A feisty unit unleashing a phalanx of wicket-smelling fast bowlers—this is what we have traditionally expected from a South African cricket team, notwithstanding the plethora of world-class all-rounders and match-winning batsmen that they have always, invariably managed to throw up.
This edition of the World Cup though saw a different South Africa, one which came into the tournament with considerable promise but also an incongruous mix—of ageing stars and rustic flamboyance, of immense experience on the one hand and evident inexperience at the International level on the other—something that does not befit the teams that are cut out for a top-four finish in the least.
And just when it seemed that ‘win’ had become an obsolete word for them, they turned up in the final game of their 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup campaign with a renewed vigour, which empowered them to defeat five-time champions Australia by 10 runs at Old Trafford, Manchester.
So how does one assess and review South Africa’s overall performance at this World Cup? It is only natural and obvious to rue AB de Villiers’ absence and find solace in the hypothesis that his presence would have significantly bolstered South Africa’s batting. But the truth is the highly performance-oriented world of sports offers very limited scope for such wishful thinking. What matters, eventually, for the stakeholders of the game in a particular country is how the country has fared in a particular series or at a particular tournament, and South Africa’s end-of-the-tournament report card does not make for good reading at all: three wins, five losses, and one no-result.
The shorter versions of the game have long become the fiefdom of willow wielders, and for a team which has only one individual hundred (captain Faf du Plessis’ 94-ball 100 against Australia) to show after the course of the entire tournament, surely the end result couldn’t have been anything better than a seventh-place finish. Barring their spirited first innings total of 325-6 in their final game of the tournament, the South African batsmen have been largely underwhelming.
Hashim Amla, who has been South Africa’s batting mainstay for the past few years, had a forgettable tournament, having scored a meagre 203 runs from 6 games. Clearly, in the twilight of his career, the thirty-six-year-old’s international graph is in a downward spiral at the moment, and it remains to be seen how long the South African team management persists with him. In such circumstances, a lot of hopes were pinned on Amla’s fellow opener Quinton de Kock, who had a remarkable run in ODIs leading up to the tournament, but much to his team’s disappointment, he didn’t fare well either, recording only 305 runs in 9 matches at an average of 38.12.
With the sole exception of New Zealand, all the three other teams which have qualified for the knockouts possess openers who have scored 340+ runs each and have recorded a minimum of three 100+ opening stands as pairs so far. South Africa’s opening stands, on the other hand, read: 36, 49, 11, 11, 104, 9, 4, 31 and 79. The South African openers have been consistently inconsistent—especially so against the moving ball in the powerplay—and their iffy form nearly always ensured that the middle-order batsmen had to work overtime to prevent their struggling organization from going bankrupt.
The only silver lining in the batting department, if there was any, was the rise of Rassie van der Dussen, whose determined resolve with the bat often went in vain owing to the lack of a good supporting cast. A late bloomer on the international circuit, the thirty-year-old could well go on to feature in another World Cup and is expected to be a key player for the Proteas in the white-ball game in the few years to come.
Even though South Africa’s bowling didn’t look as shoddy as their batting, the ‘sting’ factor was definitely missing from the attack, an attribute which has become synonymous with the bowlers who have donned the South African shirt over the years. In a tournament which has mostly been a trading ground for speed merchants, the South African speedsters hardly managed to do any justice to their reputation. Yes, injuries did hamper the rhythm and effectiveness of their two most potent weapons, Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi, and knocked out Dale Steyn and Anrich Nortje from the entire tournament, but there is also ample reason for one to complain that Cricket South Africa did not manage its bowlers well.
Injury breakdowns can happen anytime during such a long tournament and workload management, one of the most frequently used phrases in world cricket in recent times is as important a part of a team’s preparations as are the skillsets of individual players. The Australian bowlers have set an example in this regard by pulling out of this year’s IPL, and the result is right in front of us—every single bowler is among the wickets and every single fast bowler has relentlessly steamed in, delivering fiery spells one after the other and bowling the opposition out on almost every occasion. Both Dale Steyn and Kagiso Rabada, who were supposed to share new-ball duties when the squad for the World Cup was first announced, sustained injuries during the IPL, and South Africa’s consternation over their half-fit and injury-stricken bowling department was evident when du Plessis confessed in the press conference after the Pakistan game that he tried to prevent Rabada from participating in this year’s IPL but wasn’t heeded.
The fact that the majority of the games of this World Cup have been played on flat pitches with very little or no assistance for spinners was always going to render Imran Tahir ineffective, and with the pace bowlers failing to take early wickets and sustain the pressure, pegging the opposition’s scoring rate down was never going to be an easy proposition. It is no surprise therefore that none of their bowlers feature among the top ten wicket-takers of the tournament.
While it would be fair to an extent to argue that AB de Villiers’ sudden retirement from the international scene just a year before the World Cup was scheduled prompted CSA to press the SOS button and left the management with very little time to look for prospective candidates who could fill in the hole left by him in South Africa’s middle-order, it must also be recalled that even in his presence South Africa failed to go past the semi-final hurdle in the past three editions of the World Cup.
Truth be told, the South African players lacked that essential confidence at the 2019 World Cup which has defined their cricket for all these years, ever since the team returned to the international fold from a twenty-one-year-long ban in 1991 under Clive Rice’s captaincy. Extraneous circumstances in the past like the rain-affected semi-final of the 1992 World Cup against England and their horrible miscalculation regarding the D/L method in the rain-affected group stage game of the 2003 World Cup against Sri Lanka have played their part in lending an element of tragedy to South Africa’s tryst with the tournament, and even in the editions where they themselves were to be blamed for choking in the critical knockout games, they usually played their cricket with a certain degree of authority, a stark contrast to the flustered appearance on the players’ faces as we saw in the tournament this time around.
Off the field, too, things aren’t going particularly well for South Africa. While credit must be given to CSA for valuing ethics over the awe of a big star while dealing with the de Villiers issue, they are currently engaged in a legal battle with South African Cricketers’ Association over a proposed restructuring plan that would double the number of teams at the domestic level. Moreover, with the quota system now a mandatory regulation for all levels of cricket played in the country, and with an ever-increasing number of domestic cricketers preferring international T20 leagues and KOLPAK deals over the honour of a national call-up, the problems are only bound to multiply for CSA in the future. To hold on to what they have is not an easy task in an era in which the hunger for quick cash has superseded everything else. Is the national cricket team then only a microcosm of the things happening at a much larger scale in South African cricket politics?
At present, this question is open to debate but the fate of the national cricket team will depend on how expediently and how adroitly Cricket South Africa handles such diverse and complicated issues going forward. An overhauling of the national team with the induction of fresh faces and the appointments of a new captain and a new coach seems imminent, with players like Tahir, J.P. Duminy, Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn all possibly having played their last World Cup, and unless they come up with a strict measure of dissuading their players from becoming T20 mercenaries or giving in to the temptation of KOLPAK deals, problems may only snowball into an avalanche that could potentially be the nemesis for the supply line of players to the senior team.
A quick glance at South Africa’s journey in World Cup 2019:-
- Loss to England by 104 runs at the Oval, London.
- Loss to Bangladesh by 21 runs at the Oval, London.
- Loss to India by 6 wickets at the Hampshire Bowl, Southampton.
- No result against West Indies at the Hampshire Bowl, Southampton.
- Win over Afghanistan by 9 wickets at the Cardiff Wales Stadium, Cardiff.
- Loss to New Zealand by 4 wickets at Edgbaston, Birmingham.
- Loss to Pakistan by 49 runs at Lord’s, London.
- Win over Sri Lanka by 9 wickets at the Riverside Durham, Chester-le-Steet.
- Win over Australia by 10 runs at Old Trafford, Manchester.