South Africa almost beat England, but almost isn’t good enough… in fact, sometimes almost makes it feel that much worse © Getty Images
South Africa almost beat England, but almost isn’t good enough… in fact, sometimes almost makes it feel that much worse © Getty Images

“You can’t just turn up and win a World Cup. If you actually want to be competing against the world, it needs to be a daily habit. It starts from what you’re eating, what you’re drinking, what time you get up in the morning, your training habits and all that… Basically it’s about going that extra mile. The World Cup is not something that is just going to fall in your lap. At the end of the day, if there is even an iota of doubt in anybody’s mind it will not work. We all need to make sure that we are pulling towards the same goal.” – Mignon du Preez (in an interview in March 2016)

***

Dane van Niekerk is a perfectionist. She never looks completely happy when she is on the field. There is always something that can be done better, somewhere her team can improve. She is never satisfied, and expects her team to be just as hungry as she is. As captain, she wears her heart on her sleeve. She is a fiery character, always up for a challenge.

When Marizanne Kapp is bowling, the death stare is never far away. If she is really fired up, the stare could be followed by a few choice words, most likely in Afrikaans. She is your quintessential hard-as-nails fast bowler who demands the very best from her teammates, and will give no less herself. She is the ultimate competitor who wants nothing more than to win. She is a fighter through and through. Shabnim Ismail, her opening partner, is the same.

Du Preez is a bundle of energy on the field. She is very fidgety, always on the move, and constantly wears a smile on her face. Whether on the field or off it, she exudes positive energy. She is an intelligent cricketer and a passionate leader. She gives her heart and soul to the team, and expects her teammates to do the same.

Ayabonga Khaka and Moseline Daniels are often in the shadow of Kapp and Ismail. They may not be the most celebrated members of South African bowling unit, but are vital cogs in the wheel. Neither is very animated on the field. They don’t glare at the batters or scream when they get a wicket. They simply smile, celebrate with their teammates and go back to their mark to do it all over again.

Only 18, Laura Wolvaardt’s intense look can rival that of Kapp when she has the bat in hand. She is strong, confident and exudes a calm that belies her age. She is simply happy to be part of the team, and will try and do anything she can to help their cause. Sune Luus is similar.

Chloe Tryon and Lizelle Lee enjoy making bowlers feel like bowling machines as they blast them around the ground. Their methods bring lightness to an otherwise rather intense batting line-up. They enjoy their cricket, and hope to help their teammates do the same.

Trisha Chetty is not the noisiest wicketkeeper around, but she is statistically the best in the world. She brings a sense of calm to a generally fiery and aggressive unit. She believes in herself as much as she believes in every one of her teammates, and hopes that will help carry them over the line.

This South African team is not just a team; they are a family: a family that has grown together, dreamed together — and together, has fallen tantalisingly short of their ultimate goal.

On Tuesday, as Anya Shrubsole emphatically waved her bat in the air to signal England’s victory in the first semi-final of the 2017 ICC Women’s World Cup at Bristol, the entire South African team sank to the ground, unable to hold back the tears.

Kapp was distraught, sitting alone at mid-wicket, her face buried in her hands. Van Niekerk tried to put on a brave face and wipe away her tears as they streamed down her face. Lee was on her haunches, unmoving, unwilling to accept what had just happened. Khaka and Daniels were inconsolable. The entire team wept, and with them, it seemed, the entire country did too. After weeks, and months and years of toil, their dreams had shattered with only two balls to spare. It was heartbreaking.

South Africa came into the tournament as the dark horses. They were expected to compete, but not win the big games. They started by scraping through against Pakistan, trouncing West Indies, and holding their own against a strong England side. Their moment to savour was the demolition of India, followed by a victory over Sri Lanka that allowed them to secure a place in the final four.

They had already exceeded expectations, but van Niekerk was not satisfied. South Africa were hungry for more.

The semi-final was a far from perfect game. Both teams made mistakes, South Africa a few more than England, but they fought tooth and nail for the entire duration of the game.

South Africa have made it a habit of finding a hero at every turn; each match throwing up a different name. On Tuesday, there were many heroes.

It started with young Wolvaardt. When her opening partner Lee was dismissed early in the innings, the 18-year-old took it upon herself to guide South Africa out of trouble. She stood tall, moved her feet confidently, stuck to her strengths and brought up her fourth half-century in the World Cup.

Once Wolvaardt departed it was du Preez who put up her hand and held the innings together. She moved around the crease, hit the gaps and ran as hard as she possibly could. Although she was unable to up the ante at the end of the innings, it was her unbeaten 76 that gave South Africa something to bowl at.

With ball it was birthday girl Khaka who gave South Africa hope with her right-arm seam bowling. She trundled in for 10 overs on the trot, bowling a nagging line and length to dismiss Lauren Winfield and Tammy Beaumont inside 13 overs.

When her team were ‘dead and buried’ it was van Niekerk’s direct hit from cover to dismiss Sarah Taylor that triggered a bit of a mini-collapse and Sune Luus picked up two crucial wickets to reduce England to 145 for 5.

And then, when Fran Wilson was threatening to finish the game on her own, it was Chetty, who had to shake off the disappointment of a bad day with the gloves, who leaped in the air to take a wonderful catch to send her back.

South Africa believed from the minute they walked out on to the field and they continued to believe till the very last ball was bowled. It may not have been pretty, but they scrapped their way through the contest and pushed England, ranked four places above them, right to the edge. They almost beat England, but almost isn’t good enough… in fact, sometimes almost makes it feel that much worse.

***

Despite the loss South Africa can walk away from this World Cup with their heads held high. Van Niekerk and her team have taken the world by storm. They came into the tournament with a vision that the entire team bought into: to play an aggressive brand of cricket and win the World Cup. They fell marginally short of their goal, but they are on the right track.

“We had a great run. I don’t think a lot of people thought we would get here. It is testament to the hard work the team put in,” said van Niekerk, echoing du Preez’s words from all those months ago.

South Africa have proved that they are a special team with a special leader. Their performances over the last few weeks have been nothing short of inspiring. Although they may have no trophy to show for their efforts in this World Cup, they will go back home knowing that they have motivated a generation of young girls to take up the game — that will be their legacy.