"We were aiming 260. I thought that was par on this wicket."
Faf du Plessis said in the post-match presentation ceremony that he felt South Africa lost the game in the first innings where they actually should have pushed on to get 260-270 on a tricky wicket. A familiar series of fielding errors in the final few overs of the run-chase would perhaps be pinpointed as the phase where South Africa lost this game.
But let's roll back to another phase — the first ten overs of the first innings.
South Africa lost Quinton de Kock to a straight ball from Trent Boult but Hashim Amla looked solid and Faf du Plessis had an extended purple patch walking into this tournament. Barring the final over of the first 10 overs, South Africa showed little intent to score. The first wicket had pushed them back into a shell and they scored just 31 runs in the first nine overs.
One could argue that New Zealand bowled well in this phase. They indeed did. But the lack of intent was evident. In this tournament so far, South Africa's batting at the beginning of an innings has been shocking. They have made scores of 44/2, 51/1, 34/2, 29/2 (in 7.3 overs in the washout against West Indies), 35/0 and 40/1 in the first ten overs of the six matches they have played.
South Africa have struggled to start well in must-win games earlier as well. In the Champions Trophy 2017 do-or-die clash against India, Hashim Amla and Quinton de Kock managed just 35 runs in the first 10 overs. Despite putting on a 76-run opening stand, they went nowhere in terms of scoring rate and the middle-order crumbled under the pressure to score quickly as well as save wickets. They were eventually bowled out for 191 with former skipper, Graeme Smith, calling the South Africans "unrecognisable".
"What I would have liked to have seen from the guys at the top of the order is, at least, an attempt to put Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar under pressure. Anything to put them off their game and bring their plans in to question," he had said then. "Our approach was far more conservative, and if you're going to play that way, you can't afford the calamities that unfolded in terms of the two mid-innings run outs. They will kill any momentum you have, and suck the energy from a dressing room."
Conservatism is innate in South Africa's approach in big tournaments. India thrive on this model too with Rohit Sharma often guilty of consuming too many balls upfront. But the difference between him and the Proteas openers is that he more often not makes his start count and catches up with the strike rate.
South Africa haven't done that. The safety-first approach is warranted if the batsmen can kick on and play catch up later on. Their top three have neither scored at a decent rate upfront nor made up for their slow start with runs later. The highest score made by a South African batsman playing in the top three in this World Cup is 68. No one in the top three, barring a pinch-hitting Andile Phehlukwayo scoring 17 off 17 balls against Afghanistan, has scored at a rate of 87 or more.
Two things stand out in this — South Africa don't score quick in the initial phase and they don't kick on enough after they get starts. The combined strike rate of their top three batsmen this World Cup is an appalling 77.02. Only Afghanistan's top three have scored slower in this tournament.
The Edgbaston game yearned for an individual player from their ranks to step up and anchor the innings like Kane Williamson did for New Zealand. Former South African opener, Herschelle Gibbs, said as much when he asked for hundreds from the big South African batsmen.
Been asking for 100 from someone from the start... can’t win games with 60s and 50s.. Kane Williamson great composure under pressure..
— Herschelle Gibbs (@hershybru) June 19, 2019
That they consistently pressurise themselves into such situations is what makes this phase important in South Africa's forgettable show in this World Cup. With the top-order failing to fire, the onus is on the middle-order to find runs and make them quick. With no AB de Villiers in the ranks, this is a flawed strategy that can easily backfire given the form of batsmen in the middle-order. They don't have fiery strikers in the death overs either. As a CricViz stat pointed out, South Africa have struggled to find personnel to strike big in the death overs too.
SA need to score at 7rpo+ from here, if they're going to be competitive. The issue they have is that in the last year, only four of their players score at that rate in the last 15 overs: du Plessis (out), Duminy (not playing), Miller, Morris. It's all on those last two. #CWC19 — The CricViz Analyst (@cricvizanalyst) June 19, 2019
The ones that are available are rather inconsistent and unreliable. Van der Dussen did salvage the innings somewhat in the death in Edgbaston but they still came short of what would have been a par score.
The platform for this batting disaster was laid early when none of their top order batsmen targeted a weak link in New Zealand's bowling attack. "We fell short. So good bowling from New Zealand and not getting boundaries away by us played a part. Individual batters will look at having an opportunity at facing a bowler that the fancy. Kane (Williamson) showed that. He also found it difficult to score but he waited for the guy he could hit," du Plessis said after the match.
In Colin de Grandhomme and Mitchell Santner, South Africa had bowlers to target on this wicket but the two were milked for just 78 runs in 19 combined overs. This trend of not finding runs off an opposition's fifth or sixth bowler is also not new. In the game against India, Hardik Pandya bowled six overs for just 31 runs while Kedar Jadhav's four cost just 16. Against Bangladesh, in a big run-chase, they couldn't get Mossadek Hossain away.
The lunacy in the field in the final few overs of the run-chase will, in most likelihood, hog discussions surrounding another disastrous World Cup campaign for the Proteas. But the lack of intent and consistent failures of set batsmen have allowed opposition bowlers to dominate proceedings against them across different phases of an innings. With no pressure exerted on the bowlers, they have stuck to comfortable channels without needing to go to their back up plans. This has stood out like a sore thumb in South Africa's approach with the bat this World Cup and has effectively sealed their campaign.