Before their T20 World Cup opener in Group B against South Africa, England’s vice-captain Anya Shrubsole refused to countenance the idea that their first opponents were a potential “banana skin”.
“That would be a disservice to them,” she said. These were, in retrospect, wise words after England suffered a dramatic final-over defeat in Perth on Sunday, an upset that leaves them on the back foot in their attempt to qualify for the semi-finals.
With South Africa, chasing a 124-run target, needing eight runs from the final five balls, it came down to a battle of experience: England’s Katherine Brunt against South Africa’s Mignon du Preez, playing in her 100th T20 international.
It was the latter who came out on top – walloping a 67m six straight over backward square leg, before pulling the next ball for four to take her side across the line with two balls to spare. It is only the third time that South Africa have ever got the better of England in the shortest format.
South Africa had been well on course at 90 for one in the 16th, with Marizanne Kapp and Dane van Niekerk having racked up an 84-run partnership. However, Sarah Glenn’s maiden World Cup wicket looked like it might have spoiled the party – Kapp sending a drifting ball straight back into the hands of the young leg-spinner, after scoring a 33-ball 38. Van Niekerk departed four balls later, four runs short of a half-century, when she was caught by Tammy Beaumont at point, attempting to cut Sophie Ecclestone. Ecclestone’s second wicket again looked like it might be decisive: removing Chloe Tryon with a quicker ball off the last ball of the 19th over that slid past her defences, after the power-hitter had hit 12 quick runs. Du Preez, though, calmly finished the job.
Despite the close nature of the result, England’s tactic of playing eight batsmen, with Tammy Beaumont dropping down to No 6 (adopted under new coach Lisa Keightley), is likely to come under the spotlight after this performance: five of the lineup failed completely, and only a late 41-ball half-century by Nat Sciver dragged their effort up towards respectability.
The opener Amy Jones had looked in fine form early on, attacking the left-arm spin of Nonkululeko Mlaba with a couple of lofted drives; all four of England’s boundaries in the powerplay came off her bat. She came unstuck trying to repeat the feat against the considerably more experienced Kapp, instead sending it into the hands of Tryon at mid-off, dismissed for a 20-ball 23.
Four balls later – having faced just four deliveries in the opening four overs – Wyatt then over-egged the pudding in her keenness to get going, popping the first ball of Ayabonga Khaka’s spell up into the hands of Lizelle Lee at point.
Wickets continued to fall all too regularly, the leg-spinner Van Niekerk making a decisive intervention with the ball at either end of her four-over spell. First, she removed Heather Knight, courtesy of an excellent effort by Shabnim Ismail running round from long-on, and later the frustrated Fran Wilson, also caught in the deep after England mustered just one boundary between the eighth and 15th overs.
Wilson’s dismissal appeared to be a catalyst for Sciver, who, with Brunt suddenly swinging her arms at everything the other end, hit a flurry of boundaries including the first (and only) six of the innings, smashing Mlaba over long-on. A beautiful slower ball from Khaka eventually ended her innings in the 19th over: as it turned out, another few runs might have made all the difference.
With an under-par total to defend, England’s only hope was to bowl South Africa out. The loss of their opener Lee, chipping Shrubsole to mid-off in the third over of the chase, provided a brief window of opportunity.
England might have turned the tide had Lauren Winfield held on to a difficult chance above her head at mid-on when Kapp was still on nought or even a second opportunity in the deep several overs later, which would have sent Du Preez packing with South Africa still needing 21 from 13 balls. As it was, South Africa will be the ones celebrating, while England have work to do if their World Cup campaign is not to be cut prematurely short.