After consecutive defeats, South Africa needed something special to set them straight. They needed to know that they were as good as they thought they were. They needed Afghanistan.
Afghanistan? Who do they think they are? They’re not England, India or New Zealand, and they are a million miles from Australia. Afghanistan are Zimbabwe or the Netherlands or Scotland, or one of those other silly little teams South Africans couldn’t care less about.
Until Saturday at Sophia Gardens, that is, when South Africa needed Afghanistan desperately — to remind them who they used to be before they came to this World Cup.
And the Afghans came through. Faf du Plessis’ team rode over them as roughshod as they should have. At least, as they were expected to do before they arrived in England and staggered to defeat against England, Bangladesh and India, and might have done against West Indies before the rain settled the issue.
“The first three games we didn’t play like we did today,” Du Plessis said after Saturday’s game. “Forget who the opposition are. It's the stuff that you can control yourself.”
And South Africa controlled them superbly. They even seemed to have the uncontrollables, like the weather, on speed dial.
From rasping pace bowling to mesmerising spin to cunning medium pace, their attack could do no wrong. Kagiso Rabada hit his straps like he hasn’t done since … who can remember? Beuran Hendricks played his first game of the tournament with a stalwart’s composure. Andile Phehlukwayo continued to leap tall buildings in his progression to South Africa’s best bowling all-rounder since Shaun Pollock. Chris Morris found the consistency that, previously, has deserted him when he needed it most.
And then, and only then, came Imran Tahir, 40 going on 14 and every bit as lethal as he has ever been. A wicket with his first delivery — a googly, of course, that slithered through the sliver of daylight the nuggety Noor Ali Zadran, unwisely looking for the leg break, left between bat and pad — and two more in his next 13 fateful balls, and a haul of 4/29.
When rain interrupted play, the first time for 26 minutes, then for 66, South Africa’s bowlers emerged refreshed and tore into their work like men fresh from a night’s sleep. Afghanistan’s batsmen played as if those 92 minutes had been stolen from them and they would stop at nothing to get them back.
For South Africa’s attack, the Afghans were the batting equivalent of a bowling machine revved up to its maximum speed. You knew they were going to lash out the only way they knew how, and they did.
Afghanistan’s aggression will serve them well once they learn to harness it. Until then, they can expect more performances like Saturday’s, and more gratitude from the teams they allow to play themselves back into form against them in the process.
Had South Africa bowled against Bangladesh like they did against Afghanistan they wouldn’t be in the trouble they’re in. They know that now. Indeed Du Plessis admitted as much: “Fair comment.”
But it is what it is, and Du Plessis will know that all his team has accomplished is to win the first of the five quarter-finals they will have to keep winning if they are to rekindle what remains of their flame in this tournament.
If there was a downside for the South Africans it was their batting, the department that has proved their undoing. This was a vast improvement in terms of stability and purpose, and Afghanistan have some competent bowlers to send into the fray. But South Africa could have done with chasing a bigger target to further convince their doubters that they are over their earlier troubles. And they could have scored faster to keep their hand in if there’s bunfight over net run rate bunfight to separate the semi-finalists from the rest.
Much of that criticism will be laid at the door of Hashim Amla, who took 83 balls to score his unbeaten 41. Look at those figures without context and you will wonder how he has lasted long enough to play 175 innings. Add the context of how South Africa have batted so far in the tournament, and that Amla’s best effort previously was the 13 he scored against England, and the conversation is different.
Quinton de Kock, along with Du Plessis and Rassie van der Dussen the only South Africa batsmen who have looked ready to do what they have been selected to do at this World Cup, only added to that impression by matching the 68 he made against England.
Once, Amla used to be his team’s Mr. Dependable. Now de Kock, who has learnt much of what he knows from the calmest man in cricket, is that player.
That more of South Africa’s batsmen didn’t get to the crease will be in the back of their minds as they make the trip north to Birmingham on Sunday.
Some questions have been answered, by batsmen and bowlers alike, and in the field, where South Africa caught well, stopped well and threw well. Other issues have barely been touched — and New Zealand will be keen to engage with them at Edgbaston on Wednesday.
One hurdle has been cleared. Another awaits. It is taller and more challenging than the last. And there are still taller, even more challenging hurdles lying in wait.
It’s a tournament. That’s how it works. South Africa arrived with that kind of realism, but it was shaken by what happened in their first three games.
After that, they needed something special to set them straight. They needed to know that they were as good as they thought they were. They needed Afghanistan.
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