With their departure plans confirmed, South Africa played the best cricket of their World Cup amid languid strains of “Oooooh, KG Rabada” and urgent boos directed at David Warner from the stands of a partisan Old Trafford.
But that 10-run win over their arch enemies came too late to be of any consequence to South Africa’s tournament. A terrible start left them with too much to do and finishing wins over Sri Lanka and Australia were mere consolation – and an irritating indication of what could have been.
“We started too slowly, and that cost us at the end. The margins in a tournament like this are so small, and we felt that we lost big moments in some tight games,” all-rounder Chris Morris sighed. “That loss to Bangladesh was a big blow. We were trying our hardest and nothing was working. I know people back home were very disappointed in that, but I can promise you that it felt much, much worse to be out there, playing like that.
“We came into this tournament having beaten most teams we played against. We were very certain about what we wanted to do. Some teams have just been better than us. I don’t think a lot of people backed Bangladesh to do as well as they did. They’ve knocked a few big guns over, but we beat them comfortably when we played them in South Africa.”
That much is true, but the massive question about where the fluency of the past summer was when it was needed most still persist. South Africa looked a pale shadow of the team world cricket knows them to be.
From whitewashing to washed up
Before the tournament, they were expected to be a better shout than Australia. South Africa bested Australia in a World Cup match for the first time in 1992. And yet, there Australia were, in the semifinals, looking like a completely different team to the one South Africa had met regularly since the previous World Cup.
When South Africa whitewashed the Aussies in 2016, Faf du Plessis held up five fingers, indicating a first-ever blank for the world champions. Then, at his final presser, an Australian writer corrected Du Plessis’ answer on World Cups, confirming that Australia had in fact won five World Cups. That he did so by holding up five fingers was a cruel irony.
South Africa have one of the best bilateral records in the history of cricket. They have now beaten Australia as many times, 48, as they have lost to them. But when the stakes are at their highest, Australia have five times the history. They seem to have the blueprint for this tournament.
“I think maybe we peaked too soon. I’ve been racking my brain. We played well all the way to this point, so maybe we just peaked at the wrong time,” said Morris.
It is a partial explanation, given the quality and clarity that they hinted at in the summer. They walloped Australia in eight of 11 matches with strong batting. But big contributions were sorely missing in the early stages.
The finalists, England and New Zealand, had men who stood up with bat in hand. Kane Williamson, the eventual Player of the Tournament, was immense for the Kiwis while England had an embarrassment of willow-wielding talent.
They, too, had a talisman in Ben Stokes, the hero of the hour. When they needed him most, Big Ben stood up and delivered. Du Plessis, meanwhile, would probably swap every one of his runs against Sri Lanka and Australia for the contests against England and India. But the game doesn’t work like that. World Cups don’t work like that. Contributions are emphasised by the importance of the occasion.
Impact of injuries
“If you look at Australia, they were getting smashed for most of the time until they beat Pakistan just before, but they have come here and played good cricket,” said Morris.
There is merit to his peaking theory, though quite how one tapers off to ensure that you save your best for these occasions is a question South Africa will have to keep asking along the road to 2023.
“You look at New Zealand, who started strong in this tournament. They just got to the semifinals, but they picked up again after that. England had their blip, but they then got Jason Roy back and they looked a different unit again. India always peak for tournaments, so maybe it is a case of us peaking at the wrong time,” he said.
The other significant factor for South Africa were the injuries that hampered their bowling plans. They might have had a different look about them if Anrich Nortje, Dale Steyn and Lungi Ngidi had been fit.
“When I got the call-up, my first thought was, ‘Please don’t be Dale’,” Morris confessed. “I said it was bittersweet to get the call, because it meant someone’s dream was over. It wasn’t ideal and I felt really bad for Ana [Nortje].”
It is a measure of how belly up the South African plan went that Morris, the substitute, ended up as their best seam bowler at the tournament. Even now, he maintains that the loss of Steyn was a body blow.
“He is the greatest bowler that South Africa has ever produced. I know just how hard he worked to try and get back. And it’s easy to forget, but he was back and bowling 150km/h just months before that. At 35!”
Morris said it was a bitter pill for the team to swallow. Steyn is more than just 10 overs on the field when fit. He’s the cajoler, the fire and the crazy eyes that every team needs.
But the biggest problem confronting South African cricket is the team’s mental strength. Additionally, the Proteas need to strip down their game plan and commit to a singular strategy from now until 2023. Having seen other teams at work in the tournament, it is apparent that South Africa have fallen behind. And the lack of umbilical cord between past and present is harmful to the bigger picture.
Learning from other nations
When England won the World Cup, their former players were as excited as their current players, as invested as the fans. The same goes for the runners-up. Kiwi cricket is built around the sensible voices that walked the path before.
Ditto for Australia and India. In both those powerhouses, their biggest names of yesteryear are in positions of power or influence. If they are not coaching, they are mentoring. Steve Waugh is with the Ashes squad in England. Not coaching. Not selecting. Merely advising any player who wants to come to him and pick the brain of Australia’s most iconic captain.
South African cricket, for all its talk of unity, remains divisive. There might even be factions that are happy to see the sport unravel into a sorry mess, simply for that priceless “I told you so” moment.
But bitterness doesn’t win things as important as a World Cup. Ego doesn’t even run that race. The most relevant blueprint South Africa can take from this World Cup is a combination of the finalists’ approach to their games to get the best out of their national teams.
That England had clarity of vision four years ago was not simply down to luck. Andrew Strauss devised a plan, and coaches and leaders in the team bought into it. They had the money, so they hired the best they could find. The odd speedbump, when the aggressive approach went awry, wasn’t deemed a tragedy. There was a bigger picture. That said, this level of attention surely buys you a bit of luck down the road, something that came in handy in the final.
England’s players were emancipated by a game plan that encouraged their strengths, rather than emphasised their weaknesses. Roy and Jonny Bairstow were as cavalier as they were because they knew they had room for failure and, as a happy consequence, all the room in the world to succeed. Talent then takes over from trust and the sky is the limit.
New Zealand doesn’t have England’s funds, so they run a tight ship. They quickly realised that a glitzy domestic Twenty20 (T20) tournament wasn’t for them or their finances. So they haven’t bothered trying to create one.
Making tough decisions
The Kiwis play in the shadow of the most consistent team in world sport. All the hype in the world won’t grow their interest exponentially. So, they stay in their financial lane.
There is also a clear culture in New Zealand cricket. A sense of belonging to a bigger, tangible thing. This started in the Brendon McCullum era and Williamson has built on it significantly.
That little fern on their chests matters. The black cap they wear represents something. They take pride in representing their country and save their best for tournaments. Their ambition peaks at that point. “Little” New Zealand have reached back-to-back finals.
You can’t buy that kind of belief, but you can cultivate it in the right team environment. In 2015, South Africa appeared to have that. The Protea Fire campaign might have been dreamt up in a creative studio, but it quickly spread like wildfire.
Burying the demons of the past
It has been suggested often enough that something died in that South African dressing room after the 2015 semifinal. But whatever died must be buried. Forever. The remnants of that team will surely not get to 2023, so the Proteas must draw a definitive line and move forward.
England have suffered ridicule and more in previous World Cups. But from the mud of 2015, they saw the stars of 2019 in the distance. They were obsessive about detail.
It hurts most South Africans that England have won a Cricket World Cup before the Proteas. But South Africa must now put their envy aside and emulate England in building a team specifically for 2023.
Du Plessis used the word embarrassing to describe the Proteas’ performance. There were apologies to fans. There was genuine hurt at their disappointing play. But sometimes it’s better to hit rock bottom.
Sentiment also needs to be culled in South African cricket. The game moves on. With or without you. Difficult decisions need to be made, sometimes unpopular decisions that are good for the collective.
If South Africa wants to be a factor in India 2023, they need to start working towards it now, not in two years’ time. They have a tour of India lined up for next year and, more to the point, a growing list of South African players as permanent fixtures in the Indian Premier League for at least two months of the year.
So come 2023, they should feel right at home.