Dead rubber? Not against the Aussies

Daniel Gallan says that the Proteas' final World Cup match against Australia is anything but a dead rubber, with a number of narratives coming into play.

FILE: South Africa's Lungi Ngidi (R) celebrates after taking the wicket of Australia's Aaron Finch (C) during the first one-day international (ODI) cricket match between South Africa and Australia at the Optus Perth stadium in Perth on 4 November 2018. Picture: AFP

MANCHESTER - There are dead rubbers and then there are dead rubbers. The game between the West Indies and Afghanistan on Thursday falls into the former category. With England’s trouncing of New Zealand on Wednesday, today’s clash between Pakistan and Bangladesh can also be described as a dead rubber of this nature.

South Africa’s game against Australia is of the second sort. The difference? The needle. The aggression. The animosity. The unfinished business. The fact that it’s South Africa versus the bloody Aussies and their nasal accents and overt machismo and that there is no such thing as a dead rubber against those punks in yellow. Sure, this might look like one from a distance, but lean in a little closer and you’ll notice that it’s anything but.

Oh, there’s also David Warner and Steve Smith.

In case you need reminding, the last time the two names above took to the field against South Africa was in Cape Town on 25 March 2018. In that third Test, which South Africa won by a landslide 322 runs after bowling out the Aussies for 107 in the fourth innings thanks to a Morne Morkel five-for, Cameron Bancroft was caught with a piece of sandpaper down his trousers.

The incident became a catalyst for introspection and change. Cricket Australia was forced to face the fact that the nation’s favourite sport had become synonymous with arrogance, poor sportsmanship and a win-at-all-costs mentality that had clouded judgements and soured reputations.

Almost a year-and-half later, the fortunes of the two sides couldn’t be more different. Australia are sitting pretty at the top of the World Cup table having lost just one game in eight. South Africa have played like a team that knew elimination from the group stage was an inevitability ever since Hashim Amla was sconed by Jofra Archer in the opening game against England back in May.

But none of this matters. OK, maybe it does a little. But the point is, South Africa have the chance to once again bloody some Aussie noses and remind the world that they are still a force to be reckoned with. There is also the small matter of bidding adieu to a few legends.

Imran Tahir will play his last ODI match tomorrow. The 40-year-old leg spinner has been a revelation in green and gold for eight years. Wild celebrations, exuberant appeals, unpickable googlies; he was the missing ingredient in South Africa’s bowling attack. He entered a world bereft of world-class spin bowlers. He departs having influenced a new generation of tweakers and twirlers capable of mixing it up with the best.

“I am the kind of guy who was never coached and so I want to help people because I never got the help,” he said yesterday when asked if coaching was on the horizon now that his career is coming to an end. “I want to go to the next T20 World Cup, so I’m not done playing, but after that I want to serve my country for the next 15 to 20 years. I have the belief I can pass on my skills.”

JP Duminy is also stepping down. Before the nine-wicket victory over Sri Lanka last week, he apologised to the nation for his team’s poor performances. Whether or not you believed it necessary, his act was noble.

If he plays against Australia he will end with 199 ODI caps. It will be a somewhat fitting end to a career that never reached the heights his seemingly boundless talent promised. One minute the classy left-hander looked unstoppable. He unfurled cover drives and square cuts and flicks off the hip with the destructive properties of dynamite while moving gracefully like an unfurled roll of silk. Then he would miss a straight one or chip one to cover or spoon one to mid-wicket.

Duminy is the Marmite-Man of South African cricket. You either love him or hate him (not him personally, it should be noted, just his performances on the field). Perhaps this is why he felt the need to apologise.

Questions remain over Hashim Amla’s future. His captain has said he could play for another few years and scores of 80, 55, 41, 51* and 65 in his last nine innings would suggest he is in some sort of touch, but it feels like one of South Africa’s greatest has run his course.

The fastest man to man to 2,000, 3,000, 4,000, 5,000, 6,000 and 7,000 ODI runs deserves to leave on his own terms. But with a handful of youngsters waiting in the wings, project 2023 would do well do get under way as soon as possible and Amla’s presence, revered though it may be, might stifle the progress of Aiden Markram or Janneman Malan.

Tahir outlined that he could continue for another year at least. “My fitness and performances are both still good,” he said. “But the opportunities for youngsters is important. It will be challenging for them but it’s a new team. I want to give them opportunities.”

Tomorrow’s curtain call will be Tahir’s last. The same with Duminy and perhaps Amla. We may have already seen the last of Dale Steyn, though he challenged a fan on Twitter who had already read his last rites, emphasising that he was not done yet. We never got a chance to say goodbye to AB de Villiers and, whatever you may now think of the man, that is a great shame.

We now have the chance to raise a glass and stand to attention and applaud a trio of heroes as they take a bow for the last time in ODI cricket. They’ll be doing so against Australia in a swirl of narratives rich with aggression and needle and unfinished business. There are dead rubbers and then there are dead rubbers. Tomorrow’s game in Manchester is unquestionably one of the latter.

Daniel Gallan is a freelance reporter based in the UK.