In a recent article, I looked at just which Australian players had participated in the most Test match wins during their careers and who had the best record of wins to losses.
When the 2019 World Cup was about to start there was an air of ‘unexpectation’ about South Africa.
They had lost their best batsman, AB de Villers, to retirement the previous year, and whereas previously they had gone into the tournament as one of the favourites to win the trophy, they had always fallen short, more often than not in heartbreaking fashion.
This time around they carried less pressure of expectation. The favourites were England and India, and previous favourites like Australia and South Africa were not considered by many to be as strong as these two countries, who came into the World Cup with excellent form in this format over the last couple of years.
South Africa sat in between these favoured nations and the countries that weren’t expected to figure in the finals, like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. But could that weight off their shoulders be the thing that propelled them to their holy grail for the first time?
The answer, unfortunately for the Proteas, is no. Why?
There have been a few reasons, but let’s get to the obvious first: missing ABD. If anyone loses their best batsman, chances they’re just not going to be the same team. Some teams have a balance across their top order, while some bat around a key figure. India bat around Virat Kohli, so they would too struggle if they lost him.
Teams like England and Australia aren’t as reliant on one batsman to bat around. However, if Australia lost David Warner and England lost Joe Root, they would also feel that heat. Great players win matches – always have and always will.
The consequence of losing a great batsman is that South Africa lost that star quality, a player the rest can follow. Faf Du Plessis is a capable leader of men, but he is no ABD. Hashim Amla is a follower. Despite their talent, Quinton de Kock and Aiden Markram are followers at this point in time. There was no leader with the bat.
The second point, and this follows on from the first, is that the players who just needed to go from follower to leader failed to do so. South Africa needed someone to say, “I am going to announce to the cricketing world that I am a great player, and it’s going to be right now”. The world knows De Kock, Du Plessis and Markram are all good players, but they needed to be better than that. They needed to be great players. It didn’t happen.
There are some unwritten rules in sport. Some of them are hard to define and harder to explain. But Faf broke one of them. At the start of the tournament South Africa opted to bowl the first over of the competition with spinner Imran Tahir. On the surface this looks like bold and brave captaincy as well as an innovative call, but it broke one of those undefined laws in sport.
You are playing the first match of the biggest tournament in the sport. You have arguably the world’s best fast bowler in your line-up. You simply a duty to the sport to recognise the past and uphold its traditions by opening with your fast bowler.
Even on a dust bowl in the Subcontinent Clive Lloyd would never have passed the ball to Roger Harper over Malcolm Marshall. Not in a million matches. Ian Chappell would never have given the ball to Kerry O’Keefe over Dennis Lillee. There are some things in cricket that you just don’t do.
If you want to implement your innovation, it can wait to the second over. South Africa’s innovation goes against the unwritten laws that exist within a sport. The things people can’t see but that nonetheless exist for everyone and need to be respected.
The obvious reaction is, “But he took a wicket and it’s great captaincy to think outside the square”. Tahir did take a wicket on his way to 2-61 off ten overs, but what Du Plessis did was set a tone from the first ball. By ignoring the traditions that cricket has now set, it just started South Africa off on the wrong note. One they didn’t recover from.
Finally, South Africa just lacked the type of bowler suited to English conditions. Injury-free, the number of wickets Kagiso Rabada could take in his career should pass even the great Dale Steyn. Lungi Ngidi looks to be a talent in the Test arena and Andile Phehlukwayo plays cricket with a big heart, but they have lacked that Mohammed Shami-type of beautiful seam position medium-fast bowler that can take advantage of English conditions. Dwayne Pretorius did this against Sri Lanka, but he is only in his second match in a tournament and the horse has already bolted.
Like all teams that fall below expectations, South Africa will go away and review their World Cup. They will make adjustments and try to be better for the experience when the next tournament rolls around in four years time. But in the meantime their World Cup drought remains.
Their home fans and the millions of other fans of their brand of cricket will be hoping for a better performance from the Proteas in 2023.