England versus South Africa. A World Cup semi-final that – if the rest of the tournament is anything to go by – is likely to go to the wire. Heather Knight at the helm, facing off against Marizanne Kapp, Laura Wolvaardt and co. If that all sounds familiar, it’s because it was exactly the situation faced by England on their path to world domination five years ago, at home in 2017.
On that occasion, at Bristol, England were left relying on an unlikely hero with the bat – Anya Shrubsole. With England eight wickets down and needing two runs to win from the last three balls, Shrubsole stuck out her bat and flayed a boundary through point: cue heartbreak for South Africa and relief for England. The good news, if you are English, is that Shrubsole will be available for selection in Thursday’s repeat of the 2017 semi-final, at Christchurch, after being rested against Bangladesh.
Despite Shrubsole’s availability, Knight is hoping that this time around the semi-final will not be decided by England’s No 10. “It’d be a little bit nicer if it wasn’t as close, because that’s one of the most nervous finishes of a cricket game I’ve ever had,” she said on Monday. But this is a tournament that has seen England lose their first three matches before just about jittering across the line in must-win games against India and New Zealand. Meanwhile their opponents, South Africa, have experienced four final-over finishes; their most recent – against India – came down to the final ball. Another close match may well be in the offing.
Knight brushed off England’s poor start to the tournament, saying that her side are “in a very good place”: “It’s been a remarkable turnaround. It shows the character that we’ve got in this group to pick ourselves up after a poor start to the competition.
“We’ve built a bit of momentum in the last few games. We feel like we’re peaking at the right time,” she added. It is true that England have now won four matches on the trot, facing down the ignominy of being eliminated at the group stage as defending champions. But given that their only convincing wins in the tournament have come against bottom-placed Pakistan and Bangladesh, a semi-final against a South Africa side who finished above them in the table is going to be a stern test.
England have deployed the same approach throughout the tournament: hand Shrubsole and Katherine Brunt the new ball, and build the team around that, whether they make breakthroughs or not. Freya Davies bowled a consistent, nagging line and length against Bangladesh, returning two for 36, while the left-armer Tash Farrant remains on the sidelines. Nonetheless, Knight has already indicated that England will be reverting to the usual suspects for Thursday’s semi-final.
Bizarrely, Charlie Dean’s selection also remains up in the air, despite the fact that she has taken more wickets for England in the tournament (10) than any other bowler bar Sophie Ecclestone.
Knight has been effusive with praise for the young off-spinner, who was brought into the side last summer based on the captain’s own hunch after playing alongside her at London Spirit in the Hundred. “Sometimes going into these big world events, you don’t know how players are going to react,” Knight said on Monday. “The way she’s come in, she’s taken wickets, she’s dealt with the pressure, has been a big positive for her.” Nonetheless, she refused to confirm whether Dean would play on Thursday, saying that it depended on pitch conditions.
With no shake-up on the cards, it looks likely that South Africa will face an almost identical team to the one they beat by three wickets in the group stage. England have overcome some of their failings since then – their fielding has dramatically improved, while the number of extras conceded has fallen too. But their new opening partnership of Tammy Beaumont and Danni Wyatt, whose best stand this tournament is 20 against Pakistan, will once again come under scrutiny against a South African bowling lineup widely considered the best in the world. Kapp proved England’s nemesis last time, bagging her first five-wicket haul in international cricket and scoring 32 from 42 balls after South Africa’s run-chase had stalled. The seamers Shabnim Ismail and Ayabonga Khaka, who are two of the top five wicket-takers in the tournament to date, are also potent threats.
Should England succeed in reaching the final, it will constitute a dramatic turnaround of fortunes. But for Knight, this semi-final is a chance to look forward, not back. “You don’t want to go crazy and make a huge deal of it,” she said of her side’s earlier run of losses. “We go in as equals, and start afresh on Thursday.”