In the end, South Africa averted the loss they were rapidly hurtling towards in its ICC Men’s T20 World Cup league match against a battling Sri Lankan outfit in Sharjah on Saturday. It was almost as if South Africa were embracing navigational errors to be drawn to defeat with the certainty of moths attracted to flame.
The slide was being engineered by the diligent Sri Lankan bowlers, notably leg-spinner Wanindu Hasaranga who sent back skipper Temba Bavuma and Dwaine Pretorius in his final over. The sceptre of choking, a familiar presence around the South African sides since the 1999 World Cup semifinal in Edgbaston, Birmingham, was looming all over again.
It is an unwelcome intruder, no doubt, but hard as the South Africans have tried to keep the word away from their minds, there are innumerable reminders that are served to them by all and sundry. David Miller and Kagiso Rabada had to stay focussed on the task of getting 28 runs in the final two overs rather than let dismal thoughts cross their thoughts.
Many years later, it is possible that South Africans will look back in time and identify this match as a turning point. It surely has the potential to be one, more so since it came in circumstances that were challenging, to say the least. Wicket-keeper Quinton de Kock was returning to the XI after one match because he did not join the team in taking the knee.
It is credit to Bavuma’s statesmanship that he did not let much scope for tension to find a seat in the dressing room. It was with adroit steps that he did not step on landmines after the match against the West Indies which de Kock sat out of. The honest manner in which he addressed the question left no one in doubt that he was being an able leader.
By respecting de Kock’s decision to sit out of a critical match and offering his shoulder to the senior cricketer, Bavuma had defused the situation to a great extent rather than let it escalate into a messy debate on the racism divide in the squad. There were important things on hand, like winning cricket matches, but keeping the flock together was integral to that.
The challenge of keeping the side from the Rainbow Nation together must be greater than making decisions on bowling changes, field placements and batting order. And Bavuma was equal to the task. If he can sustain the good work done in the past week, he can surely hope to inspire the team to deliver an upset victory over England and get to the semifinals.
Bavuma extended his leadership to the pitch during the chase. Walking in at 26 for two, he was involved in a mix up with Rassie van der Dussen just when it seemed that the two of them were taking charge. He buckled down to play a holding role during the repair job with Aiden Markaram, showing a great understanding of the match situation and the ground conditions.
The sluggish Sharjah Cricket Stadium pitch was not the most conducive to strokeplay and teams have had to adapt to bring smart batting to the fore rather than embrace typical T20 approach. The tracks in the smallest of the grounds in the competition have made creative artists become careful craftsmen.
In the dugout, Tabraiz Shamsi’s mind would have been a veritable playground of emotions. He had bowled very effective four overs of left-arm spin, giving the Sri Lankan middle-order no chance of pairing up with Pathum Nissanka to post a big score. Sri Lankan leg-spinner Hasaranga took two wickets in the 18th over to bring the C-word to the airwaves again.
On Saturday, it would have been easy to ignore how David Miller managed to exorcise some ghosts of his own. Spurred by Rabada’s six in the penultimate over, Miller dug deep into his reservoirs of belief to strike two sixes in the final over and take the side home to make up for the times he came up short.
Dealing with thoughts of having conceded 17 runs in his final over during Sri Lanka’s innings, Rabada infused hope with a six off Chameera when the team needed 22 off nine deliveries. Miller merrily wished away mention of choking for the time being with blazing sixes in Lahiru Kumara’s final over to live up to being called Killer Miller once again.
For all that, the image from the 1999 World Cup semifinal against Australia will remain embedded in one corner of many minds. Everyone will have to get comfortable with different thoughts finding their own parking space and resurfacing every now and then. It is something that successive South African teams have come to terms with.
Happily, for the South Africa and their fans, Miller and Rabada helped add a refreshingly delightful memory to that collection. They knew they cannot change history but, on Saturday, they had to take the team over the line as they owed it to themselves, their team and their skipper for his leadership and his batting almost all the way through the chase.
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