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Rain gifts Proteas first WC point but they're still staring into the abyss

Faf du Plessis and South Africa are on the board with a gifted point but will know that the five remaining games must be treated as cup finals.

The umpires are on the outfield inspecting the field. Picture: @cricketworldcup/Twitter.

Thousands of stone-faced fans huddle under umbrellas and thick hooded coats staring at nothing. Well, not nothing. Out in the middle people in high-vis jackets stand guard as other people deeper in the middle flit about with large rectangles of heavy-duty tarpaulin. A hovercraft from an Arthur C Clarke fantasy keeps the pitch incubated.

It’s raining. Then it’s not. Then it is again. Those umbrellas fold and open as if the frustrated masses are trying to plead with a higher power. Those who haven’t legged it yet for a warm shower take selfies and drink beer and eat their lunch and talk about the rain and stare at nothing.

How did this fickle sport, one that relies on dry weather more than any other, ever take root in sodden England? How did those Victorians not toss the whole concept down the drain the first time they stood around staring at nothing unfold on a wet field?

No wonder the British colonised the world. The politicians and monarchs likely spoke of glory and the might of their empire, but one wonders how much they were driven by the pursuit of dry land to play their favourite past time.

At Southampton on Monday, joining in the watching of nothing were the South African Proteas. They had stumbled to 29/2 after just 7.3 overs sent down by the West Indies before the heavens opened and the long-predicted rain gently covered all of southern England in damp and cold.

During those 7.2 overs South Africa looked like a team on the ropes. Hashim Amla tried to cut a short ball from Sheldon Cottrell that was too close to do so and gave Chris Gayle’s bucket hands a simple catch in the slips. A few overs later Aiden Markram could only lay a glove on Cottrell’s wayward ball down the leg side, feathering a simple grab to Shai Hope behind the stumps. Cottrell signalled their premature marching orders with his trademark soldier’s salute.

In walked Faf du Plessis, batting at four, inside the 7th over. Against England in the opening game South Africa were 44/2 after 9.3 overs. Against India they were 24/2 after 5.5 overs. Only against Bangladesh were the first two wickets worth more than 100 runs.

Amla and Markram are both class batsmen. It’s a simple shorthand but it captures the grace with which they operate when in form. Amla’s flashing blade and bull-whip wrists underline his greatness. Markram’s all-encompassing repertoire of strokes suggests his future stardom. Both are worth the admission alone when in full flight. Both are worryingly staring at nothing after another disappointing performance.

Du Plessis spoke of Amla’s pedigree at the post-match press conference. Anyone with an opinion worth listening to in South African cricket has sung Markram’s praises, touting the young man as a future Proteas skipper.

“Like most of our batters, it’s a case of getting in and getting the starts converted into runs,” Du Plessis said when asked to put his finger on why a batting unit filled with household names has yet to fire. “There’s two phases of what’s been disappointing in the batting: a lot of starts and also a few guys looking to get started.”

With every poor shot resulting in a South African wicket, questions will be raised on the absence of AB de Villiers whose presence hovers over this group like a spectre.

On Saturday coach Ottis Gibson gave a sketchy version of events concerning De Villiers’ last-ditch attempt to be included in the World Cup squad. Today, Du Plessis only added to the confusion.

It is still unclear if De Villiers first expressed an interest in joining the World Cup during the IPL or the night before the squad announcement. No one can say with any clarity if he spoke to Du Plessis over the phone or in person. Someone is lying, or at least only telling half-truths. Why and about what remains a mystery.

The Sunday Times reported a rift between the two old schoolmates. Du Plessis felt the need to state through the team’s media manager that, “AB and I are still friends. This incident has not changed that. This is a small thing for a friendship that goes way back.” It’s all feeling like a messy playground spat.

It’s hard to discern the mood in the camp. Kagiso Rabada spoke of off-field distractions. Batting coach Dale Benkenstein has intimated that mental shortcomings rather than technical flaws are to blame for batsmen losing their wickets. After the loss to Bangladesh, several players admitted to being flat in the field.

The circus moves on. Next up is a trip to Cardiff and a tricky encounter with Afghanistan on Saturday. Rain is predicted to have an impact on the day-night affair in the Welsh capital which will play into Afghan hands as their side is filled with T20 merchants.

Du Plessis and South Africa are on the board with a gifted point but will know that the five remaining games must be treated as cup finals. Lose any one of them and they’re out of the competition. Winning them all still might not be enough.

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