Proteas reach their Land’s End

The Proteas’ ship is on the brink of hitting an iceberg exactly where the Titanic started its disastrous voyage: Southampton. But how did we get here, their tournament on the brink of ending before it starts?

Perhaps it is fitting that South Africa find themselves anchored in Southampton, England, with their ICC Cricket World Cup dreams seemingly still in harbour. In the movie Titanic, the eponymous ship sets sail from this town in 1912 and it is here that South Africa’s cricket team find themselves on the brink of disaster. 

South African sports fans, well versed in global tournament hopes being iceberged into oblivion, have seen this movie before. They just didn’t expect the credits to start rolling before the tournament had reached its halfway point.

Faf du Plessis and his team landed in England weeks ago, but have yet to arrive at the World Cup. South Africa’s laid-back approach, designed to release pressure, has instead sucked the intensity out of the team.

It is telling that bowler Chris Morris said the Proteas had a meeting to address their body language after the first two games. There is a direct correlation between this and motivation and intent, and even negative body language would indicate a level of passion and dissatisfaction with poor play.

South Africa’s slow start has left them in the tightest of corners, needing to win their next six matches to secure a spot in the semifinals.

Picking up the shattered pieces from 2015

Already, the very pressure the Proteas were trying to deflect is sitting squarely upon their shoulders. The relaxed approach is uncommon in major sporting events. It is neither the time nor the place to shirk the responsibility that comes with being an international star.

This is it, the ultimate stage.

It is understandable why Du Plessis and the top brass would try to play down the throttling expectation that comes with this tournament. They have been hurt before. Really hurt. To the point where even gleeful neutrals sympathised in Auckland in 2015, when South Africa lost to New Zealand in the Duckworth–Lewis–Stern, rain-adjusted semifinal of that World Cup .

Losing is difficult, but it is even tougher when you get so close that you start truly believing.

Something died within the team in early 2015 and those left behind have been trying to gather the shattered pieces and go on once more.

AB spanner in the works

It is, perhaps, why former captain AB de Villiers made an 11th-hour plea to be included, as it is only on the World Cup stage that the Proteas can truly prove their ability to handle pressure and exert it. All the Indian Premier League money, endorsements and celebrity can’t buy the respect that comes with being a World Cup winner and getting over this line requires nerve. It is the closure for which South Africa is still searching.

De Villiers and the rest of his generation knew there were no next times after this and, presumably, the FOMO (fear of missing out) was gnawing away at him. Despite saying he was content with his international career, he wasn’t done. The missing piece of the puzzle was this one tournament, which gathers the very best players in the game and pits them against each other.

Heartbroken by their past experiences with the World Cup, the Proteas attempted to treat this tournament with a lighter hand. Like a summer fling, something to enjoy during a summer abroad. 

But they couldn’t kid themselves. 

You can’t not have strong feelings at this stage. You can’t not dare to dream and picture what rapture might come with victory. It is what all these players have dreamt of for much of their lives, as young boys and grown men.

As they sought to compartmentalise, Indian captain Virat Kohli went the other way, saying that this is the biggest priority, the proudest moment of his life and a journey on which he couldn’t wait to embark.

That is what a World Cup is, a heady mix of expectation, brilliance and bumbling.

And glory, for those who keep their heads.

You cannot escape the attention and expectation. You cannot escape the gravity of this situation. South Africa have tried to tell themselves that this is not the be all, but it actually will be the end all. If they fail, there will have to be a line drawn across this team and many of its components. They have that responsibility now, that requirement to pass on a torch that still has some flickering of hope.

Stars failing to shine

Most concerning is that the likes of Quinton de Kock and Kagiso Rabada are yet to hit the heights the world expected them to hit. They have performed almost at will over the past few years, but it appears that those three little words – Cricket World Cup – have had an impact on their minds.

De Kock was all over the place against an admittedly exceptional opening burst from Jasprit Bumrah of India. The domino effect of seeing your best player grope hopelessly in the first few minutes of a fight must have left the Proteas feeling wilted.

De Kock, on the back of his standards and the loss of De Villiers, has become the batting compass. When he fires, the team erupts. As long as he was at the crease against England, there was hope. And fear within the opposition.

Heads dropped and hope faded when he fell. The same applies for Rabada, who is the spear in the bowling department. They are talismanic and their country needs them. Now more than ever. They need all 15 players, of course, but battles are usually decided by strokes of genius.

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Now, with their backs against the wall, South Africa has to try and start that long slog to glory. They will no doubt seek to adopt the spirit of the 1992 Pakistan side, who came back from the dead to win.

Their voyage, however, is littered with pirates, powerful foes with their own plans for plunder.

The West Indies are first up, bringing the very attitude of easy intensity that South Africa wanted to adopt. The men from the Caribbean will be looking to leave the Proteas marooned on an island of despair on Monday 10 June as they look to correct their own path in this simmering tournament.

Get past that and there is still a crafty New Zealand, a kamikaze Pakistan and, then, Australia. There is no choice now, however. Win or bust. That is the situation in which the team find themselves after their slow start.  

Dealing with C-words of a different kind

South Africa chucked aside the C-word and it has not nearly come up thus far. You cannot possibly choke if you have been so abject.

They now need to wade into a fresh sea of C-words: Character. Composure. Clarity. Closure.

There is a timely scene in Titanic, when the two lookouts are trying to shift the blame for not seeing the monstrous iceberg in time. 

“Smell ice, can you?” says one to the other.

If the Proteas cannot yet smell the ice, then their hopes are surely sunk – and many a heart will not go on.

This is it. This is their cricketing Land’s End. If they cannot leave the harbour in Southampton, they might as well pack their bags and go on a sightseeing tour across the United Kingdom while the tournament goes on around them.

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