England vs South Africa: At Oval, a beginninghttps://indianexpress.com/article/sports/cricket-world-cup/england-vs-south-africa-cricket-world-cup-match-5755286/

England vs South Africa: At Oval, a beginning

With recalibrated England taking on underachievers South Africa on Thursday, a highly-anticipated World Cup tees off.

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Pushing their limits: Tournament favourites and hosts England training at the Oval before the tournament opener against South Africa on Thursday. (AP)

“Let’s go to a marriage counsellor.” With those words, Faf du Plessis’s wife split open his world. It was 2013, and du Plessis called up the counsellor, who after a few meetings, told him to get baptised and find god.

Du Plessis shares his vulnerabilities in a remarkable address to a church in South Africa in 2015. He bares his soul, talks about his weak faith, and how he had bought too much into the macho image of himself.

“You go to a school of boys; you try to be the macho man. My language was filthy. I didn’t want to be that guy anymore. Now, I am not the cool kid in the back of the bus anymore.”

And so, in London at the Oval, a day before the first world cup game against the favourites England, one threw back those words at him. Why doesn’t he want to be cool anymore?! “I hope I am still cool. I gelled my hair this morning, trying to fit in with the cool kids,” and ruffled his hair with a smile.

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We know South Africa’s story in big tournaments. Chokes.

Somehow, one gets the feeling that South Africa won’t suffer such heartbreak this time around, as they begin yet another campaign of hope against tournament favourites England. This time, there’s not that burdensome heavyweight tag either.

Even if they fail, it might not be because of claustrophobic stumble under pressure. And it might well be due to du Plessis, who will be captaining his first ever world cup game. Faf du Plessis is cool. No question about it. The poise, the voice, the demeanour, his way with crowds. Once in Chennai, during the last IPL, someone threw chappals, and it fell not too far away from him.

He didn’t show irritation or fear – both valid reactions. Instead, he picked it up and acted as if he was about to bite it. Photographers turn their cameras towards South African dressing room as they know there is a very good chance that du Plessis might walk out topless, with just a towel around his waist. All that looks good on magazine profiles but it hasn’t translated to a big tournament win yet.

Paddy Upton, mental conditioning coach of India and South Africa in the past, has an interesting theory behind why South Africa choke. It’s not born out of meekness, it’s not temerity that trips them but its a perverse flip side. Because they behaved as if they were too cool, too macho.

Machoness, a problem

“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. “As opposed to being real authentic and having the correct level of acceptance of vulnerability.”

Du Plessis seems to have found a way out for his youngsters. By taking out the pressure and expectation of winning. “Even if in the worst scenario, if we don’t make it, it’s OK. Life will go on. No one told me that four to five years ago or eight years ago during these games,” du Plessis said, referring to the last two world cups where they perhaps put too much pressure on themselves.

“Guys will be hopefully be free and play the best version of themselves. Cricket is a very important aspect of all of our lives, but it’s not everything. You know in life, there’s a lot more bigger things than winning and losing games of cricket. And that, perhaps, has changed for me. The fact that I’m no longer desperate; I want to win cricket games but I don’t need to win them.”

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South Africa skipper Faf du Plessis was cheery at the nets, betraying few signs of any apparent nerves.

It not only makes sense but perhaps there was no other alternative after soul-crunching losses in the past in the big tournaments. Perhaps, this wisdom wouldn’t have come had it not been for the previous struggles. It’s almost as if he is saying, ‘we have tried everything, it hasn’t worked, probably it’s best to not to overthink and pressurise ourselves too much’.

In that church address, du Plessis stood, swaying from side to side, as he talked, occasionally looking at his phone to read out verses from The Bible. At one point, he talks about how difficult it was for him to get back to IPL after he was newly baptised. “There were no Christians in that team, and once again I felt I was struggling.” He called his pastor again and got himself out of the mental hole.

Perhaps, du Plessis can free and liberate this group of South Africans to express themselves joyously. They have the firepower in their pace attack to test England even if Dale Styen isn’t available due to a niggle.

Though he is a born-again Christian, he has retained a lightness of touch while speaking about his faith. It comes through in a story he tells about how he led a Bible study for the team in Sri Lanka and at the end of the session, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy and David Miller knelt down to pray. When an emotional Duminy stood up, he said he had to share a startling experience during his prayer. “Guys, I felt there was a beam of light on my head when I was praying.” And to much laughter from the crowd, du Plessis shared the twist in the tale. “I had to tell him, sorry that was me taking a photograph of you three praying!”

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A dash of coolness, a touch of faith, some humour, and self-belief might just enable du Plessis free up the South Africans.