Okay, so this is the part where you re-read that South Africa have got over the ghosts of tournaments past and have a good laugh. Got over? Oh hell no, they’ve only got more.
A power-packed South African line-up have, for the second successive time at a World Cup, failed to chase a modest score against a Netherlands side filled with South African expats. A gun fielding outfit, known for their willingness to put bodies on the line, fumbled and were beaten at their own game. And most of all, a bowling unit that was starting to show glimpses of the threat they can pose, allowed an Associate team’s lower order to score 119 runs in the last 12 overs of their innings and bat them out of the match.
It’s not a crucial stage of the tournament and South Africa already have two wins and six games left to play so there’s plenty of time to get their semi-final train back on track. But this is the first time they have come under pressure in the tournament and the way they responded suggests that they have not, in fact, learnt to keep their heads when all about them were losing theirs. They unraveled in the field, almost immediately after a dropped catch, and allowed Netherlands to go from 96 for 5 at the time Teja Nidamanuru was put down to 245 for 8 at the end of 43 overs.
It wasn’t so much that it was Nidamanuru – on 14 when he was given a life before being dismissed on 20 – but the events immediately after. Lungi Ngidi was the bowler Nidamanuru sent straight to Marco Jansen at fine leg and as the ball hit Jansen’s chest and bobbled out, the usually smiling Ngidi glared. Actually glared. Five balls later, Scott Edwards swept Keshav Maharaj to the deep square boundary, where Gerald Coetzee made a decent effort to stop the boundary but didn’t. The usually affable Maharaj also glared. With his hands on his hips. And his shoulders shrugged up to his ears. In less than five minutes, South Africa had gone from a confident, settled fielding unit to a group of players who were openly expressing their discontent with others in full view of 11,224 spectators in attendance and millions on live television. And things weren’t even that bad at that point.
South Africa’s extras were the top-scorer at that stage of the innings, which is a concern in its own right, but the Dutch top order had been dismissed, the ball was doing a bit and a chase of under 200 was still on. It was not the kind of situation that necessitated the captain, Temba Bavuma, to have to calm down one of his premier bowlers, in Ngidi, but that’s exactly what was happening. Not even the dismissals of Nidamanuru and Logan van Beek could get them back on track and with the wheels wobbling an old friend came in to rip them right off.
Roelof van der Merwe has known and played with most of the South Africa squad and support staff, and on the field there’s no love lost. He tried to take on the first ball he faced, a back of a length delivery from Coetzee, and missed but just went again. He used Coetzee’s pace to guide the second ball past backward point and then thumped a slower ball over mid-on and a short one over third to take 15 runs off the over. He also injected an energy into the Dutch approach that Edwards picked up on and ran with. In that short period of play, van der Merwe provided entertainment when he fell over at the non-striker’s end when Edwards hammered a ball his way and excitement when he delicately dabbed Coetzee to short third. He was with Edwards when he got his half-century and at the crease when the 200 came up.
His 29 off 19 balls may not seem especially significant but it was part of the highest partnership of the match and, in the end, was the difference. And when he bowled Bavuma in the last over of the powerplay, that was simply twisting the knife.
South Africa’s batting has been their strength so far but it hasn’t been fully tested. While South Africa had won eight of their last 10 ODIs before this match, six of those victories were achieved batting first. One of the two they lost was the last time they batted second in an ODI, six matches ago, against Australia in Bloemfontein when they conceded 392 and were bowled out for 269 to lose by 123 runs. They last won a match chasing in March, when they beat Netherlands by eight wickets to earn crucial points on the World Cup Super League. South Africa’s last successful chase of a score over 200 was also in March, when they gunned down a target of 261 set by West Indies, inside 30 overs. They were also in trouble then, at 87 for 4 in the 13th, before Heinrich Klaasen scored an unbeaten 119 and shared a 103-run sixth wicket stand with Marco Jansen, which convinced South Africa he could bat as high as No. 7.
One of the first questions to emerge from defeat this time is, should he? Although Jansen is a clean striker of the ball, there is an argument that he does not have the technique to act as the bridge between the top six and the tail and should be at No. 8 instead. South Africa’s problem is that they don’t have anyone who could slot in higher up. Andile Phehlukwayo is the other allrounder in the squad but, if he displaces Jansen, they take pace and the one of the meanest bouncers in the game out of their XI. It’s understood he is in the squad as a reserve. Including an extra batter – Reeza Hendricks – can only come at the expense of a frontline bowler and South Africa are unlikely to want to do that.
As it is, they go into games with an attack of only five first-choice players and one part-timer, Aiden Markram, who was not used at all in Dharamsala. They cannot afford to leave one of the bowlers out to make up for shortfalls with the bat. In other words, they have put together a team template that relies on the top six doing their job and if they don’t, you end up with what they had today.
It’s far too early in the tournament to be calling it anything like a crisis. But it is a cautionary tale that things can happen, even if you think they may not, and the spectre of past disappointments may not have completely disappeared.