Shabnim Ismail returned figures of 10-2-25-3 © Getty
Of the many things you should not do in the immediate high of a pay rise – head to the pub, go food shopping, check your new tax bracket – getting thrashed by seven wickets might be up there. For South Africa, victory over England, chasing a target of 190 at New Road with 27 balls to spare, was their first win on these shores since 2003. For the World Champions, it was a reminder that a year is a long time in cricket.
It would be cheap to run through the disparity between how much the respective sides are paid. But there was one thing that really split the sides today, and it was something money can’t buy – a pace attack.
England will say they did not underestimate the Proteas. But however good the pitch looked when Heather Knight elected to bat first – memories of England racking up 378 here in 2016 fresh in the mind – giving this opposition attack first go with the ball when only slivers of blue broke through the blanket of morning cloud was akin to leaving a teenager at home on their own and not expecting them to throw the mother of all house parties. And if there’s one thing you need to know about this South Africa side, it’s that they can really throw a party.
Are they – Shabnim Ismail, Marizanne Kapp and Ayabonga Khaka – the best frontline attack going? Australia’s Ellyse Perry and Megan Schutt and any combination of a third will have something to say about that. But certainly on their day, as it was on Saturday when England’s top six were blown out of the water for just 64, there aren’t any better. Skipper Dane van Niekerk has always backed her pack as the best collective to come out of South Africa and shake up the mainstream since Die Antwood. Player of the match Lizelle Lee, whose unbeaten 92 took South Africa to their total, is in little doubt:
“Look, I believe we do have the best bowling attack in the world,” said Lee. “I don’t think there’s a team that comes near our attack. Even if we batted first and didn’t get a high total, it’s positive to know you have an attack like that.”
As for the best of the three? Unlike her innings, Lee let that one through to the keeper: “[Laughs] No, honestly. All three – they’re up there. Definitely.”
It began with Ismail, formerly too wild to be tamed, now straight down the line – with the occasional veer a colourful flourish rather than a sign of insolence. Previously, Amy Jones’s crunching drives might have been a red rag to a bull, imploring Ismail to bowl faster and lose control. Instead, she persisted with an off-stump line that eventually brought a drag on. Not long after, Sarah Taylor was playing around her front pad, trapped LBW for just two and carnage was in the air. Her neatest trick came when she broke Laura Marsh’ 27-ball resistance with a slower off-cutter bowled from a traditional seamer’s grip to give her completed figures of three for 25. Currently sixth in the ODI bowling rankings, put your house on her making a successful run for that number one spot in the next 12 months.
Kapp, the allrounder who pulls more than her weight, was next to get in on the act: bemusing captain Heather Knight with a delivery that nipped in and found her in front, when Knight thought she was anything but. You could argue that Kapp was poor by her standards: an economy rate of 5.10 her most expensive in 15 innings. But the reason her figures of one for 51 may jar was because of the work that was taking place at the other end. And it is Ayabonga Khaka, whose figures of three for 42 were only bettered by Ismail, who deserves the most praise.
All her wickets came in an opening spell of six overs – three of them maidens – starting with her first ball, that jagged off the seam and went through Tammy Beaumont like she was a ghost. With that in the bag, Khaka began building up a collection of deliveries on a length that couldn’t be driven and a line that couldn’t be manipulated. She’s the kind of bowler a captain can set on autopilot and be free from worry.
Often a plan so simple relies on a bowler *too* grooved, but even when Nat Sciver and Danni Wyatt advanced down the track to throw her off, Khaka simply pulled it back and was rewarded with a popped catch at midwicket and one smeared to cover respectively. Maybe it was fitting that her figures were ruined by the calculated attack of Katherine Brunt. The 32-year-old not only rattled off a career best of 72 to lift England from 97 for eight to 189 for nine in the last 15.3 overs, but also, along with Anya Shrubsole, carried the side’s hopes of an unlikely win.
Both made the necessary inroads: Brunt forcing an edge onto the stumps from Laura Wolvaardt and Shrubsole the beneficiary of another piece of otherwordly wicketkeeping from Sarah Taylor, adding Sune Luus to her collection of outlandish leg-side stumpings. South Africa were five for two after three overs. That was as bad it got for them, though. A partnership of 113 featuring Lee and van Niekerk was followed by one of 75 between Lee and Mignon du Preez that took any drama out of the situation.
“You do the best you can, don’t you?” Brunt said at stumps, on England’s start and the lack of wickets thereafter. There is a very real issue here for England, one they have been aware of for a few years but have been unable to address. Beyond Brunt and Shrubsole, there are no quicks breaking through, not just offering support for moments like this but providing encouragement that there is life beyond Brunt.
In the lead-up to the summer, head coach Mark Robinson, whose trademark at Sussex was bringing up fast bowlers or rejuvenating ailing ones, has hopes that this summer unearths a new prospect, such as Katie George, or the return of Kate Cross or emergence of Georgia Elwiss as a seaming proposition. It does not bode well for the English system, though, that Beth Langston, part of England’s 15-player squad for last year’s World Cup, has fallen off the radar.
If there was a moment that summed up Brunt’s plight, it was when it looked like she had taken a blinding catch in the deep to remove Lee, which would have made it 135 for four. Women’s cricket loves a collapse, but when that dismissal was over-turned at the very last moment – replays showed that the ground inadvertently helped her control the catch – Brunt was left despondent at long off. It was confirmation that even with her runs and her wicket, she could not do it herself. England desperately need to find someone to assist her before she can no longer do it at all.