It was a scene straight out of a street cricket match in India. The captain sent someone else for the toss, didn’t field for most parts, but batted with gusto towards the end to clinch the game for her country. It is unlikely Meg Lanning would have come out to bat despite a stomach bug on most nights with her team chasing 103, but to say Australia were stretched by the unfancied South Africa, even if the scorecard suggests a six-wicket win with nine balls to spare, would be putting it mildly.
Australia were rattled by genuine pace on a surface both sides read wrong. They included three spinners, only to see them play a containing role. Shabnim Ismail showed how surfaces could be taken out of the equation if you have genuine pace to beat the batsmen. Just ask Alyssa Healy and Elyse Villani.
Healy walked across to flick, only to see the ball tail in to hit leg stump, while Villani was late on a push with no real conviction, as she chopped on. Australia were in tatters at 9 for 3, but strangely enough, Ismail, who had shown what bowling flat out really meant, was taken out of the attack.
Reflecting on what could have been, South Africa captain Mignon du Preez said she could have perhaps kept Ismail on but defending 103 against the three-time champions was never going to be enough irrespective of how many overs her frontline pacer bowled upfront. Alex Blackwell, who made an unbeaten 42 to see the chase through in Meg Lanning’s company, echoed those views.
“The skid and pace was a challenge for us up-front,” Alex Blackwell, the Australia vice-captain, who made 42 not out said afterwards. “Ismail is one of the best bowlers around. They had a magnificent first six overs, but we knew the target wasn’t out of hand. Once we lost three early wickets, the plan was to play smart.”
Blackwell made it sound easy, but it wasn’t. At one stage, Australia needed 50 off 47 balls after Jess Jonassen was stumped to start the 13th over. Lanning walked out to an attacking field and Australia’s captain, who wants to bat like Ricky Ponting every time she is out for a hit, played out three dot balls. Running clearly wasn’t going to be her thing, because she couldn’t, and Dane van Niekerk’s next ball was hit for the first of Lanning’s five boundaries. To counter South Africa’s threat in the manner she did spoke volumes of her ability to handle pressure.
What she ensured was to put away the bad balls, Blackwell said later. Truth be told, she was putting the good balls away too. That crunching drive off van Niekerk as the ball spun away from the rough was followed by a muscular pull off Suné Luus. Then, she unfurled a big hit down the ground once more to van Niekerk by getting to the pitch and hitting with the turn. Three overs, three fours and what seemed like a tough target suddenly was back within touching distance.
The finishing touches she lent so beautifully, incidentally off Ismail – two powerful square cuts that beat square third man who was no more than 10 yards away from the ball – had a touch of disdain. It brought about an air of inevitability to the situation for South Africa, who had briefly entertained thoughts of their first-ever T20I win over the Southern Stars.
While her unbeaten 30 off 19 balls had a stamp of her authority with the bat, she was constantly by the sidelines around the ropes, directing traffic and ensuring she was as much a part of the action even when not on the field. When she was on the field, she wasn’t averse to having a chat with her bowlers, especially the inexperienced ones like legspinner Kristen Beams, who is on her first tour of the subcontinent.
Despite being the go-to batsman, a captain who bears the burden of expectation of living up to the team’s billing as the defending champions, Lanning looks comfortable and at ease with her role. She says apprenticeship of the role couldn’t have been any better, when Jodie Fields was in charge of the team, before she finally took over in 2013 to become the youngest Australia captain – male or female – at 21.
“As a captain and a player, you’re learning all the time,” Lanning said. “Every match presents you with a different situation, which you need to sit back and learn from. Taking over the role as captain has been an enjoyable experience. I’ve been able to talk and learn from a number of people about captaincy, which has been fantastic. The team has supported me really well. It’s been good so far, looking forward to this World Cup and beyond.”
Considering how much success she has had as a batsman and leader, it’s easy to mistake Lanning for a veteran in Charlotte Edwards’ league. Truth be told, she’s all of 23, with years of cricket ahead of her. Having excelled as a destructive opener, captain par excellence and an outstanding fielder, she may have added a new dimension to her repertoire, even if not intentionally – the finisher.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
ESPN Sports Media Ltd.