Just hours before South Africa were embarrassed by Bangladesh at The Oval, heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua had his world turned upside down by Andy Ruiz Jr in New York.
For much of the build-up to that fight, Joshua had spoken confidently of bigger things on his horizon. He was flirting outrageously with Deontay Wilder, even before he had gone on his date with Ruiz. It was folly, faux braggadocio before an almighty fall from grace.
The result, as a stunned global audience witnessed, was a shattering defeat, which puts Joshua’s best-laid plans in the dustbin. The Brit no longer holds the aces, no longer dictates terms or controls the lion’s share at the negotiating table. He was decked, and the killer blows were from an opponent he had never given the due respect.
He figured Ruiz was a speed hump, not realising he was, in fact, a stop street. It is a shuddering halt in the boxing world. No one saw it coming.
Proteas floored too
In much the same vein, South Africa’s cricketers were rumbled by the intensity that Bangladesh and their throbbing audience brought to south-west London. South Africa certainly played as the away team in the opening game against England, but they would not have figured on the same against the Tigers three days later.
And yet, there they were, thousands of Bangladeshis turning that corner of England into Dhaka, and taking South Africa’s chances in this tournament for a tumble. Singles got the sort of cheers reserved for sixes. The boundaries were greeted by chants that were louder still. Long before they had finished batting, Bangladesh had sniffed the upset, and another glorious tournament scalp for their record books.
Truly, World Cups know no logic. They prey upon doubt and hesitation, and shine the harshest of light upon any form of weakness. They are brutal, final examinations that demand equal measure of skill and mental strength. In order to get far in these tournaments, you cannot have one without the other.
Different approach not working
To this point, a jaded South Africa have displayed neither of the two fundamentals required to win a major tournament. Scarred by previous campaigns, where they were considered as serial contenders, they sought to go another way in 2019.
Relaxed. Remodelled. And yet, history is on repeat. They are melting under the fire that comes with a tournament of this standing. It has been a most damaging week, on the backdrop of some statement victories by their erstwhile rivals.
England are the red-hot hosts, and have the entire country as their 12th man – even after a timely reminder of mortality in their second game. Australia have started confidently, and the West Indian strut is surely in their step. New Zealand are annoyed that no one is buying their chances, and have sought to sway opinion with ruthless displays on the field.
Pakistan are, well, Pakistan. Who knows what will happen next to a team that had forgotten how to win, but who are still the last team to lift an International Cricket Council 50-over title, the 2017 Champions Trophy. They emphasised their kamikaze nature by being shot out for 105 by the Windies – and then belting 348 against the favourites England in their next assignment, just three days later.
Beautiful madness! The delight and despair won’t end there for cricket’s ultimate entertainers.
India, meanwhile, have been quietly preparing in Southampton, away from the bright lights and flights of London. It is ridiculous to think that they have played two fewer games than South Africa, yet sit on the same number of points. Ridiculous, that is, from a South African perspective.
Already, the Proteas are in a hole that looks to be tough to get out of. The margin for error is so small that they dare not check it out. Bangladesh was supposed to be in the bank. South Africa were supposed to arrive in Southampton with hopes renewed and with stocks replenished by the return of Dale Steyn.
A camp ravaged by injuries
The veteran pace man is still not 100%, and the whispers about the wisdom of his selection are growing louder with each crocked day. The hole is deeper now, as South Africa have also lost Lungi Ngidi for 10 days at least, while a groggy Hashim Amla is still being monitored after his blow to the head. Truth be told, he should never have come back to bat against England.
That leaves just 12 fully fit players, and only Kagiso Rabada and Chris Morris as the outright pace bowlers upon which their blow-them-away game-plan was built. Most teams hedged on deep batting, but South Africa went the other way. It was bold, but it required giant performances from the chosen few. Still they wait for those.
These are already deeper waters, and the cricketing quicksand will soon be at their feet if they don’t emerge from Southampton with something to hold. Some hope, some flicker of rejuvenation and intent.
They were meek against England, and then laboured against Bangladesh. Those are not the in vogue adjectives of the summer. Certainly not when England are being lavished with praises so outwardly and extravagant.
There is something strangely missing, and South Africa appear to be hurtling straight for the exit with no ceremony whatsoever. It is just happening, just unravelling before their eyes.
Kohli & Co ready to let rip
They are already in deep trouble, but they cannot expect any respite from India. The relentless Virat Kohli has been waiting and waiting for this moment; itching to lead his side out in a World Cup proper.
What better way to begin than with a statement victory over a would-be rival. As a result of their stuttering, South Africa have invited the vultures to circle. India will be looking to tear mercilessly at the soft-centred batting and bowling, and then let the carcass bleed out.
Cricketing nature is as brutal as the bus. South Africa will remind themselves that they still have seven games left in the round-robin stage, but their detractors will point out that they have already blown two chances. Chasing 311 against England, they had their chance to fire an early warning across the Pennines. Instead, they drifted away.
Against Bangladesh, they won the toss and had the choice to bat first and bat well. To obliterate the opposition with sheer weight of runs. Instead, on a pitch already used, they allowed their opponents to have first go. And how they went.
With injuries and no wins, the problems are mounting. India are hardly the team you would want to make a comeback against. But South Africa are running out of options and chances.
Bouncing back against a heavyweight
Like the winter days back home, the Proteas are finding that the sun is closing fast on their dreams, and the uncompromising cold that comes with catastrophe is drawing them ever nearer to the brink.
They still haven’t started their tournament. In Southampton, they will look to finally kick off their campaign, against a ruthless Indian side looking to do just the same – only with far less pressure.
Like Joshua under the glare of New York, South Africa are wobbling horribly on the ropes. And, like that giant boxing figure, they are only now realising just how much trouble they are in, a knockout blow away from terminal strife.
This is not the summer they envisaged, hardly the start they had in mind. But there is no warning when you operate in the heavyweight division. These things hit you like lightning if you don’t turn up on the day, as a hungrier pugilist punishes your ponderous ways.
South Africa used to pride themselves in starting tournaments well, and building towards the knockouts. The semifinals look very, very far off in the distance right now, though. And, more to the point, Bangladesh reminded them that the only game that matters is the one in front of you.
If you dare look beyond that, the door is open for some harsh lessons to be forthcoming. A stunned Anthony Joshua learnt those lessons deep into his Saturday in New York.
Mercifully, South Africa were granted a standing eight-count in the competition. Bruised by England, and battered by Bangladesh, they have gone back to their corner to recover.
But, they can’t keep taking punishment. Eventually, one too many blows to the head will see them fall down, and stay down.
Seconds out, round three.