At the St. George’s Park in Gqeberha ahead of their clash against Bangladesh in the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup, Ashleigh Gardner, Megan Schutt and Kim Garth sat glued to a mobile-phone screen to watch the auction for the inaugural Women’s Premier League. The eighth edition of the World Cup had got underway three days earlier, but all eyes were on this auction in Mumbai. “It is the elephant in the room,” admitted Sophie Devine, the New Zealand captain, at a press conference.
Australians were expectedly in huge demand at the auction, and theirs was the team to beat at the World Cup. They had thus far won all the T20 World Cup crowns on offer except in 2009, when England won, and in 2016, when underdog West Indies sprang a surprise in Kolkata.
Before the World Cup, Australia had suffered a rare loss, to India in the Super Over in Navi Mumbai in December 2022. That defeat was in the second of a five-match series; the scoreline then read 1-1. It went on to win its next three matches to win the series 4-1, underlining its supremacy yet again. It was after clean-sweeping Pakistan at home that Meg Lanning’s team flew to South Africa for the marquee event.
Lanning had taken a break from cricket after the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham — where Australia predictably grabbed the gold medal — before returning to lead the team for the series against Pakistan. She has been brilliant as a leader, besides being the mainstay of her team’s batting group.
It expectedly breezed through the league stage, posting wins over New Zealand, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and South Africa to set up a semifinal clash with India. Harmanpreet Kaur’s women ran into the Aussies in the last four because they finished second in their group, behind England. India lost to England by 11 runs despite a late assault from wicketkeeper Richa Ghosh (47 n.o., 34b). India qualified for the semifinals after beating Ireland. In a rain-affected match decided by the DLS method, Ireland, in reply to India’s 155 for 6, was six runs short when the match was stopped in the ninth over.
Ahead of the semifinal at Cape Town, the Australians must have been wary because India has been their biggest rival in recent times. Back in 2021, it was India that ended its incredible winning streak of 26 ODIs — that, too, in Australia.
At Newlands, it looked as if India would spoil Australia’s party yet again despite a challenging total of 172 for 4. Opener Beth Mooney’s 54 (37b), Lanning’s unbeaten 49 (34b), Gardner’s 31 (18b), and inept fielding by India were the main contributors in that total. India’s reply began disastrously – it was reduced to 34 for 3 when Yastika Bhatia ran herself out. But Jemimah Rodrigues (43, 24b) and Harmanpreet (52, 34b) staged a superb fightback, adding 69 runs for the fourth wicket.
Richa now joined Harmanpreet, who was looking in great touch. But Harmanpreet was run out at a crucial juncture while attempting a second run. Her bat got stuck on the ground, but she was perhaps a bit slow as she tried to return to her crease. You take a chance against this Australian side at your own peril. The way Ellyse Perry saved a couple of runs at the boundary with an incredible run, pick-up and throw alone would prove that point.
India lost by five runs, and Harmanpreet’s disappointment was obvious, despite her attempt to hide her feelings by wearing sunglasses. Her anguish is understandable, but India has to work on its game, especially fielding, if it wants to emulate its junior side that won the inaugural Women’s U-19 World Cup in South Africa.
Sune Luus’s South Africa showed the importance of fielding when it shocked England in the other semifinal. Tazmin Brits alone took four catches — including a stunning one off Alice Capsey — to help South Africa book its berth in the final. Brits had earlier top-scored for South Africa with 68 (55b) and had added 96 for the opening wicket with Laura Wolvaardt (53, 44b). The host made 164 for 4 which proved enough for its sharp bowling attack.
Pacers Shabnim Ismail, who breathed fire, and Ayabonga Khaka took seven wickets between them. Danni Wyatt (34, 30b) and Sophia Dunkley (28, 16b) gave a great start to the run chase, putting on 53 inside the Powerplay, but they both were caught by Brits.
Heart-breaking end for South Africa
In the final, played before a full-house at Newlands, the South African dream was shattered by the ruthless Aussies. Their total of 156 for 6 may have looked below par, but not for this team.
Australia’s innings was built around yet another brilliant effort by opener Beth Mooney (74 n.o., 53b). She accelerated just when it was required. No one else reached 30 but Gardner, who was promoted to No. 3 on a slow wicket, scored 29 off 21 deliveries. Wolvaardt, one of the most stylish batters around, kept South Africa in the hunt with her polished 61 (48b), but she was trapped lbw by Schutt. South Africa lost by 19 runs.
It was a heart-breaking end for the hosts but they should be proud of their campaign, which had begun on a disastrous note — with a loss to Sri Lanka in the opening match. There was controversy too: captain Dane van Niekerk was dropped after she failed — by 18 seconds — a fitness test.
Their performance seems to have caught the nation’s imagination. This is one of its better moments in sport after the men’s rugby team won the 1995 World Cup, a tournament made unforgettable for the way Nelson Mandela used sport to heal a nation bruised by racism. And remember, this was the first time that a South African cricket team — male or female — reached a World Cup final. Big crowds turned up to watch the women.
The crowds at the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup — and the large number of eyeballs around the world for live telecast — proved that women’s cricket was rapidly growing in popularity. South Africa’s performance also augurs well for the growth of the women’s game but the main highlight of the tournament was Australia’s relentless march to its sixth title — it was yet another feather in the cap for Lanning and her troops.
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