Will the Proteas stand the heat?
The Proteas know World Cup heartbreak, but a slice of luck could change it all
In the first Cricket World Cup final in 1975, a tall Guyanese left-hander in a floppy white hat strode to the wicket with his team in trouble at 50 for three.
The left-hander’s name was Clive Lloyd and it was a summer’s day at Lord’s in London. With the West Indies playing Australia and so many West Indians living in London, the occasion had a Caribbean flavour.
Fans in string vests and corduroy bell-bottoms drank rum as they waved their islands’ flags. Sometimes they spilt onto the field — with beverage in hand — to offer the boundary fielders their wit and wisdom.
When Lloyd was finished at the crease he had scored 102 and the West Indies were no longer in trouble. His whirlwind century took 82 balls and 100 minutes. It is no exaggeration to say those 100 minutes shook the cricketing world and established an empire.
In its way, it was as significant as sending a man into space, or planting the Stars and Stripes on the moon. Those runs began, and defined, the start of a buccaneering cricket age.
Though they scrapped right until the end, the Aussies couldn’t reach the West Indies’ total of 291 for eight in 60 overs. Four Aussies were run out in their chase and the West Indies won the inaugural World Cup by 17 runs.
It meant that a small group of economically and geopolitically insignificant islands in the Caribbean and a country on the South American mainland (Guyana) were now champions of the cricket world. They would win the 1979 World Cup four years later and would be (surprisingly) beaten by India in the final of the tournament in 1983.
In Test cricket, the West Indies walked with giant strides through the game’s sacred garden, dominating the world for 15 years. From March 1980 to January 1985 the side lost only once. They were now called, simply, the "Windies", with its breezy evocations of a warm trade wind sweeping through the cricket world.
It’s true that Lloyd had some luck that World Cup final day. When he was on 26, he hooked the great Australian fast bowler Dennis Lillee to Ross Edwards at midwicket, but Edwards, the best fielder in the Australian side, put down a difficult diving catch. "Big moment," said Lloyd.
This underlines a cricketing truth that South Africans know all too well, which is that all teams need a little luck.
A parade of misfortune
If one is to be charitable to the South Africans and their World Cup exploits, you could suggest they’ve seldom had much luck.
In 2011 in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in a World Cup quarterfinal against New Zealand, Hashim Amla was caught after he chopped the ball onto his boot and it bobbled up to be caught by a fielder. Amla’s dismissal set in motion a parade of misfortune. Jacques Kallis was caught at deep square leg by the tallest man on the field, New Zealand’s Jacob Oram. AB de Villiers ran himself out, while the lower middle order were so panicked they may as well have raised a white flag.
Five of the team from that day eight years ago — Amla, Faf du Plessis, Dale Steyn, JP Duminy and Imran Tahir — have been picked for SA’s 2019 World Cup squad. It is one of the oldest sides SA have taken to a World Cup.
Two others of the 15-man squad played in the 2015 event: Quinton de Kock and David Miller. Eight others are making their World Cup debut: Aiden Markram, Tabraiz Shamsi, Rassie van der Dussen, Andile Phehlukwayo, Dwaine Pretorius, Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi and Anrich Nortje.
The reappearance of the five veterans from 2011 means that while the Proteas are awash in experience, they pack into their tournament luggage a history of World Cup failure.
Yes, they have been unlucky. But they also desperately need one of their number to at some point play the defining innings that Lloyd played that lazy summer day in England in 1975 — something South Africans at World Cups have conspicuously failed to do.
"Though the squad is bowler-heavy and is clearly aimed at restricting sides and bowling them out, we don’t want to be chasing 350 against good sides," says former Protea left-arm spinner Paul Harris. "We also need a batter to step up, someone to win a man of the tournament award with the bat."
The reference here, of course, is to Lance Klusener, who lit up the 1999 World Cup (also in England) with his heroics. Precious few cricketers have taken a World Cup man of the tournament award without being in the tournament-winning team. Klusener was one of them.
So SA needs a hero, someone with the big-match temperament, or BMT, that the Proteas have seldom evidenced in knockout tournaments since readmission to the world game in 1992.
Could the heroes come from the younger players, those less tarnished by failure?
Only two players of the current squad have tasted World Cup success. Rabada and Markram were both members of Ray Jennings’ under-19 World Cup squad of 2014 which beat Pakistan in the final, after brushing Australia aside in the semifinal.
Markram is the most peerlessly gifted batsman of his generation but his technique came under forensic examination by Sri Lanka’s spinners in Test and ODI cricket in 2018. He lost confidence and his place in the side. Now he’s back, having forced his way into the reckoning with a string of mightily destructive innings for his franchise, the Titans, in domestic cricket.
Given his topsy-turvy one-day form, his selection shows that Linda Zondi, the selection convenor, has impressive cojones.
Markram is presently having a stint with English county, Hampshire. It shows the intelligence of the young man. He wants to expose himself as much as he can to English conditions before SA play their opening game in the tournament, against England at the Oval on May 30.
During a round-robin phase in which SA play nine matches through June, the players will be exposed to a variety of pitch conditions. They will, in all likelihood, be exposed to rain. Markram is fact-finding in England, compiling his own pitch and weather reports. It will stand him in good stead.
Rabada, tall and lithe, is reminiscent of some of the fast bowlers of Lloyd’s generation. He played the SA under-19 team into the World Cup final of 2014, with remarkable figures of six for 24 against Australia in the semifinal.
He has played an important role in crunch matches since then, notably in the second Test against Australia at St George’s Park last year, where his 11 wickets (and De Villiers’ sublime century) helped the Proteas to square the series.
Playing for the Delhi Capitals in the Indian Premier League, he is currently the leading wicket-taker in the tournament with 23. Rabada likes the big occasion — and the big stage, having studied drama for matric at St Stithians College in Randburg. His teacher, Carol Fields, told the FM that though she often struggled to get him into class because of his cricket commitments, he was an impressive pupil once he was there.
"He never shied away from a demanding role," she said. "He was polite and well-mannered and he has presence. He was also a good listener. After coming to talk to the boys a couple of years later [he matriculated in 2013] he came to me specially to thank me. ‘So much of what you taught me in class has been useful,’ I remember him telling me," said Fields.
The round-robin World Cup format before the semifinals requires a steady jog, not a sprint. The Proteas play against all the usual suspects (with the exception of Afghanistan), starting with England and ending with Australia, before the semifinals.
At some point, either in a crucial round-robin match or in the knockout stages, someone — as the cliché has it — will need to come to the party, grabbing a match for the Proteas by adding great willpower to skill. Such BMT might come from the super-talented younger players, a list to which we must add De Kock’s name.
Equally, it could come from someone like Du Plessis, who made his ODI debut in 2011 and his Test debut a year later. He’s no longer under the shadow of De Villiers.
Can he imitate Lloyd’s feats in that first tournament? It may be his time.
• The Cricket World Cup starts on May 30, when SA face England at the Oval in London