Please forgive the personal nature of what will come next. But this is personal.
I’ve been reporting on South Africa since 1991 and never have I seen a performance that could fairly be labelled as rubbish.
Until Sunday at Lord’s, that is. South Africa, Imran Tahir excepted, were rubbish with the ball. They were even more rubbish with the bat. They weren’t rubbish in the field — but they were so rubbish at the crease that they couldn’t take advantage of a rubbish Pakistan fielding display in which six catches fell to earth untaken.
As Faf du Plessis said, “It’s becoming a little bit embarrassing.”
A little bit? All this, and understatement too. South Africa have never been better led, and yet there is a strange hollowness at the centre of this team. It goes beyond the injuries that have befallen them, beyond the common or garden things that can go wrong on a cricket ground, and beyond bad luck.
They do not deserve to go any further in this tournament, and now they won’t. And it hurts. Not that they have bombed out of another World Cup, but how.
The Gods know that South Africa have been shot in this movie so many times before. From 1992 to 2011, they found all sorts of ways not to play to their potential. But never have they crashed and burned like this. Even in 2003, the only other time they have failed to punch their way out of the wet paper bag of the first round, they had three wins in six games.
That those successes were achieved against Kenya, Bangladesh and Canada can’t be scoffed at unreservedly; those were the days when South Africa actually beat teams like Bangladesh. This year they have lost five of their seven matches, including against Bangladesh. And, unlike in 2003 when their fate was sealed by a Duckworth/Lewis tie against Sri Lanka in their last group match, this time they have been removed from the equation with matches still to be played.
A new low was reached on Sunday when Quinton de Kock appeared to take issue verbally with Kagiso Rabada for not bowling a short ball even though a short leg had been deployed.
Then du Plessis levelled a dim view at de Kock for staying in his follow through instead of running for a stroke that wasn’t going to reach the boundary.
That’s another first for me. South Africa’s players will have a quiet grumble about each other to each other, but they don’t let it get ugly. For instance, during Hashim Amla’s short and unhappy captaincy tenure, the retired Graeme Smith stood on a landing at Kingsmead and caught Dean Elgar’s eye in the slip cordon to gesture, angrily, that the skipper needed to get a spinner on in a hurry. Elgar’s reply was a shrug of frustration.
Smith no doubt hoped he had conveyed his message unseen, but it’s hard to hide someone as big ripping his log of a right arm through the air at speed, his meaty hand curled into an off-spinner’s grip.
What Amla or South Africa did was no longer Smith’s problem. But that didn’t mean he had stopped caring about how things were done, and so he felt fully entitled to have a what he thought was a stern but quiet word. It was good to see that.
Haa this team stopped caring even enough to have their squabbles in private? That would be too harsh a criticism. Rather, there comes a point when you care too much to worry about who is or isn’t watching.
But this team has nonetheless lost an important part of their South Africaness. They have worn their failures at this tournament too casually, and tried to explain them away too glibly. There is value in your team telling themselves that they are not as strong as previous editions and present opposition company, but only if they have the mental skills and the maturity to navigate the pitfalls on that path — the emotional intelligence to understand that there is strength to be mined from seams of what might appear to be weaknesses.
We no longer have stars like AB de Villiers? No matter: now we know we have to pull together better than ever. But that thinking has backfired on these South Africans. They now seem to be unsure of how strong they are and it’s damaging them.
Du Plessis spoke of confidence being “chipped away”. How much of that can be put down to his players reminding each other of their frailties, or at least not talking up their strengths, if that’s what they are doing? Whatever else sperm cells do, they don’t stop swimming. And good luck trying to tell them not to.
Kagiso Rabada is a case in point. The heir apparent to Dale Steyn, Shaun Pollock, Makhaya Ntini and Allan Donald — and everybody else in the annals of those who have had the vim, vigour and violence to lead South Africa’s attack — the kid who bowled his team all the way to glory at the 2014 under-19 World Cup, has taken six wickets at 50.83 in this tournament. He has bowled like a husk of his former, fiery self; a feeble facsimile of the rasping innings wrecker he used to be.
South Africa sound, mostly, like the team they used to be and to the unaccustomed eye they will appear to be true to their template. But, if you’ve been watching them for a while, you will know that’s not true.
Who are these masked men and what have they done with South Africa’s team? Who told them to stop swimming, and why?