If you’re looking for a point of clarity in the madness that the opening match of the World Cup became for South Africa, you could do worse than the 23rd delivery of their innings.
By then they had limited England to a decent chunk of runs fewer than the 350 that seems to be their copyrighted score.
All the South Africans had to do from there was knock off a target that seemed within their reach. Bat out the 50 overs at a decent rate and beat the favourites and put a dent in all that rah-rah about cricket coming home.
Faf du Plessis is a fine captain, but he had outdone himself by starving England’s batsmen of what they wanted: bowling that challenged them to a duel. What they got instead was bowling that avoided confrontation.
This is no small thing. There’s nothing more South African than squaring up to your opponents and spitting in their faces to start a fight. To run away from all that in the shape of sending down a deluge of slower balls at awkward widths and lengths — to say nothing of handing a veritable pacifist like Imran Tahir the new ball when you have bruisers like Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi bristling at his shoulder — takes leadership of the first order. Take a bow, Mr du Plessis.
The Oval is a wonderful ground blessed with a fair-minded crowd who cheer for whoever does well, regardless of which team they play for. And like all such places, they can’t help wearing their true feelings on their sun hats. So when England were limited to 311/8, you could feel the uncertainty going down with difficulty with every slurp of lunchtime beer. This wasn’t what had been expected from a side who muse about breaching 500 one of these fine days.
Then came the fateful 23rd delivery of South Africa’s innings, and everything changed.
Jofra Archer, gold chain jangling against England’s blue shirt hugging his black Bajan skin, lopes in; lean and mean, brooding, not quite in a hurry, not quite ambling.
But what happens next is brutally fast: a bouncer to Hashim Amla, who’s on the pull, but is rushed into his stroke and lays no more than a splinter of a top edge on the streaking ball.
The ricochet takes the missile into the grille of his helmet. Amla stays on his feet, doesn’t seem too fussed as he takes off his helmet, and tells all who ask that he’s fine.
This being the first world, and with the rest of the world watching, play is suspended. Minutes pass as a new helmet is fetched with medics in tow.
Amla looks, like he always looks, as if he is the most together human being on the planet. But even he is mortal, and off he goes, the physio at his arm, suddenly as fragile as the rest us, for concussion tests.
He has done so much just to be at this World Cup — endured a public, sometimes personal, debate about whether he should even be in the squad, pulled out of a domestic T20 tournament to work on his batting, and, most challenging of all, tried to be a good son to his ailing father and family as well as carry the cricketing hopes of a nation on his not exactly beefy shoulders. And now this. A young man both in a hurry and not has almost taken his head off.
South Africa is a land of giants. We live not quite among elephant and rhino, but we know they’re out there and it comforts us to know there are bigger things in the world than us. It’s the same with cricketers. Allan Donald, Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, Makhaya Ntini, AB de Villiers, and these days Rabada. And, of course, Amla. As long as they’re out there, we’re safe in here.
In some ways, Amla is revered above all the others. He comes from our South African world, but, as a member of the Muslim minority; he might as well be from a different planet. He has taught us about himself and brought his culture closer to the glare of the ordinary than it has ever been, and in so doing he has taught us about ourselves. The man is, in a word, loved.
And now he has been hurt, and there is shock, there is horror, there is a gag reflex of injustice. Faf du Plessis can do a lot for his team and their minds, but even he can’t kiss this better. They’ve hurt ‘Hash’. Now what?
South Africa’s batting doesn’t fall over as someone struck by one of Archer’s flaming arrows would have been well within their rights to do. Instead, they stumbled about concussed, slow to grasp the fact that England’s bowlers have learned from South Africa’s, and unable to come to terms with Jofra’s pace and the creativity of Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali.
They see Ben Stokes soar towards the midwicket boundary to catch the uncatchable and remove Andile Phehlukwayo from the equation. They hope Quinton de Kock and Rassie van der Dussen, fine players both, will take them almost all the way home, but they don’t get anywhere near in a nonetheless decent stand of 85.
They play too many loose, ill-considered strokes that don’t belong on a stage this big. It’s the World Cup, for goodness’ sake. The warm-ups are over.
They see Amla, cleared by the doctors, come back and face Archer immediately — and have to pull out of the way of a sharp piece of nastiness that reared up to pass his chest at 141 kilometres an hour.
It is, of course, too late by then. There are only four wickets standing and 145 runs to get off 109 balls by the time Amla gets back at it. He faces 14 more balls, then flaps at the 15th and is caught behind.
When the inevitable is complete, the Oval shakes to the strains of: “Cricket’s coming home.”
There is, at least, the softer truth for South Africa that their opponents in their next game — back at The Oval on Sunday — are Bangladesh. They are plucky and worthy of their place in the showpiece, but they are not England.
So du Plessis has room to breathe, to give Rabada and Ngidi their head and tell them to take off heads if they choose. He has the chance time to talk to Ottis Gibson about how best to sort out the batting without resorting to kicking backsides — or maybe by doing exactly that — and to find out how long Dale Steyn still needs to sort out that shoulder.
And he will want to spend time with Amla; to see where his head is at. His heart? No need to worry about that. It will always be in the right place.
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