Here’s our #SixWordHorrorStory, and we didn’t even have to try: South Africa at the World Cup.
Even in a long line of World Cup nightmares, this campaign, marked by six losses in seven matches, ranks low. If all these years the heartache was in that they were so close to the cup, the despair of 2019 has been about how far they are from it. A team that has perennially underachieved at the World Cup, there’s now an urgency accompanying the usual disappointment. Because, where do they go from here?
Two losses into the tournament, Faf du Plessis and the Class of 2019, with their wounded limbs and pride, lined up for a team photo. It was the last time this team would stand shoulder-to-shoulder; a World Cup dream dreamt together had hit a premature roadblock. Against the unassuming backdrop of the hotel end at the Hampshire Bowl in Southampton, they bid goodbye to Dale Steyn, the veteran whose reset bones defined their ambitions, whose throbbing veins while running in set their rhythm, and whose roar of delight at the fall of a wicket was their rallying cry.
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— Wisden (@WisdenCricket) June 24, 2019
Seven matches into the tournament, and after a fifth loss, this time to Pakistan at Lord’s, the dream was well and truly over. The poignancy of the bright lime-green jerseys in that photo could so easily take on a sepia filter of what was and what could have been.
The Class of 2019 isn’t a great ODI side — even the flip-floppingly retired AB de Villiers couldn’t have changed that with his genius — but its parts held promise and their sum a threat.
Hashim Amla, of the classy wrists and cover drives, the fastest to every thousand-run ODI milestone from 2000 to 7000. Quinton de Kock, a white-ball force from the next generation. Kagiso Rabada, fast and fiery, once a padawan to Steyn, but now a master of his own fate, and the symbol of hope for a whole people. JP Duminy, their leading T20I run-getter, carrying the legacy of South African all-rounders. Imran Tahir, a force for good, long-distance runner, and the soul of the side. And, of course, du Plessis, a leader of men, forthright and exacting, who isn’t shy in declaring: “My most enjoyment that I get from the game, playing for South Africa, is captaining the side”.
But at this World Cup, Amla has been woefully out of touch, Duminy’s best is behind him, Rabada is overworked, injured and under-confident, and neither du Plessis nor de Kock has produced the big scores. David Miller, Chris Morris and Aiden Markram have flickered briefly, but never truly shined.
“The frustrating thing for us at the moment is we have got more people going through lows than highs, and therefore, the team confidence is low,” rued a despondent du Plessis.
“When you’re involved in a winning team, confidence is high, there are a number of players who do well. There’s always someone who takes you out of trouble. And we didn’t have that this tournament,” added Rabada. “We’ve been trying, but sometimes, the harder you try, you never pull it off.”
Plan A went out of the window when Steyn and Lungi Ngidi picked up injuries. Anrich Nortje, who was supposed to be their plan B in such an event, didn’t even take the flight. In these circumstances, the onus was on Rabada to deliver, but when he, too, fell flat, the team ran out of ideas. Du Plessis didn’t shirk from admitting that their confidence had been broken game by game.
Faf is not a happy bunny. ?
— Wisden (@WisdenCricket) June 24, 2019
“I’m a very proud player and captain, and playing for South Africa means a lot to me,” he said. “The results we’re dishing out … it’s a little bit embarrassing … The fact that we are really under-performing chips away at me.”
Tough scheduling and injuries at the same time is bad luck — of which South Africa gets plenty at World Cups — but being left with slim pickings on the bench is systemic failure. South Africa’s distress is not so much in who is in that photo, but in who is not: the players lost to other nations, and the ones who never get found.
In the short to mid-term, what do they do about it? The immediate answer is perhaps a combination of patience and change. Patience that their next generation will regain confidence, and change, as Jacques Kallis suggested, by doing what England did by embracing a new vocabulary after 2015.
“We always keep telling our players, it’s one performance,” said a sympathetic Mickey Arthur, former South Africa coach, now in charge of Pakistan. “That’s all South Africa need. They need Kagi to run in and knock over three with the new ball early, or Quinny to go in and get a quick 50 just to get it going, and then they will feed off that, and that will turn around very, very quickly.
“You’re either a hero or a villain, and it only takes one performance to get back to where you need to be. I’m confident that they can because there’s a hell of a lot of talent in that dressing room.”
Change is in the hands of Rabada, Ngidi, de Kock, Rassie van der Dussen and Markram. Rabada, star of the Under-19 World Cup win five years ago under Markram, remembers the heady taste of success all too well.
“This is probably his first stumbling block as a great fast bowler,” du Plessis said of his ace fast bowler. “For him now, it will be about how he responds, how he learns in this period, and how he makes sure he gets better.”
For now, it starts with the simple things: a reminder that this isn’t the end of the world, and, at the very basic level, to “target top of off”.
“Having been in the side for a few years now, we’re going to have to take leadership positions,” Rabada said, speaking for himself and de Kock. “We have to take ownership, and lead the team.
“That’s just the way it goes, right?”