On the first day of the ICC Women’s T20 World Cup 2023, Chamari Athapaththu went out to the middle with the sights, sounds, and smoke of the opening ceremony still tingling her senses. The backdrop was set for a standout performance, and Chamari Athapaththu of Sri Lanka rose to the challenge on this momentous World Cup event.
The 33-year-old put South Africa to the sword in front of a dumbfounded home crowd while playing in the brilliant golden light of a Cape Town evening. She lit up the first half of the game with her scything blade before expertly leading her side home to a famous victory.
Considering Australia (losing to India in 2020) or England (repeating the same in 2017) for what happens to a team when it plays its tournament opener in front of home fans. And on Friday at Newlands, it was once more proven. South Africa should have had an easy win in the opening game of the 2023 Women’s T20 World Cup after holding Sri Lanka to a meagre 129 for four.
As opposed to this, their adversaries had them in trouble at 72 for 5 in the 13th over, and despite a mad scramble from Suné Luus (28 off 27 balls) and Sinalo Jafta (15 off 9) to restart the innings, the hosts fell agonisingly four runs short.
By the end of the national anthems, Marizanne Kapp’s emotions were contagious due to the emotional burden of fulfilling her dream of competing in a home World Cup without her husband, Dane van Niekerk, by her side.
For South Africa, it ought to have been a straightforward run chase. After the national anthems had finished playing, Kapp was celebrating the key dismissal of Chamari Athapaththu, who had scored 68 runs off 50 balls before misfiring on a pull to long leg in the 18th over.
The 17-year-old prodigy Vishmi Gunaratne (35 off 34) was run out the previous delivery by a direct hit from Tazmin Brits at cover, breaking a successful partnership with her skipper.
But the South African response never really got going. Laura Wolvaardt only attempted one beautiful cover drive before top-edging a sweep, while Brits, Kapp, and Chloe Tryon were caught trying to hit out on a slow pitch.
Everything seemed a little weird, at least until one realizes how much pressure this team is under. The unfortunate truth of women’s sports is that winning a World Cup at home is still one of the best ways to generate interest, and these players must do it in the shadow of losing their usual skipper to a newly imposed, seemingly arbitrary fitness criteria.
Sri Lanka was the fourth-ranked team in Group 1 heading into the World Cup. However, this outcome puts a lot of pressure on the hosts and gives Athapaththu a chance to compete for one of the two slots in the semi-finals.
Athapaththu led from the front with exceptional agility while also expertly managing her bowlers, demonstrating a desire to win in the field. The Sri Lankan captain had three expert spinners at her disposal, and she made flawless use of them that evening.
On the other hand, South Africa faced high expectations. They were not expected to fail in this situation because they are the hosts and are thought to be serious semi-final prospects. Especially not when West Indies trounced the South African men’s squad in the 50-over World Cup at the same location 20 years prior.
Excerpts of post-match words captains shared
Chamari Atapattu: “We have a good culture in the team. We have a lot of youngsters; we share knowledge with them, and the senior players have done well. They always think about the game and that is the secret.
“The wicket was really good for batting. I would definitely have batted first. I thought 140-150 was a good score and unfortunately, we didn’t get there because Shabnim Ismail and Marizanne Kapp bowled really well in the powerplay and that is why we didn’t get 150.
“We have shocked big teams before, and we have done it again. We want to get to the semi-finals. I hope we can get there because it is my eighth World Cup, and I haven’t been there yet, so I want to be there with my team.”
Sune Luus: “Sri Lanka had a good partnership and we lacked that in our batting innings. I thought chasing 130 was a par score and that 140-150 would have been a good score on that pitch. I don’t think Sri Lanka ran away with the game.
“I think one game doesn’t define us. The World Cup has a long away to go. Marizanne Kapp and Shabnim Ismail were exceptional today. Lots of positives going into the next games.”
South Africa still has a chance to get to the semi-finals, but with tougher group games remaining—they play New Zealand on Monday—they have lost the chance to ensure it. These are hardly simple victories.
One would be unwise enough to bet against Athapaththu motivating her squad to more illustrious triumphs before the tournament is over, especially with intriguing matches against Bangladesh, Australia, and New Zealand still to play in the group round.