A second consecutive disastrous batting collapse has put Australia’s World Cup campaign on life support as South Africa ran amok with the ball en route to a crushing 134-run victory.
After a sparkling Quinton de Kock century powered the Proteas to a commanding 7/311 off their 50 overs, aided by some truly dire fielding, the Aussies never looked remotely likely to chase down the target.
Reduced to 6/70 in the first 18 overs and no match for a masterful display of seam bowling on a two-paced Lucknow pitch from Lungi Ngidi, Marco Jansen and Kagiso Rabada, the spluttering innings was a repeat of their loss to India in their first match of the prestige tournament.
As if that wasn’t enough to contend with, they also had to deal with a pair of controversial decisions via the DRS, with both Steve Smith and Marcus Stoinis gobsmacked after being given out in contentious circumstances.
Smith had started imperiously with four boundaries before an ambitious-looking Proteas LBW review paid off spectacularly; despite the ball appearing to have been headed down leg side and striking Smith above the knee roll, ball-tracker adjudged it to be cannoning into the top of leg stump.
Further drama was to come when South Africa again called in the DRS to remove Stoinis via a catch down the leg side; the ball flicked the all-rounder’s bottom hand while it was off the bat, but third umpire Richard Kettleborough ruled his glove was still touching the top hand.
With Stoinis furious, the bizarre rule quirk left the Aussies six down and the tail exposed after barely 17 overs, only a 69-run partnership between Marnus Labuschagne and Mitchell Starc prevented complete humiliaton – but bowled out for 177, their second consecutive sub-200 score at the World Cup, leaves their net run rate in a dismal state.
The loss will again raise questions over Australia’s lacklustre batting, which is surely missing the power and aggression of the injured Travis Head at the top of the order; while with part-time spinner Glenn Maxwell clearly the pick of the bowlers with a brilliant spell of 2/34, the absence of another finger-spinner to replace the injured Ashton Agar in the squad looks more and more like a major misstep.
The collapse against the Proteas is their sixth in 2023 alone, having lost 7/80 in their World Cup opener against India as well as 5/40, 8/69 and 8/60 in pre-tournament clashes with India and South Africa again (twice), and two of 8/59 and 8/60 against India back in March.
Further summing up the team’s woes is an ugly pair of fielding stats: six dropped catches in the innings is the equal-most in a men’s ODI since June 2018, according to ESPNCricinfo.
With Mitchell Marsh famously dropping Virat Kohli at a crucial stage in their World Cup opener, the Aussies’ catch efficiency at the tournament is now at 54 per cent, the worst of the 10 competing teams- a horror show for a nation that has traditionally prided itself on being among the world’s best in the field.
Speaking after the match, captain Pat Cummins admitted the dismal display was ‘well off the mark’.
“Their bowlers bowled really well – it looked like it zipped around more than during the day – but [we were] well off the mark,” he said.
“If we want to be challenging for this tournament, you’ve got to try and find a way in all conditions.
“Not much needs to be said tonight – everyone’s hurting. We’ve got a few days, our next game is here as well.
“We’ll regroup – we’ll try and make amends.”
Unlike against India, this was a tough outing for Australia’s bowlers as much as the batters, with the early breakthroughs that allowed a competitive performance against the tournament favourites failing to eventuate as de Kock and Temba Bavuma put on 108 runs for the first wicket at near run-a-ball pace.
Having won the toss and elected to bowl, Cummins could only watch on as the pair looked to hit the previously miserly Josh Hazlewood off his lines with a series of boundaries, the left-handed de Kock particularly aggressive.
The partnership was far from chanceless; Adam Zampa’s poor start to the World Cup continued as he shelled a straightforward chance on the boundary to spare Bavuma, while the leg-spinner’s chance to make amends with the ball was also squandered as Josh Inglis, selected in place of long-term gloveman Alex Carey, shelled a tough chance behind the stumps to give the Proteas captain a second life.
Bavuma’s charmed life continued when sub fielder Shaun Abbott failed to complete a relay catch right on the boundary rope; having done well to take the catch cleanly as he toppled over the rope, the New South Welshman’s throw back into play was a poor one, giving Starc no chance to intercept.
While Bavuma’s streaky innings continued to perplex until Maxwell made the breakthrough, the captain’s heave only finding David Warner in the deep for a clunky 55-ball 35, de Kock’s was masterful: with this World Cup to be his ODI swansong, the 30-year old looks set to bow out with a major bang.
Reaching 50 off just 51 balls and batting beautifully – a gorgeous lofted drive off Zampa the best of many highlights – the wicketkeeper-batter was in an inventive mood too.
One ball after audaciously ramping Hazlewood fractionally over Marsh at fine leg, the Aussie star’s slip at the crucial stage ensuring a six that likely would have carried him regardless, de Kock nervelessly played an identical shot, this time sending the ball safely into the stands.
The Aussies were, at least, keeping things quiet at the other end, the danger of in-form Proteas star Rassie van der Dussen neutralised on 26 as he holed out to long on to give Zampa his first wicket of the tournament.
But the Australian fielding continued to frustrate any attempts to get back into the match, Cummins shelling a return catch to give Aiden Markram a life, and instantly punished via a flat-batted pull from de Kock to bring up three figures in spectacular style.
The milestone is his second in a row at this World Cup, following on from his sparkling innings to set up a big win over Sri Lanka last week; much to de Kock’s frustrations, he would again be unable to turn the knock into something even more substantial.
It would be Maxwell again to break the stand; having successfully tied down de Kock, the keeper-batter’s attempted reverse could only be dragged onto the stumps via first his bat and then his chest, a fitting reward for Australia’s most accurate bowler by some measure.
However, with Markram beginning to flow, Cummins left to rue his drop even further as the captain was pummelled with two serene drives for four, a 300-plus total remained well and truly on the cards for the Proteas.
A trio of boundaries off Zampa made mincemeat of the leg-spinner’s figures, while bringing up Markram’s second straight half-century of the World Cup – and off a sprightly 41 balls – as the run rate cleared six for the first time in the innings.
A Cummins slower ball would end the fun on 56 as the in-form Protea tamely spooned him to Hazlewood at backward point to start a final seven overs that were quite comfortably Australia’s best of the match.
Hazlewood first ended Heinrich Klaasen’s threat on 27 after a thin top-edge was well pouched by a leaping Inglis, before the he and Cummins combined to deny South African blaster David Miller as much of the strike as possible.
The ploy worked as all-rounder Jansen struggled to find his timing early, only getting going with a powerful six and deftly cut four in consecutive Starc balls.
It would be the 49th over, though, that perfectly summed up Australia’s day, with their already patchy fielding reaching a new and disastrous low as Cummins’ figures took an undeserved beating.
Maxwell, among the premier fielders in world cricket, began the cavalcade of errors with a poor misfield at extra cover to allow two where there should have been none; one ball later, Starc misjudged a Miller top edge in the deep enough to force a dive, with the ball spilling from his fingers as his elbows hit the ground.
The third drop was the most egregious of all: a badly mistimed top-edge from Jansen somehow spilled by Stoinis, running in towards cover; worse still, the miss had allowed Miller the strike, with the error compounded as he dispatched Cummins for six over deep mid-wicket.
A double-wicket maiden last over from Starc, first getting Jansen to mistime a drive to mid-on with a well-disguised slower ball and then spearing through Miller with a trademark yorker, at least helped save face and avoid total disaster; against all the odds, a chase of 312 seemed eminently doable.
However, whether it was the change in conditions as day turned to night, or merely the superior skills of the South African pace attack, batting swiftly looked far more treacherous than it had during the afternoon as the Aussies began their pursuit.
With seam and swing on full display – not always to the Proteas’ benefit, as a Jansen offering hooped wildly down the leg side for five wides – Marsh looked totally out of his depth, the Western Australian’s painful 15-ball stay ended as an attempted wallop down the ground was woefully mistimed to present Bavuma with a simple catch at mid-off.
Even Warner, for so long a master of Indian conditions in the IPL, could find no timing as balls began to stick in the Lucknow surface, an unthreatening wide offering from Ngidi would spark the veteran’s downfall, a bread-and-butter cut steered straight to van der Dussen in front of point.
Having struggled to score fluidly against India’s trio of spinners, Smith looked far more comfortable from the outset against the Proteas’ pacemen.
Taking a liking to Jansen and Ngidi in particular, four exquisite boundaries were struck within his first 15 balls, Smith twice clipping elegantly off his pads to tease the mid-wicket fielder all the way to the rope and matching that with a textbook drive off Rabada.
But just when it seemed like a match-turning innings was at hand, controversy struck: Smith’s 16th ball saw him struck on the pad, above the knee roll, shuffling across the stumps.
Rabada and de Kock’s successful persuading of Bavuma to review proved a masterstroke, ball-tracker adjudging the delivery to, somewhat mysteriously, be neither sliding down the leg side nor carrying over the stumps, instead crashing into the top of leg.
Mouth agape as the Proteas celebrated, a shocked Smith was forced to trudge off, his dismissal cementing the Proteas’ stranglehold on the contest – if their batting hadn’t done that beforehand.
Already in strife at 3/50, Australia’s fading chances soon dwindled further in the face of more sensational pace bowling: Inglis as bewildered as Smith after copping a sharp cutter from Rabada that beat his defensive prod comprehensively and knocked back off stump in an early contender for the ball of the World Cup.
For the second consecutive match, Maxwell was in early than he or Australia would have hoped, and with a hell of a rescue job ahead of him; once more, he was unable to rise to the challenge, first becalmed in an attempt to preserve his wicket and then chipping a soft return catch to Keshav Maharaj off the leading edge.
Maxwell’s painful 17-ball 3 summed up not only his dire start to the tournament with the bat, but also his team’s – and worse was still to come.
Marcus Stoinis, Australia’s other late-order hitting option, suffered the second misfortune of the innings, equally as aghast as Smith to be adjudged out caught down the leg side, with Kettleborough turning to an obscure rule that deems a glove touching another glove to be the same as having it touching the bat.
Adding to the all-rounder’s frustration was that Kettleborough’s confidence Stoinis’ gloves were indeed touching seemed a touch reckless if not an outright error, with side-on cameras appearing to show a gap between them.
“The bottom hand is a long way away from that top hand – it’s a strange decision!” was the opinion of former Australian white-ball captain turned commentator Aaron Finch on Fox Cricket.
Regardless, any lingering hopes Australia had of an epic comeback were officially snuffed out, with Labuschagne and Starc choosing to bunker down in an attempt to preserve some measure of respect – and avoid further net run rate calamity.
Nevertheless, as Labuschagne meandered to 27 off 54 balls to see the required rate balloon to above nine an over while at least swelling the partnership to the innings’ highest, Finch and fellow Australian legend Matthew Hayden were unimpressed with the lack of aggressive intent.
“Their body language has just been lacking slightly – almost like they’re a little bit passive,” was Finch’s assessment on television commentary duties.
“They’re just waiting for something to happen to give them an opportunity to get into the game. With bat, with ball but in the field as well.
“It wasn’t their sharpest performance. There was sloppiness at times which you don’t associate with the Australian fielding group.”
Hayden was even more scathing, accusing Australia of muddling their plans – both in-game and in team selection beforehand.
“I was always taught you don’t wait for the contest. You go to the contest,” he sad.
“That is the legacy of playing for Australia. You think of the warriors that have gone before you – those that are sitting in the dugout have to emulate that as being part of the custodian of actually playing for Australia.
“[Allan] Border, [Ricky] Ponting, [Steve] Waugh, [Michael] Clarke, [Aaron] Finch… these names form the backbone of Australian cricket, and we haven’t seen much of it today.
“For mine, today you could just see the competition just drifting, the vision just not quite stable – [Alex] Carey’s omission one thing, for a start.
“Like or dislike that decision, the fact that it was changing on one of the biggest games of the World Cup means there is uncertainty.
“You have to problem solve on the run, sure, but you have to know what you are trying to solve, and I am not sure Australia know that.”
As if in response to Hayden’s urging, Labuschagne at last upped the ante, taking on spinner Tarbraiz Shamsi with first a well-placed reverse sweep and then a punch through the covers in consecutive balls to emphatically end his 46-ball boundary drought and bring up the 50 partnership.
Not to be outdone, Starc too lifted his tempo, a powerful pull shot sending Jansen to the boundary; the left-armer, though, would take little time to exact his revenge, a fierce lifted catching a fending Starc’s gloves to present de Kock with a simple chance.
With the 69-run stand broken, the match was officially done; Labuschagne’s departure an over later, clipping Maharaj to cover on the cusp of a half-century, ensuring the loss would be a substantial one too.
Cummins showed intent from the outset, heaving Jansen into the leg side for three boundaries in four balls to see the total past 150; his fun, though, ended on 22 as he lofted a simple chance to long off to hand Shamsi his first World Cup wicket.
That would soon become two as Hazlewood’s wild slog presented a simple skied ball for Rabada to safely pouch, putting an end to Australia’s misery – and leaving their net run rate, and hopes of reaching the World Cup knockout stage, in tatters.