DANIEL GALLAN: Proteas World Cup post-mortem
New Zealand takes on India at Old Trafford on Tuesday in the first semi-final of this marathon Cricket World Cup. On Thursday England will battle it out with Australia for a place in Sunday’s final at Lord’s.
Where are the Proteas? Back at home, contemplating a campaign that oscillated between disappointing and frustrating. In truth, they looked ill-equipped to mount a serious challenge from the moment Plan A - built around a quartet of fast bowlers - broke down with injuries to Dale Steyn and Lungisani Ngidi. By the time they figured out what Plan B looked like, they were out of the competition.
And so, after another global tournament that has left more questions than answers, Proteas fans are left staring at a spot in the trophy cabinet that remains empty. Rather than idly watch the dust gather, we pick at the bones of the carcass that is South Africa’s World Cup.
It wasn’t all bad and some players have managed to leave this train wreck with their reputations intact. Rassie van der Dussen is the standout of this small group. He arrived in the UK a relative nobody having never played an international match outside of South Africa.
He scored 50 in the tournament opener against England and registered two more half-centuries, ending the competition with 311 runs at an average of 62.2. His 95 against Australia was a lesson in pacing one’s innings when the bowling is tight and deserved a maiden ODI century, only to fall short attempting to clear the ropes off the last ball of the innings.
Imran Tahir proved that age is just a number and bowed out of ODI cricket with 11 World Cup wickets, more than any other spinner throughout the group stage, conceding less than five an over.
Captain Faf du Plessis made some tactical mistakes but with the bat he was imperious, scoring 387 runs at 64.5. He was not only the highest run-getter of all the South Africans but also notched the only hundred in the camp.
All-rounders Chris Morris (who was South Africa’s surprise leading wicket-taker with 13 at 26.23 at 5.3 an over) and Andile Phehlukwayo (11 wickets at 30.5 at 5.4 an over) were good in patches but never looked like world beaters. In fairness, neither of them are, but when they shared a field with Dwaine Pretorius they made the Proteas look like more than the sum of their parts. Perhaps this combination lower down the order should have been thought up sooner.
Where to start? In a tournament where South Africa finished seventh on the table with only three wins from nine games (including one wash-out), there is bound to be a glut of abject performers. Some were worse than most.
Kagiso Rabada doesn’t need anyone to tell him that he was well below his best for the last six weeks. Billed as one of the future stars of the game, he bagged 11 wickets and 36 while conceding 5 an over. His toothless displays were contrasted by the ruthlessness of his rival quicks around the world. With Mitchell Starc, Lockie Ferguson, Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammad Amir and Jofra Archer all amongst the top wicket-takers, Rabada’s name is conspicuously absent near the summit of that list.
Of course, he wasn’t alone. Ngidi’s fitness is a worry but whenever he had a ball in his hand he has as much bite as a medium-paced trundler. With the bat Aiden Markram and Quinton de Kock looked great in patches but failed to convert a handful of starts and, lower down, David Miller promised explosions but only delivered fizzle.
Perhaps most worrying of all was Tabraiz Shamsi. Though the left-arm wrist spinner only bowled 18 overs he hardly looked like taking a wicket. His 0/54 and 0/62 against India and Australia respectively emphasise his inability to unlock elite batters and with Tahir having retired, Shamsi will need to add accuracy to his variations if he is to step into the gargantuan hole that now exists in the 50 over the team.
Highlights were few and far between. It is telling that that South Africa’s two best moments came at the very start of the tournament and right at the very end.
Du Plessis surprised everyone, including his own wicketkeeper de Kock, and opened the bowling with Tahir against England in the first over of the World Cup. The first ball was bunted towards cover for a single but the second was a fizzing ripper that kissed the outside edge of opener Jonny Bairstow’s bat and de Kock did the rest.
England were 1/1, Tahir was off in trademark celebration, and a nation believed that maybe this could actually be their year.
We had to wait a long time for the next real feel-good event but when du Plessis scampered through for a quick single against the Aussies in Manchester he brought up three figures for the 12th time in his ODI career. In the process he had dropped his bat and so stood with his arms aloft, drinking in the adoration, forgetting about the context and simply savouring the moment.
It is the job of the journalist to connect events that seemingly appear unconnected but are in fact closely linked. A butterfly flaps its wings in Japan and a South African is run out in Birmingham. That sort of thing.
After restricting England to 311 at The Oval, South Africa’s confidence was buoyed. This, after all, was the same batting unit that had strolled into the tournament with their sights set on 500.
Then Archer landed one on an uncomfortable length that exploded through Hashim Amla’s pull and clattered the senior opener on the helmet. Amla was shaken. The Proteas camp was shaken. Everyone watching in the stands and on TV was shaken. This felt like a statement. Like a heavyweight boxer knocking the lights out of your favourite fighter, Amla’s blow was felt by adoring Proteas fans the world over.
But as devastating as that strike was, it did not cripple the team. Their legs were wobbly but they were still upright. Then came a triple combo in the form of a shock Bangladesh defeat, a pounding at the hands of Virat Kohli’s Indians and the revelation that AB de Villiers had tried to make a last-ditch attempt to join the squad the night before it was announced.
De Villiers will rightly be remembered as one of the greatest players of all time. He reinvented the art of limited-overs batting and could well be better than any South African before him. Unfortunately, there will always be a caveat next to his name. Disruptor, egotist, flip-flopper; none of these are too harsh for a man whose mixed signals and unclear judgement impacted a team that had just come to terms with his absence.
MOST MEMORABLE QUOTES
Du Plessis was excellent with the press. Unlike most of his compatriots, when you ask him a question, he answers it. He is articulate and thoughtful and honest. His intense gaze belies a softness and he is more than approachable either side of facing up to the cameras.
“It is important that we don’t take a left turn into negative town,” he said with a smile after the Bangladesh loss. It was a comical turn of phrase that was regularly quoted by the travelling South African media.
So too was his line before the England curtain-raiser. “I want to win cricket games, but I don’t need to win them.” Some might argue that this points to a lack off intensity from the skipper and that such an attitude accounted for his side’s poor display.
I do not think that is the case. I think this mantra from the almost 35-year-old captain is one that more South Africans should adopt. This is just a game. So is soccer and rugby and netball and athletics. Yes the results matter, and yes the nation-building narrative is steeped in sporting success, but they remain mere games.
We should not lose perspective. We should not conflate a dropped catch with bungled service delivery. And while the socio-economics of the country impact youth development and grassroots infrastructure, we should not lose sight of what cricket, and the World Cup, is about.
The Proteas were poor. Du Plessis knows this most of all. We should all want them, rather than need them, to be better next time.
Daniel Gallan is a freelance cricket correspondent for Eyewitness News based in the UK. Follow him on Twitter @danielgallan