Prior to the T20 Women’s World Cup there was an overwhelming expectation that Australia, as hosts, defending champions and unbackable favourites, would progress through to the final.
But no one expected it to be this way.
Meg Lanning’s side rode every possible emotion on a sodden and chaotic day in Sydney on Thursday, progressing to Sunday’s MCG showpiece by just five runs against South Africa.
And while it won’t be recorded in the annals, a more accurate winning margin for the semi-final might actually be nine minutes. After somehow batting their allotted 20 overs to post 5-134 under dark clouds – a total Lanning later admitted was good without being great – rain returned, and time was running out to retake the field.
This would add another layer of tension to an already anxiety-filled day. A no-result, of course, would see South Africa prevail. But the players finally retook the field at 9:40pm, just shy of the 9:49pm cutoff.
With that bullet dodged, they still had a mountain of work to do. Faced with slippery conditions, the Aussies were clinical with the ball, hitting back-of-a-length on a skidding surface, rarely allowing the South African top order to get underneath the ball.
Treating every run like gold dust, they were similarly impressive in the field. In the second over Delissa Kimmince put her body on the line, getting behind a crunching Dane van Niekerk sweep at backward square leg, saving four and signalling to the opposition that nothing would come easy. And it didn’t. Lanning, Ash Gardner and Beth Mooney would all hold on to sharp chances to swing the tie in Australia’s favour.
Lanning would deservedly earn player-of-the-match honours, her 49 off 49 digging Australia out of a hole earlier in the game, arguably of their own doing.
Forcing the left-hand/right-hand tactic perhaps too far, they promoted Jess Jonassen peculiarly above Rachael Haynes to bat at number four. This was despite Jonassen having batted just once, at number seven, throughout the tournament.
It didn’t pay off, and when Ash Gardner nicked off soon after they were in a seemingly avoidable spot of bother. Lanning couldn’t free her arms knowing the lack of batting to come – the insurance of Ellyse Perry was absent at the time they needed it most. So she paced her innings well, and while those in the comfort of their lounge room may have willed her to accelerate earlier, she held off and ensured she was there at the end. Without her, Australia might have lost.
As impressive as the Australians were, they not only owe a huge gratitude to the SCG ground staff, but whoever was looking down on them from the dark, ominous clouds above Sydney. How they played 33 out of a possible 40 overs after Sydney’s deluge is a mystery. Luck was on their side.
The South Africans can count themselves unlucky. Their strong tournament ending after an uncertain, emotion-sapping day. But at least they mostly controlled their own destiny, a luxury England weren’t afforded earlier in the day when their semi-final with India was abandoned without a ball being bowled.
While the narrative here in Australia will understandably focus on the host nation’s get-out-of-jail win, the day so nearly threatened to finish with two washed-out semi-finals. All is well that ends well for Australian fans but for the English, they have every reason for bitterness.
Sure, the ICC’s rules were established well before the tournament began. Yes, each side knew and signed off on the agreed playing conditions and yes, rules are rules. But there’s a bitter taste when last year’s men’s ODI World Cup had almost identical fixturing (that is, a Thursday semi-final into a Sunday final) with a reserve day on Friday set aside.
Besides the understandably tough logistics and costs associated with shifting the semi-finals, it still would have been the right move, especially with a mostly clear day forecast in Sydney today. Without doubt, the fine print leading into international tournaments needs to be scrutinised to a higher degree on the back of Thursday’s chaos.
For Australia and India, however, it’s onto bigger and better things. Certainly bigger, with Sunday’s expected 90,000-plus crowd far more than any of the 22 players would have played in front of. In fact, if it tips 90,185, it will be more than any woman has played in front of. With Australia there, they might just give the figure a nudge. And with India as the opponent, it could hardly be better poised to break the record.
Irrespective of the crowd, the match-up itself is a tasty one. India are in sharp touch, and are clearly Australia’s toughest opponent at present. Sixteen-year-old Shafali Verma has just taken over as the world’s number one batter, while Poonam Yadav’s bamboozling leg spin is now well known.
The final that organisers hoped for is here, but it’s been a bumpy ride.