In a clash that briefly flirted with the gripping, it was Australia’s experience that helped them ride a top-order wobble as they began their title defence with a six-wicket win against South Africa at the VCA Stadium in Nagpur. It was vice-captain Alex Blackwell and captain Meg Lanning who led the way to chase down 103 easily in the end, after they were reduced to 9 for 3 in the fourth over.
South Africa had an excellent launch pad at 69 without loss in 12 overs after opting to bat. Then they fell into a crater courtesy rush of blood, indecision against spin and a number of misguided strokes to huff and puff to 102 for 6. As hard as they tried, defending it was never going to be easy against the masters of the big occasion who are gunning for their fourth successive title.
Eventually, the batting meltdown played a big part in the result, as Lanning and Blackwell allayed fears with an unbroken 52-run fifth-wicket stand off just 38 balls to see Australia home with nine balls to spare.
Spin was expected to play a major part, but to everyone’s surprise, it was a flat batting track, where batsmen could hit through the line without worrying about turn or bounce. South Africa showed they were up for a fight as Dane van Niekerk did the early running by making 45 in a 72-run opening stand with Trisha Chetty, before Australia strangulated them.
While Ellyse Perry hustled the batsmen with pace, Lauren Cheatle’s canny variations resulted in South Africa’s middle order having to manufacture strokes that didn’t connect. Of course it didn’t help that Australia’s fielders were on the ball, showcasing tremendous athleticism and agility on one of the biggest outfields in India, cutting out at least 10 runs to the final total. Chetty’s scratchy 34 eventually helped them cross the 100-run mark.
Australia’s thoughts of the chase being a walk in the park were firmly put on the backburner. Alyssa Healy walked across to flick, only to find her leg stump flattened to give the fired-up Shabnim Ismail an early sniff. Perry bottom-edged a cut to the wicketkeeper, while Ellyse Villani chopped on to leave Australia in tatters before they could reach double figures.
Lanning’s illness that kept her off the field for most parts of South Africa’s innings meant she could come in either after 30 minutes or the fall of the fifth wicket. An air of anticipation hovered in the South African camp, but the conclusion of Ismail’s opening burst took with it the sting in their attack as Blackwell and Jess Jonassen added 44 for the fourth wicket. More importantly, the pair ensured the asking rate never got out of hand. When Jonassen stepped out to be stumped, the game was back in the balance as Australia slipped to 53 for 4, needing 50 off 47 balls.
Lanning, not quite her usual self, struggled to run, but wasn’t going to miss out on freebies on offer as she helped herself to three fours to bring the equation down to 23 off the last four overs. Once within striking distance, the feared white-ball striker in her surfaced as she hit Ismail for two fierce square cuts, to convert a tricky chase into a cruise.