones, even as she passes so many. Player of the Tournament is surely hers now, whether or not England go on to win the thing.

And that’s the question: can they go on to win it? Normally, I’d be the first to say that we shouldn’t read too much into a performance against Pakistan, who slightly went to pieces in the field, and batted like a team that knew they were on death row. But the batting performance today was so impressive, that you have to believe they can. If they can get past South Africa, their likely semi-final opponents, doubtless abetted by a roaring, partisan crowd, on Friday.

T20 WORLD CUP – England v India: Spinners Are Winners

The South African city of Gqeberha has been crying out for rain in the midst of a severe drought, so yesterday’s downpours were good news for everyone except cricket fans, who woke up to further persistent drizzle this morning, with two crucial matches being played at St. George’s Park – the oldest Test ground in South Africa.

England overcame India in the first of those matches, with the key difference being their spinners, who maintained their control where India’s had lost theirs, despite having to contend with a damp ball as the skies let loose once again part-way through India’s innings.

Having put England in, India had the better of the powerplay, almost entirely thanks to the brilliant Renuka, who took a wicket in each of her first 3 overs, finishing the powerplay with figures of 3 overs, 3-12; while the 3 bowlers used at the other end recorded 3 overs, 0-25. It was reminiscent of the way she had Australia on the ropes in the opening match of the Commonwealth Games; and how India must wish that bowlers could be permitted more than just the 4 overs in T20 cricket! From England’s perspective, Sophia Dunkley could perhaps have played a more appropriate shot, but there wasn’t a lot Danni Wyatt or Alice Capsey could have done differently – it was just good bowling.

To their credit, Heather Knight and Nat Sciver-Brunt didn’t flinch from playing positively, despite that less-than-ideal start, and England had their best phase of the match in the early middle overs, taking advantage of some wayward bowling from India’s spinners, which let England right back into it.

The fall of Knight led to another lull, but India again let England off the hook as Amy Jones took Pooja Vastrakar for 14 from the 15th over, setting England up for a decent finish – they’d definitely have taken 151 having been 29-3 early-doors. Things have been up and down of late for Amy Jones with the bat, but this was definitely a very good day to have an “up”, making 40 off 27 balls.

England decided to open with Katherine Sciver-Brunt today, rather than Lauren Bell – possibly to save Bell from having to bowl at the left-handed Smriti first-up – and her opening over went for just 4; but her second was a disaster. Having conceded consecutive 4s off not-terrible deliveries on the opening two balls, she predictably went short and equally predictably got hammered to the boundary twice more in the over. It should have been the end of her day, but it wasn’t… as we shall see!

Post-powerplay, Sophie Ecclestone, Sarah Glenn and Charlie Dean were into the action, and they locked India down tight, with the Strike Rate slipping back towards 75 in the early middle phases. In essence, this was where England won the match, given that India only fell 11 short in the end. Both Jemimah and Harmanpreet gave their wickets away trying to break out of the gaol England’s slower bowlers had them in, and although Smriti always remains a danger, she was forced to play within herself and try to anchor the innings, denying her the chance to accelerate her strike rate very much.

India did start to get the motor turning in the late-middle phase, thanks to Richa Ghosh, on her way to an eventual 47 off 34. (Somewhat counter-intuitively, Richa has looked a much better player in the senior World Cup than she did in the preceding U19 one, which might be a lesson for selectors for future U19 events if nothing else.)

Nonetheless, India looked dead and buried as the asking rate began to spiral in the death overs; until Knight made the inexplicable decision to bring back Katherine Sciver-Brunt for the final over, with India needing 31 and Charlie Dean still having an over in the locker. In some ways it was a risk free decision – statistically speaking no one ever makes even 10 off the final over in women’s T20s, let alone 31 – and India did not make 31; but they did make 19, as Sciver-Brunt was taken to the cleaners by Richa.

Sciver-Brunt has been a hero for England for more years than most of us can remember; but no one deserves a place on sentiment alone, and if she plays the next match, that will be the only reason. If that had been Bell, it would have been the end of her tournament, and probably fairly so. The last match of the group is one England (at time of writing) still have to win to be 100% sure of qualification – if Pakistan thrash West Indies and go on to win big in that last game against England, they could mathematically overhaul them on Net Run Rate. Freya Davies should be in the XI for that game.