So that’s what this team can do: Bat, bowl, field, hang tough when knuckles turn white. And win. Who would have thought?
South Africa saved their best game of the men’s World Cup for last, and for a game that didn’t matter. The sliver of a silver lining was that their opponents were the team that matters most to them, Australia, and that they spat in their eye.
Saturday’s result snatched away the top spot in the standings that would have allowed the Australians to stay in Manchester and await New Zealand, the shakiest of the surviving teams, for Tuesday’s semi-final. Now, they will have to go to Birmingham to play stronger, more ambitious England on Thursday.
That will warm South African hearts, or at least take away some of the numbing dread they will have felt for much of the preceding few weeks.
When you’re as far down as South African cricket is in the wake of this tournament, you will clutch at any straws — real and imagined.
They go home not just to answer questions about how some of the best batters in the game could come up with only one century — Faf du Plessis’ 94-ball 100 against the Aussies — between them. And how an attack, albeit robbed by injury of Dale Steyn and Anrich Nortjé and, for three games, Lungi Ngidi, that is spearheaded by Kagiso Rabada and enjoys a supporting cast of Chris Morris and Imran Tahir, could dismiss their opponents only three times in eight completed matches.
And those are only the simpler issues to be resolved. The screamingly obvious question from this World Cup is how could they have lost to Bangladesh. Sandwiched between the defeat to England and another setback, against India, going down to the Bangladeshis was the nail that all but sealed South Africa’s coffin. There was no coming back from played three, lost three in the first week. We knew it, they knew it, and in some ways, we have spent the last five weeks pretending the truth wasn’t true; that there was indeed a way back from the dead.
South Africa go home, too, knowing that they will never again see Imran Tahir or JP Duminy in action in one-day internationals. How will they fill those holes, and those that would gape still wider should Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn do the sensible thing and call it a career?
One of these weeks they might also have to get to know a new coach, and perhaps a new captain.
For their next trick, in September and October, South Africa will go off to their theatre of nightmares, India, to play three T20s and as many Tests.
That’s quite enough to have to deal with, thank you. But there’s still more. The game in South Africa seems determined to eat itself alive. At least, off the field.
As things stand, Cricket South Africa are being hauled off to the courts by the South African Cricketers’ Association in protest at a proposed restructuring plan that would double the number of teams playing at the domestic level. The player body fears a lowering of standards and job losses in the ranks, and they charge that the administrators are violating the formal, legally binding agreement between the organisations by forging ahead with the measures without consulting them fully.
Confidence in the suits to run the game properly is ebbing, along with trust in South Africa’s wider economy to be able to sustain professional cricket in the manner to which it has become accustomed.
Many fear a Zimbabwefication of cricket in South Africa in the coming years — and they won’t be mollified if, as anticipated, the International Cricket Council, at their annual conference which will follow the World Cup, suspend Zimbabwe’s membership.
There is, then, much more going on in the game in South Africa than meets the eye. Could it have influenced events on the field at the World Cup? Players, coaches and others close to the pulse of the national team who have been asked that question answer in the negative.
But they are hardly likely to argue otherwise. For all the lack of faith the people on the business side of the boundary have in those who are supposed to do the right thing in the boardroom, they know who pays their salaries.
Thing is, the cracks are now too wide to paper over and they are widening still. However much South Africans will tell themselves they are part of a society that functions well enough for their cricket team to compete at the level of the Englands and Australias of the world, the facts say otherwise. Their economy is a mess. Their politics are a mess. Their race relationships are a mess — Nelson Mandela is dead and so are his ideas of post-apartheid reconciliation. And their cricket is a mess, what with some of their best players, and many of those needed to maintain a decent standard at the domestic level, having seen the light and clambered onto the Kolpak wagon.
What with that window closing because of Brexit, we could easily see a fresh rash of defections or simply retirements in favour of the less pressured, better-paid life of the travelling T20 circus performer. And that’s only among the players we know about: How many more who might have chosen to play the game for a living, and been good enough to go all the way, have been dissuaded by what they see on and off the field?
You think South Africa have hit rock bottom at this World Cup? Think again.