Proteas hanging by a thread
Proteas’ World Cup hopes against hope
In earning a point — the verb is probably incorrect — against the West Indies on Monday, the Proteas’ World Cup hopes are hanging by a thread. We can be precise about the width of that thread: it is exactly one point wide, no more and no less. With it, SA are anchored to the bottom of the World Cup table in ninth position, marginally ahead of Afghanistan in 10th.
Never mind how to go about measuring a point, at the moment one slim point is keeping a team hoping and a nation enthralled. The jokes and memes continue to come thick and fast but the water-cooler conversations and moaning sessions are still tinged with a kind of antic "dare we?" optimism.
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This, then, is what it means to be a contemporary SA cricket follower: forever hoping against hope that things will get better when the evidence suggests otherwise.
Quite why this should be is anyone’s guess. The Proteas went into the tournament believing they could chase, but this seems to have failed to account for the fact that a round-robin format is a crowded fishbowl with pressures of its own.
What holds for bilateral series at home, cricket played in the shadow of Table Mountain, for example, seems not to hold in the more pressured environs of a World Cup.
Apparently learning from their mistake of believing they could chase, the Proteas batted first by choice (they won the toss) against India and failed to post a competitive total. They didn’t cope with the Indian spinners, Rassie van der Dussen giving a masterclass of ineptitude in not only failing to execute a reverse sweep but falling over in the process.
The singularity held for the whole: here was a merry Protea shambles, replete with injuries, sending homes (Dale Steyn), holding thumbs (Lungi Ngidi) and generalised plunging confidence that has made even as phlegmatic a soul as Quinnie de Kock regress these past few weeks into looking like a guilty schoolboy.
Add to this the AB de Villiers kerfuffle in which the batsman (who played in the Indian Premier League not a month ago) offered his services to the struggling team. He was told, in a manner of speaking, to stay home and watch it on television. While excruciating for him, there is nothing to say that if he were in England he wouldn’t succumb sooner or later to the generalised madness that seems to envelop the Proteas at such tournaments.
All this aside, the Proteas’ next game is against Afghanistan on Saturday. It is, were this a game of football, what SA soccer writers would cheerily dub a "battle of the basement dwellers". All well and good except that it also represents an opportunity for the Proteas to earn two points and so get their World Cup campaign back on some kind of track.
With two points for a win (unlike the three in English Premiership football) and one for a match abandoned because of rain, it is already becoming apparent that this tournament is a scrap for all but the best teams. This means a bunching in the middle of the log, where some teams are only separated by a point, and four or five teams are only separated by two or three of them (with net run rate becoming the next important characteristic).
Never can we have imagined that a game against Afghanistan would become the defining game for the Proteas in the World Cup, but this, indeed, is what Saturday’s game is turning out to be. Some of them couldn’t find Afghanistan on a map, now they need to beat them.
With two precious points from the Afghans, the Proteas might be able to consign the losses to England, Bangladesh and India to the scrap heap of history.
Pakistan, lest we forget, started the tournament in 1992 disastrously. Then Imran Khan gathered the troops and told them to play out of their socks. True, he had Javed Miandad, Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram in his midst.
Faf du Plessis needs to find his inner Imran in the coming days. Those around him need to find their inner Wasim and Waqar.