DANIEL GALLAN: Proteas must rediscover fight to stay alive
Since they arrived in the UK, the Proteas have espoused a philosophy of zen-like tranquility. Like Hindu cows navigating the streets of Delhi, they eased through the warm-up games and pre-tournament press conferences with gentle smiles on their faces, safe in the knowledge that no harm would come to them.
Living in South Africa, they did not need reminding how blessed they are to make a living, and a good one at that, playing a game. The sport is meant to be enjoyed and amid the horrors of the world the fate of a ball shouldn’t be taken too seriously by those competing or watching. Perspective; that is what captain Faf du Plessis was looking for.
But like one hand clapping they failed to grab the initiative against a much more polished England team and were resoundingly routed by 104 runs. They fell like trees in a forest against the Tigers of Bangladesh with a packed Oval and millions around the world there to hear their crash down to earth.
Now, with the very real threat of a premature elimination staring them in the face, the Proteas need to rediscover their mongrel. They’re in a fight for survival. These monks must now become warriors.
“I’m certainly not Mr Nice Guy,” Du Plessis said after the Bangladesh defeat in response to a question concerning the need for harsh words in the dressing room. “There are times when you need to be strong to motivate the team. If the guys can think they can make excuses for a performance like that, then they will be challenged. That’s a fact.”
Du Plessis is someone who was born to lead. Graeme Smith may have commanded respect, Hansie Cronje may have inspired devotion, AB de Villiers may have engendered awe, but Du Plessis has something else. There is something more human about him.
When David Warner and his posse of fast bowlers had Quinton de Kock surrounded in that Kingsmead stairwell last year, Faf du Plessis defused tensions wearing nothing but a towel. But even though he was bearing a torso that was harder than any pitch Durban’s old ground has ever produced, he was somehow relatable. Not the chiselled abs (if only) but in the genuineness of the act. He acted the way you’d want your mate to act when you're cornered by a bully. He may have looked like an MMA fighter but he came as a peace maker.
Du Plessis has said that fatherhood has given him a broader outlook on life. He is no longer obsessed with his image and has consciously toned down his machismo. Winning games of cricket are important to the 34-year-old but they do not govern his life. He wants glory. He does not need it.
But the patriarch of this team comprised of green rookies and gnarled veterans does want it. You can see it in the way he looks you dead in the eye when answering a question about his side’s recent failures. He is making no excuses.
“Every single player in our dressing room is not playing to their full potential and that’s why we’re not putting the performance on,” he said. “None of us has been on top of our game yet so it's just about making sure you look yourself in the mirror and see how you can find the answer.”
Now on to India and Virat Kohli who have yet to play a game in the competition. This is a side that likes to bully others. They come at you hard and don’t stop swinging until the game is mercifully over. In the face of such an onslaught, timid opponents wilt.
South Africa can ill afford to do so. They need to shelve their passivity and ignite that Protea Fire we hear so much about. Bin the nice guy act. It’s time to get mean. If they don’t, they will be forced to meander through the rest of the competition with nothing to play for but their diminished pride.
Daniel Gallan is a freelance reporter based in the UK.