Rohit Sharma of India bats during the group stage match of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 between South Africa and India at The Hampshire Bowl in Southampton, England, June 5 2019. Picture: ALEX DAVIDSON/GETTY IMAGES
Rohit Sharma of India bats during the group stage match of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 between South Africa and India at The Hampshire Bowl in Southampton, England, June 5 2019. Picture: ALEX DAVIDSON/GETTY IMAGES

Southampton — SA have never made a worse start to a World Cup. They have been to seven previous editions of the tournament, every time managing to win at least one of their first three games.

Four times they have won two out of three, and in 1999 they reeled off victories against India, Sri Lanka and England first up.

But things are different this year, which was confirmed in Southampton on Wednesday. India’s victory over Faf du Plessis’ team followed England and Bangladesh beating them on Thursday and Sunday.

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For the first time then, SA have nothing to show for their efforts three matches into a World Cup campaign.

The Proteas crashed to 89/5 in the first half of their innings and recovered to a barely mediocre 227/9. SA have made lower totals eight times in World Cup games — and won half of them. But that was in the 1990s, or before T20 revolutionised white-ball cricket

Rhohit Sharma’s undefeated 122 guided India to their win, which they reached with six wickets standing and 15 balls
to spare.

Cold shivers would have rattled through SA’s dressingroom in what might have been the fateful 13th over, when Faf du Plessis took a blow on the bottom hand from Hardik Pandya.

Minutes of medical attention passed before he eased his glove back onto his hand and continued the fight.

By then, Hashim Amla and Quinton de Kock had been dismissed. Du Plessis and Rassie van der Dussen steadied the innings with a stand of 54 that endured into the 20th over, when leg spinner Yuzvendra Chahal dismissed both in the space of six balls.

Van der Dussen lurched too early into a reverse sweep and was bowled. Du Plessis suffered the same fate, undone by the pace of a top spinner.

David Miller and Andile Phehlukwayo put 46 runs into the partnership pot before Morris and Kagiso Rabada came up with the highest stand of the innings, a sturdy 66 that took SA into the last over.

India had bowled to their strengths superbly, and to fields at times strewn with three slips and, at others, harbouring a leg slip. Jasprit Bumrah sniped away relentlessly, beating the bat frequently, and Chahal took 4/51.

No slow bowler has claimed more wickets for India in a World Cup match.

SA knew they needed to bowl exponentially better than in their first two games if they hoped to defend such a small target. Imran Tahir took the new ball but, unlike against England, when he bowled Jonny Bairstow with his second delivery, there was no early strike.

So, after Rabada’s opening burst of six balls, Morris came on and bowled his best spell in years, moving the ball off the seam at pace and finding the consistency he has lacked.

Morris’ first four overs cost just 10 runs and included a maiden, and his next two were also scoreless. Not bad for a bowler who had sent down only five maidens in his previous 35 ODIs combined.

Rabada, too, rekindled the fire that has gone out for much of the past year. His reward was finding Shikhar Dhawan’s edge in his first spell.

But it could have been so different. In Rabada’s first over Dhawan slashed a cut marginally over JP Duminy at point and Sharma blooped another ball behind him — where Du Plessis arrived from second slip just too late to take the catch. Six balls later Sharma sent another screamer, off Morris, just out of Duminy’s reach.

India might have been 5/3 at that point.

It came as cold comfort that Morris’ 10-3-36-1 were the most economical figures yet recorded at this year’s tournament, followed by Rabada’s 10-1-39-2.

Much of the world would have been glued to the battle between Rabada and Kohli in the wake of the South African’s incendiary remarks about the India captain’s inability to handle the kind of aggression he routinely visits on opponents.

Rabada’s first delivery to Kohli was an easily ducked bouncer, but they treated each other with respect throughout.

It was Phehlukwayo who took the biggest wicket of them all with the help of a wonderful arching leap by De Kock.

But Sharma was entrenched by then, and remained so to take India home. He faced 144 balls and hit 13 fours and two sixes.

Sharma was on 107 when he swung a cross bat at a slower delivery from Rabada, and sent the ball looping into the sky. Miller, at short cover waited with cupped hands. But, somehow, the ball popped out and spilled to earth.

Yes, it’s becoming that kind of World Cup.