Skill, nerve and tension merged together here in a crescendo that played the emotions like a banjo, providing a dramatic climax to a semi-fi nal that rivalled any other nerve-shredder in any sport, anywhere.
England triumphed by two wickets with two balls to spare, when Anya Shrubsole, face of fury, head in the freezer, struck her first ball through extra cover for four to break South African hearts. Her partner at the other end, Jenny Gunn, unbeaten on 27, told Shrubsole to wait for an off-cutter. Instead the No10 walked down the pitch, threw her hands into a drive and booked England into a spot in the sold-out Lord’s final on Sunday.
South Africa, opting to bat first, posted 218 thanks to a drive-heavy 66 from the 18-year-old sensation Laura Wolvaardt. It was the seventh half-century of a career that many have already pegged as one to rival the Australia captain, Meg Lanning, currently regarded as the best with the bat there ever was. An exceptional 76 by the former captain Mignon du Perez, who saw things through to the end of the 50 overs, was the only other contribution of note. At the time it seemed under par and that proved correct – just.
That the game got this close owes much to South Africa’s trial by spin and tight seam-bowling – Ayabonga Khaka the pick of them with 10 overs returning two for 28. England’s own bedlam deserves some of that credit with a near-terminal collapse that spanned the 33rd and 34th overs. In 12 balls Sarah Taylor was run out by her captain, Heather Knight, who then slapped a full toss from the leg-spinner Suné Luus straight to square-leg. Then, moments later, Natalie Sciver was bowled round her legs.
Taylor’s wicket was the big one. On a pitch that asked for patience she was able to coax it into being true for her. Earlier in the match she had dismissed Trisha Chetty down the leg side with a stumping that she ranks as her best “situation wise”. The game looked hers for the taking as she brought up her 18th ODI fifty off 74 balls and having it all her own way. It was not to be.
Even after that cluster of wickets, England still had five in hand with 74 needed from 96, a relative formality in the modern game. A further Proteas squeeze drew the wicket of Katherine Brunt in the 43rd over and suddenly 46 off 46 was the equation. It was the first time the required run rate had got to six an over. England sides of the past might have folded. But on and off the field nerves were being managed.
With three needed from the final over, Gunn hit the first ball back at the bowler, Ismail, who dropped the catch. A single was then taken before Laura Marsh was bowled. Out walked Shrubsole and, well, the rest is known. All 11 in green sank to their knees. Gunn and Shrubsole did their best to console. The message was crystal clear: this is a South Africa side to be cherished.
On the balcony emotions, up to a point, were being kept in check. At the start of the final over the cameras panned to Taylor and Tammy Beaumont singing along to Bruno Mars. “We decided that, actually, trying to be cool, calm and ourselves was the best way to go,” said Taylor, on a fleeting moment of Uptown Funk. “That’s what you play for: those moments when you’re clapping singles or that there are no wickets falling. I’ve probably missed that, actually.”
In Taylor’s own words, she was “absolutely nowhere” a year ago. She will reflect on how far she has come in due course: “I will give myself a good pat on the back.” She has earned it. Her pride is shared by all who have given towards England’s place at Lord’s, in what will be the biggest game these players have played in.
Right after their win, once the celebrations had died down, the England players stayed out signing autographs and obliging each selfie. For so long the players have been the best ambassadors for the English game, obliging every request and opportunity to push their game forward.
Through this World Cup players around the world have taken that responsibility on to the field with them. That has led to this, one of the most intense matches the game has seen and throws us forward to a World Cup final at a historic ground where women were not permitted in the Pavilion until as recently as 1999. And there will not be a spare ticket going.
Heather Knight: ‘It was tough to watch from the balcony’
“Jenny Gunn had nerves of steel at the end. We put on a show for the crowd, and I would like to say we kept it that close to keep it interesting, but we didn’t. Those close games are the best to win, but the worst to lose. Credit to South Africa, they bowled brilliantly on what was a very tired wicket. What a game of cricket.”
During the run-chase it was announced that the final was sold out, with more than 26,500 expected. Gunn notified Knight of this before she sat down at the post-match press conference and she looked shocked, turning to the England media manager and jokingly asking what that meant for tickets for friends and family.
“It’s been at the forefront of our minds,” said Knight. “A sold-out final at Lord’s – there’s nothing better, for me. Everything we’ve done in the last 18 months has been working towards that.”
The ICC say the group matches reached a global TV audience in excess of 50 million.
“It’s a credit to the players and the type of cricket they’ve played,” Knight said. “As players, we’ve really got the sense that the profile keeps going up and up.”