The Hundred’s “Strategic Timeouts” have been much derided throughout the short history of this tournament. Often, it has seemed as if they add little or nothing to the action, simply serving as a moment when, amongst other things, journalists can grab an extra cup of tea (ahem). Many captains – including Oval Invincibles skipper Dane van Niekerk – have readily admitted to forgetting that the timeout even exists.
But today’s strategic timeout – called by van Niekerk after 45 balls had been bowled – served a crucial purpose for the Invincibles.
At that point, Birmingham Phoenix needed 57 from 55 balls, with 8 wickets in hand and two set batters at the crease: Amy Jones on 29* and Erin Burns on 22. Oval Invincibles looked dead in the water.
Five balls later, Tash Farrant took a screamer of a catch over her left shoulder, diving full stretch running round from mid-off. Burns departed, and so the rot began.
So what exactly did DvN say to her team in the timeout? Tash Farrant relayed the short but rousing speech after the match. “If we get a few wickets we can get on a roll. Go down with a fight. Do not leave anything out on this pitch.”
It proved to be prescient: Phoenix went on to lose 8 wickets in 44 balls, falling 20 runs short of their target.
Admittedly, Phoenix were up against it with a batting line-up that even their coach Ben Sawyer described as “inexperienced”. With Shafali Verma back home in India, Katie Mack was promoted to the opening spot (she lasted 3 balls), while poor Marie Kelly entered the fray for the first time in the tournament with the score on 66 for 4, just after her captain had walked off the pitch with her head in her hands – hardly a gesture that inspired confidence.
“It does make it difficult, it’s not ideal,” Sawyer admitted when asked about the absence of Verma after the match. “If she’d have been here and knocked a few out it might have been a little bit different.”
Meanwhile Georgia Elwiss convinced Sawyer that she was fit to play in the must-win match, but was bumped down the order to number 8 to protect her thumb (which was heavily bandaged). By the time she came to the crease at 84 for 6, it was too late for her to have much of an impact on the game.
Perhaps the main fault, though, lies with Amy Jones. The Phoenix captain looked in delectable form, stroking effortless boundaries, all the way up until that strategic timeout. Soon afterwards, she drove the ball straight into the hands of van Niekerk at extra cover.
Her wicket really was the crucial one, and she knew it, pulling down her helmet over her eyes in disbelief before trudging off the pitch. Perhaps more than anyone else in the English set-up right now, in this “new normal” of big crowds in The Hundred, Jones needs to learn how to bat like nobody is watching, even when 12,000 people are doing just that.
The contrast with the calm, level-headed approach of van Niekerk as she made key decisions about when and how to best use her bowlers in defending an under-par target was marked. That included being willing to hand Alice Capsey a “ten” at an important moment, just after Capsey had taken a fantastic catch off her own bowling above her head to see off Elwiss – rather than potentially introducing Mady Villiers, whose returns this tournament have been poor.
Overall, it hasn’t been an easy year for Dane van Niekerk. She missed South Africa’s series against Pakistan and India with a back injury, and she publicly admitted at the start of this tournament that she is still struggling with fitness issues. It is also never straightforward as an overseas player to be asked to come in and bring together a team filled with players who don’t know you or each other very well, in a very short space of time. DvN, though, has done just that.
Farrant was full of praise for her captain. “She’s brilliant. Her super strength is really is how passionate she is about the game and how passionate she is in every situation. As a captain you know that she really cares about this team – it’s a franchise team, we’re new as a group, but having a captain that really cares about their players, we feed off her.”
As I write this, Oval Invincibles are doing a well-deserved victory lap of their home ground, and being given a standing ovation by over 12,000 spectators. I can’t recall seeing anything quite like that in England since the 2017 World Cup final (just one more tick box on the ever-expanding list of Reasons Why The Hundred Has Been Special For Women’s Cricket).
Talking of finals at Lord’s… there’s another one this weekend, and Oval Invincibles will – against all odds – be playing in it. Take a bow, Dane van Niekerk – you’ve certainly earned it.