There are Super Saturdays and then there are Super Saffadays and this is one of the latter.
South Africa and England (hence Saffa: the casual expression for someone from South Africa – which is also where a lot of English professional sportspeople come from) have only played each other in international cricket and rugby once before on the same day and that was 25 years ago. In 1998, South Africa and England were tussling on day three of the Manchester Test, which was eventually drawn, and the Springboks beat England 18-0 in Cape Town. This time, they’re both on neutral ground playing at World Cups, an unprecedented occasion, which means there’s at least 10 hours of entertainment and rivalry guaranteed.
Let’s start with what’s at stake: in Paris, in a replay of the 2019 Rugby World Cup final, there’s a spot in the 2023 final up for grabs. It’s win or bust. In Mumbai, we’re not quite there yet. Both teams are only a third of the way through their group stage campaigns but already, they both need to get their trains back on track. South Africa and England are coming off losses against lower-ranked sides, after failing to chase fairly modest scores against Netherlands and Afghanistan respectively. South Africa’s loss stung particularly sorely, after they were also beaten by Netherlands at last year’s T20 World Cup, but one of their prominent countrymen has told them it doesn’t matter.
“We believe in you guys. We trust you guys. One hiccup, but you know what to do,” Siya Kolisi, the Springbok captain said in a video message to the Proteas. “Enjoy it and play as hard as you can. You know that over 60 million South Africans will be supporting you, including us. So make it special.”
Said by anyone else, those words may seem greeting-card glib but delivered by Kolisi, with his earnest tone and honest eyes, they carry enormous meaning. Kolisi is the poster child of the message that sport in South Africa is about more than a game. Born to a teenage girl in a township and raised by his grandmother, Kolisi as an adult found and adopted his half-siblings from an orphanage. He is the epitome of how sport can change lives. And while he knows that winning matches will never put food on ordinary South Africans’ tables, he also hopes it can provide some joy to people in a state of despair. A pre-tournament video promoting their campaign shows the Boks dedicating their performances to people and places that matter to them. Some do it for their hometowns, others late grandparents or parents, others for South African leaders and legends. Towards the end, Kolisi says they are doing it: “For you, South Africa, we are who we are because of you.”
By the time you get to that point – 47 seconds into a one-minute clip – even if you have never heard of Kraaifontein or the Karoo, your eyes might be brimming. Now, Kolisi has called on Bavuma to jump on the same train, and to set the tone on Super Saffaday, where the cricket will be played first and should end just in time for the rugby to start. “The responsibility is on us to get things going the right way,” Temba Bavuma said at the Wankhede. “We have that responsibility to put smiles on our countrymen’s faces, and make sure we go out and entertain, and bring back the win.”
Like Kolisi, Bavuma called the defeat to Netherlands “one blip” and said his team will not allow it to define this campaign or even their performances over the last year.
“We acknowledge the fact that in the last couple of months, we’ve played a lot of good cricket. We can’t overlook that and allow one blip in our game to override everything that we’ve done. It’s easy to second-guess yourselves but it’s about not forgetting all the good work that we’ve done.”
And against England, South Africa don’t have to look too far for evidence. Earlier this year, they beat England 2-1 in a crucial World Cup Super League series, which was squeezed into the SA20 window, to earn some of the points they needed for automatic qualification to this tournament. Rassie van der Dussen and Bavuma scored match-winning centuries in those matches, which will be confidence-boosting reminders after their dismissals in Dharamsala. Bavuma was bowled by a delivery that did not turn and van der Dussen reverse-swept Roelof van der Merwe straight to the square leg fielder. But for once, South Africa are not running away from their ghosts. Bavuma advanced down the track to smash a spinner for six in the nets at the Wankhede while van der Dussen was spotted practising his reverse-sweep in a suggestion that both are attempting to conquer their demons here and now. It may not work, but the new South African cricket way is to make sure they try.
They’ve been given a license to thrill, and it has resulted in the top six playing some of the most dynamic cricket of the last two years. In case anyone forgot about that, David Miller served up a reminder when, at optional training on the eve of the match, he hit a six from the nets into the press box window, 14 rows up. More are expected to come on the day itself. “The guys that have played here, JP Duminy [batting coach] and Quinton [de Kock], have spoken about how it can be a batter’s paradise. You get value for your shots and the ball seems to travel further,” Bavuma said. “As batters it can build a lot of confidence. And if it is your day, you can fill your boots. And I guess just the atmosphere of it all, being a full ground, it can really be something to enjoy.”
For Bavuma, the occasion holds special significance. He spent his early years idolising hometown hero Sachin Tendulkar (he was even nicknamed “Sachin” after him), and dreaming of one day playing at the Wankhede. Now he is here, not just playing but leading the national team. His story to international fame is not dramatic as Kolisi’s, and unlike Kolisi, he is not as public-facing a figure, but their ascendance at the same time is symbolic of a transforming South Africa that is slowly and painfully working through its past.
On Super Saffaday, Bavuma will first lead out the Proteas before Kolisi does the same for the Springboks and 62 million hearts will stop for a second. South Africans don’t unite for too many things but when they do, they do it properly. It’s loud, it’s colourful and it’s passionate. The pulse of a nation will start with the first delivery in Mumbai and continue through to the final whistle in Paris. Whatever happens, it’s going to be a day to remember.