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Can’t bat, can bowl, can’t field: How Faf du Plessis’ team fluffed its lines at the World Cup

All-rounders Andile Phelukwayo and Chris Morris and then Kagiso Rabada made sure they got a decent total to have a crack at the Indians. The pacers did try their best, but they needed a bit more than that.

Written by Sriram Veera | Southampton (uk) |
Updated: June 6, 2019 11:28:08 am
india vs south africa, ind vs sa, ind vs sa result, ind vs sa highlights, rohit sharma, jasprit bumrah, world cup 2019, world cup news Faf du Plessis drops Rohit Sharma off the bowling of Kagiso Rabada. Rohit was batting on 1 then.

“A short trip to Southampton for a game against India.” Ottis Gibson, South Africa’s coach, was telling his team at the start of a hike up the Table mountain in Cape Town days before they left for the World Cup. The trek was supposed to mirror their Cup campaign, with stops at 11 spots supposed to reflect the 11 games to the final. When they reached the summit, Gibson put his hands around Faf du Plessis’s shoulders and said: “We are on the verge of doing something special as a group of people together.” He then yelled, “To the team”, pausing after each word, and the rest roared: “Proteas”. After which they all hugged each other atop the mountain. From then on, it’s been all downhill for the team.

It has been a short and a forgettable trip to Southampton for South Africa. Not just here but at the other two venues, too. There has been almost a pall of gloom around the camp, with the players dropping like flies. And yet, when they were at the top of that mountain, things would have actually looked good. For it seemed, they had a plan to tackle the chokes of the past. An ideal mindset had been identified and du Plessis was busy implementing it.

They decided to “keep a lid” on expectations. Du Plessis talked about it a bit, saying how he tried to tell his youngsters what he was never told in the previous editions. “If it comes to the worst, and we lose, it’s not the end of the world. I wasn’t told this as a youngster four years back, eight years back but that’s what I have told this team.”

It’s fascinating how the people — South Africans — look at previous World Cup debacles differently.

Gary Kirsten saw it as “inferiority complex”. “I have always believed that as a cricket nation, in the past, we suffered a little from an inferiority complex,” Kirsten told SA Cricket magazine. “We knew we could compete and that we would fight to death. When we wanted to dominate at the top of the pile, sometimes it felt like an uncomfortable situation and we often did not play at our best.” Kirsten believes the 1999 debacle, when South Africa lost agonisingly to Australia, left after-effects on the team for years to come. “Unfortunately, that scarring has run deep.”

Paddy Upton, a sports psychologist who has worked with both India and South Africa teams, saw it as a macho thing. “I think machoness is a problem. Trying to pretend you are too tough. I do think that South Africans generally tend to act more macho than what they actually are and that bites them in pressure moments,” Upton told this newspaper.

So this time, du Plessis chose to go the other way: take expectations of the players, try to tell them that in the big picture of things, win or loss doesn’t matter.

But wasn’t their mental fragility in big games that have hurt them in England. It’s the injuries that have troubled them more.

It was bowling that the team depended on, but it began to crack. Just before the tournament, they lost their fast bowler Anrich Nortje to a thumb injury. They brought Dale Steyn to the tournament, knowing he wasn’t fit but hoping he would be by the third game. His shoulder gave away. The man who so desperately wanted to play at one last World Cup couldn’t get his wish. In the immediate aftermath of the last defeat, Bangladesh fans dug up his old quote to hit back at him. In 2015, he had sat out a series against Bangladesh, saying: “It might sound very cocky or naïve of me or self-centered, but I want to win a World Cup for my country. So, with all due respects to places like Bangladesh or Zimbabwe, playing 3 ODIs in Bangladesh does nothing for my confidence. At this stage, I would rather be saving myself rather than wasting the few balls I have left in my career in a Bangladesh match.”

Then Hashim Amla, struggling for a year now, went down after getting smacked on the helmet by a Joffra Archer bouncer in the first game. Considering his form, it’s not clear what he would have done had he not suffered that injury, but the South African mood began to turn for the worse. By the time Lungi Ngidi too got injured, the camp had turned morose. Even though he said he had intended to use harsh words to his team after loss to Bangladesh, du Plessis couldn’t quite revv himself to do it. Instead, the seniors tried to rally behind the youngsters, trying their best to ensure self-pity didn’t kick in with all the bad news floating around them. It wouldn’t have been easy, though.

It showed in the way they batted against India. And in the decisions. They had chosen to chase on a dry pitch in the previous game. Here in Southampton, where bowling first would have been better, they chose to bat. And they ran straight into a red-hot Jasprit Bumrah who knocked the stuffing out of their top order. It’s a pretty brittle top order; if Quinton de Kock fails, then there is really no one to take the charge to the opposition. They just kept drifting away and India picked them off one by one.

All-rounders Andile Phelukwayo and Chris Morris and then Kagiso Rabada made sure they got a decent total to have a crack at the Indians. The pacers did try their best, but they needed a bit more than that.

At crunch moments, their fielding turned for the worse. Early on in the chase, du Plessis dropped Rohit Sharma off Rabada, who was bowling like a man possessed. There was still a glimmer of hope when India needed 35 from 40 balls. Rohit miscued a pull from — who else — Rabada, but David Miller spilled a dolly. The worst part of that moment was that there was no surprise in it.

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