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DANIEL GALLAN: Proteas face cold new dawn

OPINION

South Africa's Andile Phehlukwayo runs in to deliver the final ball of New Zealand’s 15th over that has already gone for 11 runs. Martin Guptill is on strike and untroubled on 35, batting with a barn door against a Proteas attack sending down beach balls.

Phehlukwayo lands it halfway down the track. Guptill swivels and bunts to the leg side for a comfortable single. Faf du Plessis’ head droops at the realisation that his World Cup is slipping away.

But Quinton de Kock is inexplicably celebrating. A bail has mysteriously tumbled to the ground. Guptill has trod on his own stumps and has handed South Africa a lifeline.

Momentum is a strange thing. Every player will speak differently of its invisible undulations but all acknowledge that it exists. Like some ancient deity with an oscillating temperament, it can change the course of history on a whim.

When Guptill left the scene on Wednesday, New Zealand were 72/2 in pursuit of the 241 set by South Africa. They still had Kane Williamson at the crease, steadily climbing through the gears on 27. In strode Ross Taylor, the world’s third-best batsmen according to the ICC’s metrics and a man averaging 74 over the last 12 months.

Despite the wicket, the Black Caps were still in the driver’s seat. But momentum is a strange thing and it had just sent a ripple across Edgbaston Cricket Ground.

Chris Morris was never meant to be here. A hand injury to Anrich Nortje meant the lanky all-rounder was a late inclusion in the World Cup squad. A likeable figure, his career is littered with the occasional match-winning performance in an otherwise frustrating resume.

Now he has the ball in his hand after a change of ends and takes aim at Taylor. He sends a floater down the leg side that looks destined to be called a wide before a swishing bat makes the faintest of connections and Taylor is gone. Caught de Kock, bowled Morris for just 1.

It was on this ground almost 20 years to the day that South African cricket became synonymous with bad luck, when Allan Donald dropped his bat after refusing to run in the tied semi-final against Australia. The ghosts of ’99 still haunt a nation baffled by a lack of silverware despite a laundry list of superstars across generations. But after two lucky wickets, perhaps those specters would finally be exorcised.

In his next over, Morris produces the best ball bowled by a South African since they arrived in the UK for the World Cup. He zips a scrambled seam on a good length around middle and leg that cuts across the left-handed Tom Latham which kisses the edge of his bat. In just 14 balls, New Zealand have lost three wickets for eight runs.

Not that Kane Williamson is bothered by all that. Momentum shifts might affect the ordinary among us who are left feeling like fallen leaves caught in its current. But the Kiwi captain is anything but ordinary when he has a bat in his hand. He is the immovable object that repels even the most unstoppable forces and all that Protea puff hardly causes him to sway.

There were chances of course. When on 76 he looked to cut Imran Tahir’s final delivery and seemingly missed it. Tahir, an effervescent character at the best of times, wheeled away in a mix of celebration and appeal. De Kock was unmoved with the ball in his hand. Tahir accepted that Williamson didn’t edge it. Except he did. Replays revealed the tiniest of tickles on the ball.

This game was not determined by that single act. It played a massive role, for sure, but in a game that ebbed and flowed as if attached to the end of a metronome, it was one of many moments that shaped New Zealand’s four-wicket victory yesterday.

South Africa are out of the World Cup. Not officially, but the last rites have already been read. Barring divine intervention in the form of rain and spectacular results elsewhere, the semi-final spots at this year’s showpiece are all but secured with the Kiwis joining England, Australia and India in the final four.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. In the absence of AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn, both the batting and bowling units were short of proven leaders on and off the field. Only Imran Tahir, a 40-year-old on the cusp of ODI retirement, can claim to simultaneously be a member of South Africa’s all-time 50 over XI and a current player in form.

De Kock, Kagiso Rabada and Aiden Markram might become greats but have not been at their best. Hashim Amla is unquestionably a great but is a shadow of himself. Du Plessis has been in excellent form over the last four years, averaging almost 60 since the last World Cup, but carried too much of the burden as both middle-order lynchpin and venerable leader to maximise his output.

A cold new dawn faces South African cricket. Mismanagement at board level, an inability to combat the haemorrhaging of Kolpak talent and an uncertain future for domestic cricket mean the forecast is bleak.

Both captain and coach look set for departure. A glut of former champions will likely seek big money moves abroad. All the while fans grow agitated and unruly, desperate for a ray of hope in a world otherwise plagued by political and social stagnation in the country.

How Cricket South Africa sorts this mess out requires a deeper dive than this column can afford right now, though we’ll get to that in due course. For now, it is important to keep in mind that momentum shifts. A batsman steps on his own wicket and sets off a chain reaction that leads to a match being decided in the final over. A failure to recognise a faint edge can lead to an opposing captain scoring an unbeaten century to knock your team out of a World Cup.

And in case you lose heart entirely, it is also worth keeping in mind that four years ago, England were unceremoniously dumped out of the 2015 World Cup at the group stage with only two wins from six matches. That set off a ripple that has gathered force over four years, culminating in one of the best ODI sides in the history of the game.

Momentum is a strange thing. In 2023, we may look back on Wednesday's result as a turning point in South Africa's cricket history. Which way that momentum turns remains to be seen.

Daniel Gallan is a freelance cricket correspondent for Eyewitness News based in the UK. Follow him on Twitter @danielgallan

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