Southampton: "Score more runs,” Chris Morris said with a smirk, and you could have cut the gallows humour with a noose. It was his delicately spiced reply to the question that was as obvious as it was unanswerable: what do South Africa need to do to win a game at the World Cup?
If they knew that they would have done it already, numbskull. But it remains a valid inquiry nonetheless. Never in their seven previous trips to the tournament have South Africa started their campaign by shambling to a hat-trick of defeats. And that’s not the worst of it — stand back, we don’t know how big this badness will get.
Their loss to India in Southampton on Wednesday followed reversals to England and Bangladesh, both at the Oval, on Thursday and Sunday. In less than a week, South Africa’s World Cup status has crashed from definitely maybe to definitely not. Cricket, it seems, has swiped left on them.
Another loss, to West Indies in Southampton on Monday or in any of their remaining six matches, will put them in the twilight zone of having to rely on other teams to give them a chance of reaching the semi-finals. Staying sane in the midst of all that would be impressive.
If it’s not their batting that has let them down it’s their bowling. Even when they’ve done well they have undermined their own efforts. They are beating themselves as much as they are being beaten.
That’s not to say they are succumbing to the old South African problem of choking. To be able to choke you first need to be in danger of winning. Three games in, that has yet to happen.
Morris came to the press conference fresh from returning figures of 10-3-36-1: the most economical yet seen at the tournament this year. For a few minutes before Morris completed his quota, that honour belonged to Kagiso Rabada, who took 2/39 from his 10, including a maiden.
And yet, here Morris was, the sweat of his success still on his brow, having held his own with India’s finest, and talking about failure. Another failure. Not his failure; the team’s failure. Which made it his failure, also. Nobody says sport has to be fair.
Besides, Faf du Plessis revealed after South Africa bungled the Bangladesh game what was needed to turn things around — skills. Not new or different skills but those his players have been using for years, the very tools of the trade they have mastered well enough to take them to the highest level. Where have they gone? Nowhere.
And that’s what is terrifying. Accountants don’t wake up one fine morning and discover that they are no longer able to count. Bakers don’t simply forget how much flour goes into their loaves. The truth is nobody, least of all the South Africans themselves, can tell them what they need to do to win.
You could see the fear glinting in the late afternoon scene when Rohit Sharma, 107 not out on his way to an undefeated 122, lashed out lustily at a leg cutter from Kagiso Rabada. The bat swivelled in Sharma’s hands as he made contact, and the ball ballooned into the sky.
David Miller, at short cover, settled under it and waited patiently for gravity to do its thing, his hands cupped under his chin, like he has done thousands of time in practice and matches alike.
Miller is among the finest fielders anywhere in the game. He patrols like the sharpest of police officers, ready to dispense authority whenever and wherever it’s needed. He is a clear and present danger to any member of any batting side.
So there was little doubt that Miller would do the needful once the ball descended. Many of us, cricketers or not, would have caught that ball. But Miller, like the rest of the South Africans, is no longer the Miller he was before he came to the World Cup. And with every mounting setback, he is less the person he used to be.
The ball reached his hands, hit them hard and unsurely, emerged again, and dribbled to the ground. Miller’s horrified gaze followed it; looked at it as if it were a cursed thing.
Nobody on this side of the boundary could quite believe what they had seen. But Miller and the rest of the South Africans seemed utterly unsurprised. This is what happens, their desolate resignation appeared to say, when cricket tells you you are no longer who you thought you were.
It is a cruel thing to happen at the best of times. For it to happen at a World Cup must take away all faith in cuddly concepts like “mother cricket” and the belief that teams get the results they deserve. The truth of it is that the game is a heartless, cynical bastard that delights in shattering happiness.
What do South Africa need to do to win a game at this World Cup? “Score more runs”, indeed. Get in touch, again and urgently, with their skills, of course. Perhaps not think too much about conditions and opponents and simply play in the fashion that makes them enjoy being alive in England’s green and pleasant land. And stop talking about all that. Entertain the bare minimum of interaction with the press, who have a vested interested in rolling the narrative of negativity further down the road towards elimination from the tournament: everybody loves a winner, but everybody prefers to read about losers.
Here’s something else South Africa need to do: stop thinking cricket owes you success. It doesn’t. It couldn’t care less about you. It is bloodless.
You want to win? Here’s how — kick cricket in the teeth.