Proteas search for Plan B as premature exit looms

A second consecutive defeat at the World Cup leaves the Proteas with a host of questions to answer before their next match against India.

South African fast bowler Lungi Ngidi reacts to a missed chance against Bangladesh during their Cricket World Cup match on 2 June 2019. Picture: @cricketworldcup/Twitter

What happens when Plan A doesn’t work?

That is the question that Faf du Plessis and Ottis Gibson must now answer after a 21-run defeat against Bangladesh at the Oval has left their World Cup campaign on life support after just two games.

Before the tournament kicked off, South Africa had a clear strategy. Kagiso Rabada, Lungisani Ngidi, Dale Steyn and Anrich Nortje would blitz the opposition’s batsmen with a barrage of bouncers before Imran Tahir tightened the noose in the middle overs. It wouldn’t matter that the batting tail started at number eight or that those occupying numbers one to seven were thin on pedigree and form. Even this hodge-podge collection would be able to chase down reachable targets and post defendable totals.

Their opening game against England on Thursday was a free swing. Eoin Morgan’s side have a claim to being one of the best ODI outfits in history and anything other than a comfortable home win would have represented an upset.

And so Sunday’s game against Bangladesh, a side the Proteas have beaten 17 times in their 20 completed ODIs before this, looked to be the perfect platform from which to launch their bid for a semifinal berth.

Du Plessis won the toss and did not hesitate in opting to bowl. Asian sides are notoriously weak against the short stuff - as was evidenced by the way Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan crumbled in the face of aggressive fast bowling - and the Proteas skipper had a plan. At least, he did a month back.

Nortje suffered a hand injury that meant he was recalled from the touring squad, replaced with Chris Morris who lacks the zip necessary to be called a strike bowler. Steyn’s gammy shoulder has kept him out of action since the side arrived in the UK and has been reduced to a periphery presence in training sessions.

This has left Rabada and Ngidi to carry out the demolition job themselves. But if they stuck to the plan and unleashed hell as instructed, Plan A was still a go.

It took almost four overs - 24 balls - for a bouncer of any worth to be delivered against Bangladesh’s openers. A few half trackers were given the treatment they deserved and a few spongy lifters were calmly let go, but those snorting throat-busters that have batters hopping and parrying were in short supply. Plans are only effective if they are executed and this one was lost in translation between the drawing board and the middle of the Oval.

When Ngidi left the field clutching his hamstring after sending down four inept overs costing 34 overs, Plan A went with him.

“As I said many times, our plan was to have four fast bowlers bowling at the same time,” Du Plessis said after the match. “[With all four] we have a very good attack. To lose one, then you become an OK bowling attack. Now to lose two, there’s pressure and our plan changes completely. That’s life. You’ve got to roll with the punches.”

Andile Phehlukwayo is many things, but he is not a fast bowler. Short (at least comparatively so) and down on fast twitch muscle fibres, he gets through the crease with as much gusto as his genetics will allow. Thankfully, he has gold running through the veins in his right arm.

“When other teams look at our bowlers they probably single me out as the guy they can attack, but that can work to my advantage,” Phehlukwayo said after claiming 2/52 from ten overs. “I stick to my strengths. There are always opportunities for me to pick up wickets. I keep it basic; present the seam, one or two bouncers and depending on the surface change my pace.”

The all-rounder’s contributions with the ball now takes on added importance. Going forward, South Africa may look to strangle sides rather than knock them out.

Ngidi will be out of action for a week and will miss Wednesday’s clash against India, a side that looks to bully the opposition. Steyn’s prodigal return has long been foretold but always appears beyond the horizon. “Soon,” is the prediction. “We’ll believe it when we see,” is the increasingly frustrated response from Proteas fans.

South Africa are a side with an identity crisis. Perhaps not in the dressing room where a tight group speak often and loudly about the unity they all feel. Gibson and Du Plessis have appeared like serene monks espousing a philosophy of nuance and perspective. “It’s just sport,” Gibson said. The sun will still rise in the morning.

When it does, both coach and captain will know they are running out of time. They’ve put most of their chips on red and a trio of injured tearaways have seen them come a cropper. All the zen and goodwill in the world won’t help the doctors bring them back any faster. A new plan is needed if July’s clash against Australia in Manchester is to have any meaning.

With Plan A gone, they move to Plan B. What that is remains to be seen. It could mean Tabraiz Shamsi could enter the equation to form an attacking wrist spinning double act with Imran Tahir. Or Du Plessis might choose to put his faith in three all-rounders who he’ll hope are more than the sum of their parts.

What happens when Plan A doesn’t work? We’ll find out in Southampton on Wednesday.

Daniel Gallan is a freelance reporter based in the UK.