Laura Wolvaardt and the art of powerless bludgeoning

Laura Wolvaardt dives to stop the ball. © Getty Images

“I want to win a World Cup with this team.”

It was an intent-filled statement made by Laura Wolvaardt to Women’s CricZone when she had toured India with the South African team for their limited overs series in 2019. At that point, she had three years of international experience under her belt and was trying to figure out whether to pursue medicine or a career in sports. At only 20 years of age, her answers reflected a maturity well beyond her years.

She began pretty early, breaking into the Western Province Under-19 side at the age of eleven. She didn’t bother if people took her seriously; she was rather glad they allowed her to play. She enjoyed her cricket very much. “The fact that they allowed me to play and took me as well as they did for Western Province was something that I was very grateful for,” she said then.

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A quick glance at her career numbers reveal that Laura Wolvaardt is an opener. She has opened the batting most times in her career (66 times in 74 internationals). In fact, few would have believed she would return to the T20 squad after the kind of World Cup (the 2018 ICC Women’s World T20) she had in the Caribbean a couple of years ago. In South Africa’s (yet another) group-stage exit, she made three single digit scores before being dropped for the final match in that competition.

But she was in the side that toured India. She played in the top three in three of the four T20Is. She didn’t have impressive numbers. End of road perhaps, you’d think.

No.

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Against Pakistan on Sunday (March 1), South Africa were placed delicately at 54 for 3 in 10 over – having opted to bat first – when Laura Wolvaardt walked in. It was a surprise considering they had Sune Luus – fresh from an unbeaten half century and the big-hitting Chloe Tryon in the dugout. Barely had the youngster got her eye in than she saw Marizanne Kapp fall for 31.

At 64 for 4, South Africa’s hopes of posting a decent total, let alone a win, hung by a thread.

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Soon enough Wolvaardt strung together a useful partnership with her friend Luus and the pair got busy nurdling the ball around in the gaps. Luus perfectly played the role of a senior partner, guiding Wolvaardt and calming any nerves that she might have had. After all, it was the first time Wolvaardt was batting in the competition, despite being in the side for all three games thus far.

Then came the release. Nida Dar tossed one up outside off, Wolvaardt charged down and lofted it over wide mid-off for her first four. There was just enough room for her to find the space she needed.

Next up, the gap between covers and long-off was found, courtesy a pristinely timed drive, that beat the fielder in the deep. A couple of balls later, the cut shot threaded the gap between backward point and short third man. Wolvaardt had sped up to 29 from 24 balls, when she saw Luus fall, leaving the side reeling at 102 for 5 with just over three overs to go.

But she remained unfazed. Or so it seemed.

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In 23 T20Is prior to Sunday, Wolvaardt’s strike rate was 95.14. Her average was in the late teens and she was as regular in the list of big-hitters as South Africa’s presence in the knockout stages of T20 World Cups.

In the T20Is against New Zealand preceding the T20 World Cup, Wolvaardt scored only 64 in the four games with a best of 33. South Africa had lost the series and she had opened in all the games.

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Two overs to go, South Africa 107 for 5.

Facing the last two balls of the penultimate over, Wolvaardt hit Aiman Anwer for a couple of fours. The first one was drilled wide of the long-off fielder and the next was an inside-out cover drive that few adjectives could do justice to.

In the final over, Anam Amin got rid of the dangerous Tryon and Wolvaardt had four deliveries to face. She could only drill the cover-drive straight to the fielder on the first of those. The next one was clobbered over the bowler’s head, beating long-on to the fence.

There’s no beautiful shot in the sport than a perfectly timed inside-out shot over covers, that too, off a left-arm spinner. Wolvaardt dished out that majestic stroke twice in the last two balls. She made room and exploited the real estate in the cover region, despite Amin following the batter and firing it in line of the stumps.

Treat to the eyes, boost to the South Africa’s total.

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This wasn’t the youngster’s first major contribution in this World Cup. Against Thailand on Friday (February 28), she had dived full-stretch fielding at covers to catch Sornnarin Tippoch out. It helped Nonkululeko Mlaba pick her maiden international wicket.

On Sunday, South Africa had got to an improbable 136 for 6, courtesy Wolvaardt’s cameo. It was only her second T20I half century and only the second time she had batted at no.5 in the format. She finished unbeaten on 53 off just 36 balls, hitting eight excellently timed shots to the fence, none over it.

Pure timing and placement. No power.

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Laura Wolvaardt acknowledges the crowd after completing her half century. © ICC

The inside-out shot is one of her favourite shots, she would admit after the match. Not once, not twice, not thrice, but at least four times, Wolvaardt was successful in peppering the cover fence – be it off a spinner or a seamer.

Her innings, drew effusive praise from her captain Dane van Niekerk who said, “The way she went about displaying her skills was incredible. She’s matured beyond her years. She’s going to be a legend.”

After her heroics, Wolvaardt T20I average rose to the twenties while her strike rate climbed up to 100.

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Wolvaardt was about five years old. She was friends with boys in the school, who played cricket during break. She used to join them because she didn’t want to miss out on the fun.

“But never did I ever think I’d be sitting here playing for my country,” she said back in 2019.

She hadn’t just played any other game. It was a World Cup match that she had helped South Africa win.

Wolvaardt’s World Cup dream may be closer, given that her feat helped South Africa qualify for the semi-finals only for the second time in T20 World Cup history – a first since 2014.