Proteas must now squeeze every run they have to stay alive in competition
Kagiso Rabada is a warrior. He doesn’t accept when he’s beat and so bends his back and digs one-half way down the wicket. It gets big on Sharma.
The game’s already gone by the 44th over. India need just 35 runs with Rohit Sharma on 107 and MS Dhoni unbeaten at the other end on 28. They’re cruising. The result is a formality. But Kagiso Rabada has the ball in hand and he wills his body towards the pitch to deliver another ball.
Rabada is a warrior. He doesn’t accept when he’s beat and so bends his back and digs one-half way down the wicket. It gets big on Sharma.
The batsman has hardly played a false stroke all day. Virat Kohli will later call this the best of his 22 ODI hundreds. From start to finish he has been in control.
But when Rabada bends his back he cannot be controlled and Sharma’s ugly pull shot is rushed. The ball approaches him much faster than he anticipates and he can only manage to slice it tamely towards cover where David Miller, one of the world’s best fielders, is waiting.
He drops it. Astonishingly, he drops it. An audible groan is heard around the ground. Even the most ardent Indian fans first react with disbelief before exploding in cheer. Rabada looks sick. His teammates look sick. Miller looks like he’s praying for a meteorite to come down and destroy the Rose Bowl in Southampton where South Africa are about to lose their third World Cup match in just six days.
Sports narratives are built on metaphors. Often journalists and commentators are clutching at straws or drawing tenuous links between events that are only tangentially related. This dropped catch is so obviously an encapsulation of South Africa’s tournament that it may not make it past the sub-editors for being too blatant.
There is no shame losing to this Indian team. They possess a top three in Sharma, Shikar Dhawan and Kohli that is as good as any in ODI history. Jasprit Bumrah is a modern great who produced a new ball spell for the ages against the Proteas, turning over Quinton de Kock as if he wasn’t his country’s best batsman. In Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, they have a pair of spin twins who strangle opposition like a boa constrictor snuffs the life from its prey.
There is no shame losing to England. Their batters are remorseless. Their fielding is otherworldly. In Jofra Archer they have one of the most devastating fast bowlers on the planet.
There is no real shame in losing to Bangladesh either. Not in a one-off game at least. Anyone who calls them a minnow has not been paying attention. The Tigers have won 18 of their completed 29 ODIs since the start of last year. Since the last World Cup, they have won bilateral series against South Africa, India and, most worryingly for the Proteas, the West Indies who Faf du Plessis has to beat on Monday to stay alive in this competition.
How does he do that? The obvious answer is he needs more runs. Against England and Bangladesh, they never looked like reaching targets that were north of 300 but still within touching distance in the modern game. Against India, their innings spluttered along to a substandard 227/9 that was never going to be enough.
Not one of South Africa’s top order is averaging over 40. None of them have scored a hundred with only De Kock, Du Plessis and Rassie van der Dussen reaching fifty. None of the top order is striking at a run a ball. The problem is, this dearth in run scoring was always part of the plan.
Ahead of the tournament Du Plessis and coach Ottis Gibson made no bones about their strategy to trust their bowlers to keep games right. But with Dale Steyn forced home without bowling a ball and Lungi Ngidi only bowling 14 from a predicted 30 overs so far, that plan has flown out the window. A new plan is needed. Runs are needed.
Aiden Markram should have played on Wednesday against India and he has to play against the West Indies on Monday. The last time he was on the park for a 50 over the game at the Rose Bowl he scored 130 for Hampshire in a run that also included scores of 88, and 61. Sure, County bowling attacks are a level down from the hostile barrage that he will face from the West Indies’ quicks, but familiarity has a value in and of itself.
Markram knows where the furniture is in Southampton. He knows where ones can be turned into twos and he knows which lengths to drive and which he to let go. That sort of knowledge cannot be discounted and it was an error leaving him out.
This mistake is amplified when one considers who Markram was left out for. JP Duminy is a legend of South Africa cricket. Perhaps not in the echelon that includes Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers or Shaun Pollock, but he has been a valiant servant who has provided memorable moments down the years. He polarises opinion more than any other but his selection, or rather non-selection, for the West Indies must surely be unanimously agreed upon.
He misses too many straight balls. He hasn’t scored an ODI hundred since 2015 where he hit 115 not-out against Zimbabwe. Since then he has only registered three scores above 75. For a team short of numbers on the board, that is not the sort of recent resume that inspires hope.
Then there’s Duminy’s bowling. He has turned his arm over 18 times so far in the tournament, travelling at eight an over. Markram, on the other hand, has conceded under seven. Admittedly this is just from the two overs he has sent down, but there has been enough evidence from both part-timers that discredits the argument that Duminy is ahead in the pecking order because of his contributions with the ball.
So Markram’s in. Where does he bat? Convener of selectors Linda Zondi said that Markram made the squad ahead of Reeza Hendricks because of the former’s ability to bat anywhere in the top five. The middle overs are a perennial problem for the Proteas who seem unable to climb through the gears and maintain scoreboard pressure.
Against India, Chahal and Yadav, world-class though they are, had it too easy. This is in part due to the lack of from the likes of Duminy and Miller but it is in part due to the poor starts from South Africa.
Putting Markram in at three bulks up the top order. As this is being written, Sheldon Cottrell and Oshan Thomas are nailing Australia’s openers with aggressive short stuff. Solidifying that Proteas front three would help defend against this barrage.
This would also allow Du Plessis to drop down to four. Though he averages more at three than he does one place down - 53.8 and 43.1 respectively - the positional shift would give him extra breathing room both as captain and as middle order lynchpin.
Miller, Andile Phehlukwayo and Chris Morris proved against India that they can combine patience with aggression but entered the scene much earlier than any would have liked.
There might even be an argument for Dwaine Pretorius to enter the side and beef up the run getting. Tabraiz Shamsi failed to impress against India without looking like taking a wicket in his nine overs. The left arm wrist spinner is an enigmatic character on the field but if he's not taking wickets he does not offer much.
South Africa arrived in the UK with a plan to skittle opponents out cheaply and chase whatever scraps were left. Now, through injury and form, that plan has been turned on its head.
South Africa need to eke out every run they possibly can from a team short of confidence and desperate for a win. The West Indies and their fearsome pacers lie in wait. They’ve bagged three wickets against Australia since the last time they were referenced in this piece and look a frightening prospect.
The Proteas look like a disconsolate bunch. News of AB de Villiers’ desire to un-retire when he emphasised time and again that his decision was final has only heaped more misery on the team. They are desperate. Defeat on Monday would knock them out of the World Cup before it has reached its halfway point.
But desperation can prove to be a galvanising force. Fight or flight. Those are the two options now facing South Africa. There will be a lot said about what has happened before. All that matters is what happens next.